Japan’s free fighting associations eye Korean champions as future world starsJapan’s no-holds-barred fighting associations, including the likes of K-1 and Pride, are trying to lure Korean athletes to their rings with hefty signing bonuses.
The targeted athletes are those who have won medals at the Olympic Games in the disciplines of taekwondo, judo and wrestling. Last year Jeon Ki-young, 31, a coach for the national judo team, gold medalist at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games and three-time world champion, received an offer from famous pro wrestler Antonio Inoki to take part in the free fighting.
Jeon, however, rejected even meeting with Inoki. “I did not want to meet him because I was afraid that I would have been swayed by the large amount of money on offer,” Jeon said.
More offers were forthcoming this year; K-1 approached another Olympic gold medalist, Kim Je-kyung, 34, who won the medal in taekwondo in Atlanta, and Mun Dae-seong, 28, who won a gold medal in taekwondo at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, only to be rebuffed. Kim is now residing in the United States.
“We visited the United States to persuade Kim Je-kyung, but to no avail,” said a Korean agent of the Fighting Entertainment Group, the operator of the K-1 event.
There is still a possibility that Korean athletes will compete as no-holds-barred fighters.
National judo team member Yun Dong-sik, 32, and Kim Min-su, 29, who won a silver medal in Atlanta, recently received an offer directly from Sadaharu Tanikawa, chief executive officer of the Fighting Entertainment Group.
“I turned it down to keep my pride and dignity as a judoka,” Yun said.
However, Kim indicated that he would think about it if he were paid 1 billion won ($960,000) a year. “It was a joke, as they kept asking,” he confessed.
The Fighting Entertainment Group, however, is considering Kim’s comment seriously.
“We are reviewing how offering a 1-billion-won contract to Kim would affect the Korean market and whether to add an optional clause in case of injury,” a company official said. He added it is considering whether to sign a contract with Yun simultaneously.
Japan’s interest in recruiting Korean fighters reflects the huge potential of the Korean market. A Fighting Entertainment Group official said Saturday at the Grand Prix stadium, where K-1 was held, “Korea itself is a big market and we believe Korea could become a stepping stone to enter China.”
“Koreans like no-holds-barred fighting, but to start a national boom, well-known, competent Korean fighters with good looks need to be actively engaged in the competition.
“If it is difficult to recruit people from amateur sports, we may consider recruiting ssireum players, as professional teams are in the process of dissolution,” he said.
The official believes that world-class Korean athletes are competitive enough to be good at the sport. Choi Mu-bae, who won three times in a row in the Pride event in Japan, was a member of a national amateur wrestling team.
Both Pride and K-1 have respectable viewing figures in Korea, where they are broadcast via cable network television stations.
by Sung Ho-jun, Limb Jae-un