Fighting to turn a life aroundThe cheers and shouts from the large crowd were deafening as fans surrounded an outdoor boxing ring in Jangsu county, North Jeolla province, last month, where a new Korean professional boxing champion was crowned.
It was a runaway victory for Hyun Ju-hwan, 22, as he knocked down his opponent, then champion Park Won-pyo, in the first round, and led throughout the match.
With congratulations ringing in his ears, he then returned to his home for the last four years ― Cheonan Juvenile Correctional Institution. Mr. Hyun is the first person to become a Korean professional boxing champion while serving a jail term.
But he is not the only star to have emerged on the boxing team at the correctional facility, in Cheonan, South Chungcheong province, which has already produced a number of champions.
A super-featherweight, Mr. Hyun is rather small for a boxer, standing 168 centimeters (5 feet 6 inches) tall and weighing 63 kilograms (139 pounds). Years of hard training, however, seem to have prepared him well.
“My heart was pounding with nervousness at the opening of the round,” he says. “I wasn’t sure if I could beat an opponent like him.
“Park was moving toward me and trying to attack, and I was striking back,” says Mr. Hyun, who describes himself an infighter, or someone who boxes at close range.
The match ended in the 10th round. As the referee raised Mr. Hyun’s hand in victory, the boxer says, “My mind went blank. I was thrilled with joy.”
He saw two years of hard work pay off. Mr. Hyun joined the boxing team at the correctional institution in April 2001, a few months after he entered the facility.
Mr. Hyun was arrested in his hometown of Daegu in July 2000 on an assault charge and later sentenced to five years in prison. Since he was a minor at the time, he was transferred to the Cheonan correctional facility. “When I was a teenager, I was full of audacity and arrogance,” he says.
After taking up boxing at the correctional facility, Mr. Hyun’s first opportunity to prove himself came in March 2003, when he debuted as an amateur. Since then, he has won six matches in a row, with two knockouts. He turned pro in October of last year.
“Hyun was on a wrestling team in middle school and has a quick response,” said Choi Han-ki, 47, coach of the boxing team. “Only seven months after he won the best newcomer competition, he became a national champion. He is a talented boxer.”
‘A big ego’
Since he was a child, Mr. Hyun says he has had a big ego. “I was exceptionally small and felt like people were looking down on me,” he says. “That’s why I started wrestling.”
Asked why he started boxing, Mr. Hyun says, “I wanted to challenge myself. I wanted to test my limit.” He adds, “I believed that if I could survive here on the boxing team, I would be able to survive later outside the correctional facility.”
In the beginning, Mr. Hyun had difficulty adjusting to the correctional facility and the boxing team, and kept to himself. “I had to address even those who were younger than I was in a respectful way just because they got in here before I did,” he says.
There were times when he just wanted to give up. “In winter, the training room was so cold that water froze,” Mr. Hyun says. “I exercised for hours but did not work up a sweat.”
Now, he is senior to other boys on the boxing team, and Mr. Hyun says he has become helpful and affectionate to others, and more patient.
“The intense exercises help them correct their behavior,” Mr. Choi says. “Even when they are throwing punches at each other, they have to bring it to a halt. They learned an ability to control themselves and developed gentleness.
“Boxing is a sport that tests your mental strength,” he adds.
The boxing team was created in 1984, when the correctional facility was located in Incheon. Mr. Choi, who was once a promising boxer himself and represented South Chungcheong province in the National Sports Festival, was the team’s founding coach.
Initially, the Justice Ministry objected to the idea of teaching boxing to these adolescents. “The ministry officials were worried that boxing would lead them to commit even more misdeeds,” Mr. Choi says.
During the team’s history, members have won more than 200 medals and trophies in numerous competitions. The awards are displayed in a glass cabinet standing against a wall of the training room.
Among those who were trained under Mr. Choi’s guidance are light-flyweight boxer Yoo Myeong-gu, who ranks first in his weight class in Korea; Park Myeong-hyeon, who became super featherweight best new pro boxer last year; and Seo Cheol, who won silver medals twice in a row at the National Sports Festival in 2000 and 2001. They have all finished their prison terms and now lead regular lives.
Another hopeful on the current boxing team is super featherweight Hyun Ju-ho, 20, who made his professional debut on Oct. 6, knocking out his opponent in the first round.
High hopes for freedom
The two boxers may have high hopes for the time when they will be free again, but there also are concerns.
Hyun Jun-ho says he learned how hard life can be at the correctional facility. “Boxing was physically challenging, but I also have to take care of myself, doing all kinds of chores such as laundry and cleaning.”
Since the last match, he has suffered from exhaustion, although he has not brought up the issue because he does not want his coach to worry. Asked when he feels most rewarded, he says, “When I get compliments from my coach.”
The two boxers will regain their freedom in the not too distant future. Hyun Ju-hwan will leave the facility in July, and Hyun Ju-ho will be released in December next year.
“I am afraid that there have been many changes outside the correctional facility,” Hyun Ju-hwan says. “I might have a hard time readjusting to everyday life. My friends must have changed a lot while I was here for five years.
“Those who got out of here earlier did have hard time adapting to life outside,” he says. “They all told me to steel myself for the time I leave the correctional facility and said living conditions are worse than before.”
According to Mr. Choi, after leaving the correctional facility the boxers joined teams in different gyms but faced difficulties and stopped boxing.
“They feel awkward and out of place when they first join gyms outside,” Mr. Choi says. “Because they have criminal records, they are very self-conscious. They feel that other people are prejudiced against them, even though that’s not the case.”
Remembering his earlier days, Mr. Choi says, “When I was young, I often neglected boxing practice and indulged myself in seeking pleasure. These boys are young and want to compensate for the time they spent here.”
Someday, Mr. Choi says, he hopes to open a gym so that he can give boxers from the correctional facility an opportunity to continue boxing in a stable environment.
“I wish people had enough generosity to regard them as their sons,” Mr. Choi says. “The boys deserve to be treated as athletes, but people point their finger at them.
“They are the same as other boys outside. They came here because they just made a mistake in a brief moment of their life,” Mr. Choi says.
Hyun Ju-hwan’s friends who were released from the correctional facility come to cheer for him every time he has a match. His mother always comes to watch as well, he says.
Mr. Hyun says he has a little wish to fulfill. “I have troubled my parents a lot. I want to buy a small farm in the countryside for my father and live together with my family. My parents also want to have a grandson,” he says.
by Limb Jae-un