Chunky ssireum wrestlers have diluted sport’s finesseWhen David beats Goliath we cheer because it’s an unexpected win. When Jerry beats Tom we cheer the same. Alas, ssireum ― traditional Korean wrestling ―once enjoyed such a position after it was born in the 1980s.
Even though there were professional baseball and soccer players by then, the bonus for ssireum athletes exceeded all of them. For winning the Cheonhajangsa Championship, the peak event of ssireum, athletes could win up to a 100 million won ($95,200) ― an unprecedented sum at the time. Ssireum athletes were popular among the masses and recognized on the street. They appeared in TV ads as well. Not anymore. I can’t even remember the last time a ssireum athlete appeared on the tube.
The main reason for this popularity were the colorful, charismatic players in the ssiruem world who attracted fans.
When Lee Man-ki won the Cheonhajangsa title in 1983 for the first time, it signaled the beginning of Korean ssireum’s prime time.
There were other competitors such as Lee Bong-gul, known simply as “the human crane” for his towering 6-foot frame. Fans also favored Lee Jun-heui, the archrival of Lee Man-ki. Fans called him the gentleman of ssireum for his mild and polite behavior.
He compiled a record of 157 wins and 50 losses, drawing fans because of his unbelievable technique that overcame Lee Bong-gul’s weight advantage.
“The human crane” had a good 30 kilograms on Lee Man-ki but often lost to the master of ssireum techniques. Fans often went wild.
It was a time when the technical aspects of ssireum were flawlessly displayed to the fans who were in awe at the variety of moves that could be used to drop an opponent.
But then came the 1990s and with it the age of the “fat and big” athletes that probably led to the demise of the ssireum world as we know it today.
Ssireum athletes became bigger and bigger. As they put on more weight, they were less capable of speed and refined techniques. The matches became monotonous and lacked color.
Although there are two weight classes in ssireum, at the Cheonhajangsa Championship there is no weight limit. Athletes from different weight classes compete for the top honor.
Nowadays, the Halla class has a weight limit of 105 kilograms (230 pounds) and the Baekdu class is for athletes more than 140 kilograms. The average weight of ssireum athletes in the Baekdu class stands at about 153 kilograms.
With such a weight difference it’s hard to use techniques. The matches have become more like push and shove without much finesse. There is no more drama. Fans are drifting away to more exciting sports such as no-holds-barred contests. It’s understandable. Why would you pay to watch two fat guys trying to push the other to the ground with their body weight?
There are many reasons why ssireum is at its current state today. The sport has forgotten the simple fact that fans always want something out of the ordinary. Something like David beating Goliath. Or at least a possibility of seeing such a thing. Perhaps putting a weight limit for ssireum would help.
by Brian Lee
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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