Gentle giant packs a punchLee Myeong-ju is far from being a household name in Korea, nor is his sport, muay thai, familiar to many here. But in the fast-growing world of K-1 fighting, the 27-year-old’s raw power and talent have given him a chance to make a name for himself globally.
First, however, he has to pummel his way through three matches of the Aruze K-1 World Grand Prix this Saturday at Jamsil Gymnasium in Seoul.
The K-1, a fighting organization based in Japan, issues invitations to fighters of all stand-up martial arts to face off in the rings. In its short history ― it launched in 1993 under the guidance of Kazuyoshi Ishii ― K-1 has featured fighters from martial arts such as kickboxing, kung fu and karate.
K-1 matches draw devoted, almost devout fans willing to hop on an airplane and cross oceans for their favorite fighters. The K-1 has also reached younger fans by spawning video games such as Nintendo’s “K-1 Revenge” and Sony PlayStation 2’s “K-1 World Grand Prix.”
“The K-1 only accepts the best fighters,” says Lee Ki-hong, a K-1 organizer.
Lee became the first Korean citizen to be invited to a K-1 tournament by winning the middleweight class in the Spirit MC in the spring, one of the first professional mixed martial arts events in Korea.
“Actually, the other side threw in the towel,” says Ahn Gwang-un, Lee Myeong-ju’s trainer. The match between Lee Myeong-ju and Lee Eun-su was supposed to be two 10-minute rounds, but neither side would concede. In round three, Lee Eun-su got the beating of his life.
“They didn’t want Lee Eun-su to die,” Ahn says.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Lee Myeong-ju is resting in his trainer’s office in the basement of an old four-story building in his hometown of Daejeon. Despite a punch to the nose a few weeks ago, which put a stop to sparring practices, training has been intense.
The stakes are high. The Saturday fight is the first Asian Grand Prix and the second of three Grand Prix. The winner of each Grand Prix, a semi-final, goes to the finals in Japan in early winter.
The tournament in Seoul features eight stars, including the 203-centimeter, 220-kilogram (6-foot-8, 485-pound) powerhouse Akebono, from Japan; Dolgorsuren Sumiyabazar, Mongolia Sumo Champion 2003; and Zhang Qing-jun from China, the World IMF Martial Arts Tournament Heavyweight Champion 2004.
Not only will Saturday be Lee’s first international showing, it will be his first fight since spring. He withdrew from Korean competitions to focus on making a name for himself in the international scene.
Sights set abroad
“There’s no future in being a fighter in Korea,” says Park Yoo-hyun, Lee’s agent. Park, based in Japan with U-Field Sports Agency, has spent the past few weeks checking out the receptiveness of Korean sponsors. He’s found the market in Korea is nowhere near Japan’s, where fighters are more respected and compensated more handsomely.
“You can’t be a fighter and eat and live in this country,” Ahn says.
Fighting in Korea has long been considered a sport for country boys who can make a living only by their fists. Even now, the best Korean fighters are from small provinces.
“In this modern world, who wants their kids to fight for a living?” Park says.
The history of amateur mixed martial arts fights in Korea may be long, but local professional events like the Spirit MC and Neo Fight are starting to develop the pro scene here, whose rules and protocol are still in its infancy.
But that’s not the case for international events like the K-1. “The rules are strict, and doctors are readily available,” Park says.
Lee is Park’s first martial arts client; the others are baseball players. Park took on Lee earlier this year because he liked Lee’s discipline and his sincere, Clark Kent persona.
Before agreeing to work with Lee, Park brought videos of Lee to Japan and showed them to other fighters, who told him Lee had talent. And then the invitation came a month ago to participate in the K-1.
“Being in the K-1 is an honor I never dreamed of,” Lee says.
Park shakes his head and says, “This is why I love this kid. He’s not cocky, and simply focused on doing his best.”
Even his personal trainer, who has never had a fighter as a client, noted Lee’s earnestness a year ago, after Lee peppered him with questions about overall fitness.
“He had potential and he’s really powerful,” Ahn says.
Lee smiles just a little. He’s scrunched forward in his seat, elbows resting on his knees. On this day, after his lunch break, he’s wearing a white knit, short-sleeved shirt with khaki shorts. If you saw him in the neighborhood, you would register his 190-centimeter-tall, 95-kilogram frame and his preppy attire, but you’d have no idea he was a fighter.
“I was pretty much always the tallest kid,” Lee says. “I sat in the back of the class,” as student seating in Korean classrooms are arranged by height. Height and athleticism runs in the family; his fraternal twin sister is 175 centimeters tall and was briefly a hockey player.
Park adds, “If Lee got angry, all he had to do was lift his desk and slam it down. That’s all it took.” He said Lee has never been in any brawl outside the ring.
It wasn’t a need to fight that drew Lee to muay thai, but a friend. He was in middle school when his buddy asked him, “You want to try kickboxing with me?”
The two of them enrolled in the local kickboxing gym. A few weeks later, his friend’s mother told her son, “We can only send you to one after-school class, computers or kickboxing.” His friend dropped out to pursue computer classes. Lee stuck it out for what was supposed to be a few weeks.
“It wasn’t exactly fun. It was actually a little lonely to go to kickboxing by myself,” he says.
Thrill of competing
However, at his first competition, he was hooked. Lee finds training to be the hardest part of being a martial artist, but the matches are another story. There, he enters an exhilarating mental zone.
As the years went by, he only grew taller and continued to win local matches. “I thought I’d regret giving it up, so I kept going, and this is how I’ve come to this point,” he says.
Such an act took a lot of faith and confidence in himself. The lifestyle, most fighters attest, is hard. To be a pro fighter, most have to find a salaried job and fight on the side, which leaves less time for training. If they go full time, they have to win consistently to earn enough to live on; sponsorship just doesn’t exist in Korea.
Injuries are frequent, especially if one keeps losing. Fighters train at old neighborhood gyms, no high-tech training centers for them.
Many fighters also have short-lived careers, consumed not just by fists, bloodied and battered bodies, but boozing and womanizing. Some claim ties to gangs.
“Lee has a vision for himself outside of all that junk,” Ahn says. He says Lee’s initiative in seeking out an agent with international ties showed he was serious about his career.
How that career develops depends a lot on what happens Saturday. “It’s important to come in at that clinch time, that’s what makes heroes,” Park says. “But your reputation also develops with your record.”
Lee agrees. “I don’t fear losing. Win or lose, what’s important is that I do my best.”
by Joe Yong-hee