Fighters who had to beat themselves
“I cannot imagine losing to anyone at this point,” said Mr. Choi, a 29-year-old Korean Muay Thai fighter. “I am at the top of my game, mentally and physically.”
Mr. Choi practices and prepares like other fighters, but unlike them he only uses one arm. He lost his right arm in an accident when he was a small child. Yet he has become a brutally effective competitor.
To show his power Mr. Choi made some lightening quick moves with his fist and then started to land heavy kicks on a sandbag. He was practicing at a gym in Chungju, North Chungcheong province, which is run by his old friend and former Muay Thai fighter Ji Jae-jin.
“Mr. Choi has gotten stronger since his return from training in Thailand,” Mr. Ji said while holding the sandbags.
The Korean fighter has been in Thailand since October of last year, training with local Muay Thai fighters. He was preparing for a match against a Chinese fighter that took place in Seoul on Sunday. Mr. Choi won the bout.
In a world where the hardest and toughest fists dominate, only two men have knocked out an adversary with just one arm.
Kim Sun-gi, 34, was the first. He fights opponents with only his left arm. Yet Mr. Kim has been able to win 23 of his 32 fights and 19 of his victories were knock-outs.
Mr. Choi first heard of Mr. Kim a year before he made his own debut, and he says that the other fighter has been his inspiration.
“People would tell me about a one-armed fighter and I would also see him in the news,” Mr. Choi said. “He was everywhere. I was amazed by his success.”
The first time Mr. Choi saw Mr. Kim in action was during a competition in 2000.
“I was completely mesmerized by him,” Mr. Choi said. “He was throwing a flying kick while the opponent was trying to dodge it. It was an electrifying moment.” Mr. Choi made his own debut in the winter of 2001 at a stadium in Suwon, Gyeonggi province. At that time he had been practicing the art of Muay Thai for just four months.
“I lost the match by a knock out after getting showered with punches,” Mr. Choi said, admitting that he had not been ready for his debut.
He said he was nervous but he wanted to test himself. “I wanted to know my level of strength.”
During that first contest Mr. Choi said he felt his confidence fly out of the ring after the first blow.
“The pain I felt was enormous and the punches I threw seemed meaningless to my opponent.”
He said he took several straight blows and fell. The opponent kicked his leg and then threw in a straight punch, which sent him flying back to the floor.
“Images flashed in my head and over 1,000 times I asked myself, ‘should I go on or quit?’ It was dreadful.”
Despite his unpromising start Mr. Choi drew strength from watching the quick-moving Mr. Kim. The other man’s successes helped Mr. Choi believe that, even with one arm, he could compete on equal terms with other fighters.
It took him a year to recover from his first loss and step back in the ring.
“I ran away,” Choi said. “I was afraid and I realized I could be killed in a match if I was unprepared.”
For a year he said he was haunted by the horror of his first fight. But his pride would not let him abandon his dreams.
“I kept thinking to myself ‘a man should finish what he has started,’ yet the fear was something I found hard to overcome.”
He finally came to the conclusion that if he was supposed to die young it was his destiny to die in the ring. He went back to his old master and asked for another chance.
“I started to train harder than others. I started to practice in the woods and started to punch and kick the logs that I had planted on the ground.”
Mr. Choi won his second match. Today, if he is knocked down in the ring, he feels no fear. He believes that what doesn’t kill him only makes him stronger. In 20 fights he has won 14, tied one and lost five. In his 14 wins he has had 10 knock-outs.
The accident that deprived Mr. Choi of his right arm was grisly.
“Our family ran a farm,” he said. “There was a machine that sliced up straw that was used to feed the cows.”
Being a curious little boy he wanted to try out the machine for himself. It was a tragic mistake. His arm was sucked into the blades along with his shirt.
“The machine stopped and I started to walk. I had gone about 500 meters looking for my mom when a neighbor noticed the condition I was in,” Mr. Choi said. Despite his accident and the traumatic loss he suffered during his first fight Mr. Choi never lacked determination.
“I believe Muay Thai is my destiny,” he said. “I was never a good student. You might think I would have been picked on by the other kids. In fact it was the other way around. I was a frequent visitor to the principal’s office until I graduated from high school.”
Even with one arm, Mr. Choi said he was drawn to the martial arts. “I grew up watching Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan movies. I would follow their moves and try to do kicks in mid air.”
In elementary school Mr. Choi picked up taekwondo and in middle school he learned hapkido, a Korean martial art based on Japan’s Aikido. He said he was drawn to Muay Thai after searching for fights that he felt stretched him to the limit.
For Mr. Kim the story was different. He had already had five bouts as a Muay Thai fighter when he lost his right arm.
“I was working at a factory in Ansan, Gyeonggi province that manufactured car parts. It was in exchange for military service,” Mr. Kim recalls. “The factory used outdated Japanese machines.”
Mr. Kim said the factory was operating day and night and the machines frequently broke down. One evening, around 10 p.m., he was fixing a machine when it was switched on by mistake. A piece of metal that was 60 centimeters thick and weighed 150 tons landed on his right arm. “My arm suddenly disappeared and the bones were completely crushed,” he said.
Mr. Kim said he cried non-stop for two days after he was admitted to hospital in Gwangyang, Gyeonggi province. “I was going mad and began to think about committing suicide.”
He said it took him two weeks before his emotions were calm again. Yet he could not stop fighting.
“It took me some time before I got used to using one arm,” Mr. Kim said. “The hardest part was keeping my balance with just one arm.” He first went back into the ring just two weeks after getting out of the hospital He had lost 7 to 8 kilograms.
“My opponent was an experienced fighter who had on six victories,” Mr. Kim said. “I gave all I had in the fight but lost on judgment calls.
After losing one more match, Mr. Kim said he then began to win again. “Since I had just one arm all the my strength was concentrated in that arm,” Mr. Kim said. “I found I was more focused than when I had two arms and I was able to use more techniques.”
The biggest change was that he had to work out and train more than others.
“While other fighters trained three hours a day on average I would double my workout and do six,” Mr. Kim said. He now has two tattoos of a wolf on his left arm.
“That’s the nickname the Thai fighters gave me,” he said with pride in his voice. In fact his sharp eyes looked like those of a wolf preparing to attack.
Mr. Kim is not fighting at present and spends most of his time on the sidelines. His last match was in 2003. He now spends his days training other young fighters at his gym, Seolbong, in Icheon, Gyeonggi province.
“I still miss the excitement and adrenaline of the fight,” Mr. Kim said while clinching his fist.
He still works out but not as much as he used to when he was still an active fighter in the ring.
Two of his most talented students are currently training hard with Mr. Kim. Both of them will be participating in the world championships that will take place in Thailand next month. Although he is semi-retired, Mr. Kim’s love of martial arts has remained as strong as ever.
“No matter what the situation is and what the odds are, a strong mental state is what makes a man into a winner,” Mr. Kim said.
Other than putting his fighters on the global map and promoting Muay Thai throughout Asia he said his other ambition is to raise a beautiful family, once he finds the woman who can make his life complete.
Mr. Choi already has a beautiful girlfriend. She has come to every one of his fights during the two years they have been dating.
However, marriage is not foremost in his mind.
“Right now I have only one thing in my sights and that is to win a title and become Korea’s number one Muay Thai fighter.
And then? “I will decide when I know I’m the best ,” he said.
By Lee Ho-jeong Staff Writer [firstname.lastname@example.org]