A bloody brawl gaining respectBlood splattered on the floor of the ring, and the audience roared in delight. One screamed, “Yeah! Get him!” in between swallows of beer. The women in the crowd seemed just as excited as the men; many clenched their fists as they watched, while some threw their arms in the air as one of the gladiators in the ring pounded the other.
The taekwondo master, Kim Kyung-mo, supposedly an expert in the spinning kick, had blood spewing from his nose and mouth. Mr. Kim slowly approached his opponent, Kang Hyeon-gu, a practitioner of several martial arts.
The taekwondo expert dove at Mr. Kang’s lower body, but in a flash, Mr. Kim was on the floor, as his opponent hit him without mercy. Audience members continued to eat their dinners, while shouting out the occasional encouragement.
The restaurant, Gimme Five, which opened Feb. 28 next to the COEX Center in Samseong-dong, southern Seoul, is the first in Korea to provide live mixed martial arts competitions with an order of sushi or steak (whether you want that bloody, too, is up to you).
The eatery’s booming popularity highlights Koreans’ increasing interest in gyeoktugi. The word refers to hand-to-hand competition between two different martial arts, including taekwondo, judo, kickboxing and Muay Thai. The rules vary with each competition, but the goal is to knock out the other fighter.
“We have 700 customers every day,” said Lee Sun-kyeong, a Gimme Five spokeswoman. “We expect the number will double in the future.”
Most Gimme Five customers are office workers in their 20s and 30s. “But those in their 40s and older also like it,” she said.
Women seem to enjoy the fights more, she said, even though combatants can lose a tooth or two and blood flows freely during the matches. “Some even complain when the game ends without a knockout,” Ms. Lee said.
She said many have found the matches too gruesome at first, but that there’s an indescribable addiction in watching two men punching the lights out of each other.
“It’s my first time coming to Gimme Five, but I’m a huge fan of gyeoktugi,” said Shin Jeong-ah, 38, who was watching the fight with her other girlfriends.
Ms. Shin said that when she first saw a gyeoktugi match on television, she was shocked and frightened by the gruesome brutality. Now she watches it on cable whenever she can.
“My favorite fighter is Bob Sapp from K-1,” Ms. Shin said excitedly. Bob Sapp, also known as “The Beast,” is a former National Football League player who played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and later became a K-1 fighter. K-1 is a mixed martial arts competition founded by Seidokan karate master Kazuyoshi Ishii in 1993 that now has a huge international following.
“The fights are real, and it really helps get rid of all the stress in me,” Ms. Shin added.
Ms. Shin is thinking of joining a gyeoktugi club. She would have lots of company. KBS Sky, which broadcasts “Pride FC,” another major international martial arts competition, said fans number more than 500,000 in Korea, with 20 to 30 percent of them women.
In addition, the country’s largest Internet portal, Daum, has more than 500 communities dedicated to gyeoktugi. Some communities have fewer than 400 registered members while one of the largest has 257,000.
Influence of TV
SBS Sports, another major cable company, began broadcasting shows such as “Free Fighting,” “Absolute Fighting,” “Knockout” and “Cage Fighting” last year. MBC-ESPN began airing “Great Fight Zone” and “K-1” last year as well.
According to TNS Media Korea, this month the gyeoktugi cable programs have done well, with ratings ranging from 20 to 40 percent.
In Japan, the competitions have been drawing fans since the 1990s, but Koreans have taken an interest only since last year.
“People really started to notice mixed martial arts after the Spirit MC was held last year,” said Choi Young-jae, president of KM Promotion, which teaches kickboxing and Muay Thai. Spirit MC is a Korean mixed martial arts competition, first held last April.
Spirit MC is planning on hosting its third major event, titled, “I’ll Be Back,” on April 10, at Jangchung Stadium near Dongdaemun, central Seoul.
“In our first two major events, we had 6,000 to 7,000 at each,” said Kim Myeong of Spirit MC. “But then we gave out a lot of free tickets. We expect more than 3,000 actual fans to turn up for our third tournament.”
Jeong Gwang-su, who runs a Muay Thai and kickboxing dojo in Macheon-dong, southeastern Seoul, credits television for changing the image of mixed martial arts competition.
“I would say 50 percent of the change is due to television shows,” Mr. Jeong said.
Mr. Choi of KM Promotion said that since Spirit MC, gyeoktugi’s public image has improved.
“Just 12 years ago most of our dojo’s students were either high school graduates or late 20s,” said Mr. Choi. “People looked at gyeoktugi as fighting skills used by local gangsters and hoodlums.
“People now see it as a legitimate sport, and that’s why a wide range of people, from elementary students to office ladies, are inquiring about lessons,” Mr. Choi said. He has seen the number of female applicants go up 30 percent.
Not only is gyeoktugi a form of self-defense, it’s useful in losing weight, Mr. Jeong said.
Both Mr. Choi and Mr. Jeong said people enjoy mixed martial arts because it’s a good way to relieve stress, not only by participating but by watching. Viewers live vicariously through the players.
“People like it because of the muscle, the masculinity and the power,” Mr. Jeong said. “That’s the ultimate charm of gyeoktugi.”
“Wrestling matches on television have 40 scriptwriters who are pre-coordinating the games,” said Ms. Lee of Gimme Five. “But this ... gyeoktugi is real and unpredictable, and that’s what really excites people.”
How it may affect kids
Others are concerned that the popularity of gyeoktugi may be a bad influence on children.
“We can divide it into two major negative influences,” said Choi Won-ki at the Korea Institute for Youth Development. “First, gyeoktugi aired on television is generally provocative, and second, it obscures the difference between good and evil.
“In society, there’s definitely a law to follow and morality to uphold. However, being exposed to too much gyeoktugi will only weaken this ability to distinguish between good and bad. When they grow up, children will respond to the law of the jungle, where only the strong survive,” said Mr. Choi.
“They will only follow those who are stronger than others,” he said.
In addition, the graphic nature of the fighting will lead not only children but adults to become violent, Mr. Choi said.
“Even reasonable adults will become more emotional, and later they will try to solve problems with physical power like they have seen on gyeoktugi shows,” Mr. Choi said.
“Already young children have formed their own gyeoktugi clubs, but what they are doing is not mastering the techniques as a martial art but using it as a tool to win over others physically,” he said.
Choi Yang-soo, a media professor at Yonsei University and a fan of gyeoktugi, disagreed.
“People watch the show not because of the violence and blood,” the professor said. “On the contrary, there’s a lot of splendid techniques and watching those techniques is fun.
“I believe it is because of the desire to return to nature as technology advances,” he said. “It’s anti-technology sentiment that drives us to our raw, natural instinct.”
The professor said at first he too thought it was provocative and violent, and asked his son, who enjoyed the sport, to learn taekwondo instead, where the object isn’t to splatter your opponent’s head all over the mat.
“I really didn’t understand gyeoktugi that well, but now, knowing how martial arts have a long history and all, I watch it at night on cable television once in awhile,” he said.
Some fans find that watching isn’t enough. Hwang Hae-jin, 31, is an office worker who has been training at KM Promotion for almost a year. “I’ve worked out at health clubs and tried other sports, but I really enjoy the sheer thrill of gyeoktugi,” said Ms. Hwang.
She said most of her girlfriends admire her because not many of them will try it. “I feel light, and I get a boost to my confidence when I work out,” said Ms. Hwang.
People like Ms. Hwang give Mr. Jeong, of the kickboxing center, a reason to hope that gyeoktugi will become less of a sideshow and more of a discipline.
“I dream of the day when gyeoktugi becomes an everyday sport in this country,” Mr. Jeong said.
by Lee Ho-jeong