Boxers take to the streets to promote their disciplineLate at night in cold misty air, Kang Shin-joon is swiftly dodging incoming punches left and right in the middle of a side street in Gangnam. A few lucky punches land on his chest and face, over which he wears protective headgear. A huge crowd surrounds the boxer and his opponents. At every blow someone shouts “Oh my God!” or “Ouch!” It is not a street fight but a boxing promotion the 28-year-old boxer and his students at Hoegi Boxing Gym in Gangbuk, northern Seoul, have conjured up.
The participants pay 10,000 won ($11) for one minute in the ring with the gym owner. They can either use Kang as a human punching bag, who can dodge their punches but not fight back, or allow him to use his left arm only to counter their blows.
“It’s not easy,” Kang said. “Half of the guys knew how to throw punches. Just by the way they stretched out their arms shows that some even had previous boxing experience.” Despite that, Kang was strongly confident that he could easily duck any punches.
There are two purposes Kang allowed himself to be used as a punching bag.
“First I wanted to donate the money made from the event to children suffering from malnutrition,” he said.
The boxer said that in just two hours, he had earned 250,000 won which was later placed in a donation box for undernourished children in the Hoegi-dong neighborhood office.
He said the idea of charity first struck him when he was temporarily paralyzed after a car accident in late 2002. “When I was lying in bed at the hospital, I realized there were people living in a worse condition than I was,” Kang said. “I believe it was God’s will to give me the opportunity to reflect on those who are less fortunate.”
Another reason was to promote boxing, which is considered a dying sport in Korea.
Boxing in Korea enjoyed some popularity between the 1960s and the early 1990s. Many consider the 1970s as golden years, when boxers including Hong Su-wan and Yoo Jae-doo were idols to many young Korean boys.
“In recent years, the public’s interest in boxing has been on a serious downhill slide,” Kang said.
“At least people have taken notice and there have been a lot of calls coming through, especially from women,” he said.
Kang plans to return to the streets of Gangnam every weekend from 9 p.m. “This week we’re planning to hold the street boxing near a club where there is a huge vacant parking lot. The last time, when we did it in front of a store, the owner kept complaining that the crowd was upsetting his business.”
Kang said he had tried such an event in Daehangno a few weeks before his car accident, but only received a lukewarm response.
When he first walked out on the street in Gangnam, it took him nearly an hour to build up his courage, he said. “I was afraid that people would simply walk away. More than once, I thought of simply packing up my stuff before holding the event.” Once the first opponent stepped up, however, things started to pick up.
“Gangnam is a good spot since there are a lot of young and active people,” Kang said.
Tomas Lee, a 43-year-old boxer who runs a gym called “Art Boxing” in Gangwon province has held similar events during college festivals every year.
Lee, who is a Korean middle weight champion, said he first held the human punching bag event at a college festival in Gangwon province in 2003.
“I once saw a Japanese man on television getting paid for being beaten up on the street and I thought it was an interesting idea,” Lee said. “I knew I could dodge the punches since I am really good at that and it’s what I’m famous for.”
Lee said the promotional events clearly catch the attention of people, especially any who have trained in martial arts. “They find it particularly interesting how my footwork helps me duck any punches.”
Nowadays, Lee said, many women are taking up boxing to improve their health. “I have 35 women training in the art of boxing,” Lee said. He has a total of 150 students at his gym.
Kang wants to promote boxing for women as more than just a way to reduce weight.
“Boxing is more than just a simple sport,” Kang said. “It has its own philosophy, and I don’t think it is right to label it simply as an exercise, which many boxing gyms, in an effort to stay afloat, have been doing.”
Lee believes his promotional events will help him find talented potential boxers.
“By making boxing a more approachable sport, boxers with talents similar to Mike Tyson will likely appear. What we need is the appearance of such star boxers who not only elevate boxing as an art but also bring back the glory of boxing,” he said.
The Korea Boxing Committee is making its own efforts to revive the sport’s glory days.
“Recently we had a senior boxing match where non-professional boxers aged 40 and over had the chance to get in the ring and show what they have learned at gyms,” Hwang Hyun-chul of the boxing committee said.
Kang and Lee believe boxing will soon become popular again. “Currently the industry is run by those who have been in the business since the 1950s and ’60s,” Kang said. “In time, generations will change and more aggressive marketing will be adopted.”
by Lee Ho-jeong