23-year-old whoops it up in wrestling ringMost people would agree that genes are a major factor in determining one’s physical attributes.
If there’s an exception to this, it’s Choi Hong-man. Despite having parents who don’t exceed the 162 centimeter (5-foot, 2-inch) mark, and an older brother who’s barely 170 centimeters, Choi is a Goliath. He’s 218 centimeters tall and weighs in at 166 kilograms (366 pounds), to be precise. Fortunately, he’s put his large body to good use.
Choi Hong-man, 23, is a competitor in ssireum, Korea’s traditional form of wrestling. Though he’s been playing professionally for only a year, his presence cannot be understated after he clinched the Lunar New Year Championship, a professional competition, on Thursday.
In 1997, when he was about to graduate from Hanrim Middle School on Jejudo island, he took part in a friendly soccer match against ssireum athletes from Dong-A University after the local ssireum club asked him to tend goal.
His sheer size grabbed the attention of Cho Tae-ho, the coach for Kyeongwon High School’s ssireum team. Mr. Cho immediately knew that he had come upon somebody special.
“His hands and feet were unusually large, while his reflexes were also pretty good,” Cho says. “He was a little bit on the skinny side, but he had plenty of time to grow. I really thought that his body was ideal for ssireum.” The coach wasted no time in bringing Choi Hong-man to his school on scholarship.
During each of his three years in high school, Choi grew about 10 centimeters. “At graduation time I was 2 meters, 10 centimeters. And then I grew a little more,” says Choi.
Not only does Choi’s immense frame command attention, so does his colorful hairstyle, which has become his trademark since he left college.
“Since I am so big, people recognize me easily,” he says. “But I wanted more than that. So I went to a hair salon to create a really lasting impression.”
The ssireum athlete began dyeing his hair in his sophomore year at Dong-A University in Busan. He started out with red, though gold and gray are a few of the other colors that have since topped his head. Yellow happens to be his preferred hair color at the moment.
And it’s not only his hair that makes Choi stand out. He regularly dons earrings, necklaces, armbands and other accessories. To round out his colorful appearance, Choi is renowned for celebrating a victorious match by dancing around to techno rhythms ― a pastime that he practices as much as he can during his free time at nightclubs.
Choi’s shoes ― his feet are 370 millimeters long ― and threads are all custom-tailored, while his elongated bed is made-to-order. Choi has yet to take a driver’s license test because he can’t fit into any of the test center vehicles.
“I am planning to get my license by bringing a car that fits me,” says the ssireum athlete, who is scheduled to enter the graduate school of Dong-A University this year.
Choi’s fan Web site, at cafe.daum.net/chm6660 boasts a membership of 3,450 people. He spends about half an hour a day at his computer answering fan mail.
Choi believes the majority of his fans are in their teens and 20s. “I know ssireum has been a favorite sport for the middle-aged,” he says, “but if I can help bring in the younger generation, that’s definitely a plus for the ssireum world.”
Choi’s popularity among youth is something Korea’s ssireum world could use to boost its overall popularity. Unlike sumo wrestling in Japan, ssireum in Korea is played without an exclusive stadium. Ssireum has only 42 registered pros, as opposed to 800 sumo wrestlers, and just three professional teams, down from eight in 1995.
by Choi Joon-ho