The Future of MMA? Look at South Korea

By John Evans and Mi Gyoung Yoo Jul 9, 2008
Amateur MMA doesn't have to be about getting slugged for free with four-ounce death mitts to boost an acronym of the month undercard at the county fairgrounds.

It doesn't have to be a one-fight formality prior to a $200-to-win mismatch in a dodecahedral cage a week and three states away, either. While it's doubtful that MMA will be welcomed into the Amateur Athletic Union any time soon, amateur events in Nevada and New Jersey are headed in the right direction, willing to forgo short-term, single-event success in order to work toward the long-term goals that will benefit the sport as a whole.

South Korea, however, has had a successful amateur MMA league for years. A feeder system for Spirit MC, South Korea's largest MMA promotion and a Pro Elite partner organization, the impetus for Spirit MC Amateur League came not from the professional promotion itself but from small gym owners around Korea.

"There were plenty of MMA gyms, but regular, professional fighters were the only ones going to them," said Beom Seok Kim, the matchmaker for Spirit MC and SAL's administrator. "I talked with quite a few MMA masters about this. Younger students would go for a few months and then quit because they had no tangible goals to work toward. Unlike tae kwon do or kung fu or hapkido, there is no grading in MMA and no belt designation to work toward. So at first it was just about keeping students in the gyms."

And then there was the question of safety in a sport where injury, to some small extent, is virtually guaranteed in every contest.

"It's been 34 events now, one a month for almost three years, and we have yet to have a serious injury," Kim said. "There have been bruises and broken noses, some sore arms, and headaches, sure, but nothing where a fighter had to stay in the hospital."

The rules for SAL are similar to those for most amateur MMA events. Knees and elbows to the face are illegal, but knees and elbows to the body, even of a grounded opponent, are allowed. Heel hooks and twisting kneebars are off limits. Of course, there are no soccer kicks or stomps. Armbar stoppages are quick, usually before the arm is completely extended, and in situations of ground-and-pound, the referee is supposed to step in when a fighter has lost 10 percent of his ability to defend himself. The referees who work SAL are the same ones who work the professional events.

Headgear, elbow pads, kneepads and shin pads are provided. Fighters supply their own groin protection. Unlike most amateur MMA organizations, SAL has opted to go with puffy, closed-thumb, 12-ounce gloves.

Big gloves shrink the holes and make for boxing-style striking that is tighter and more combination oriented. Work from the clinch is generally solid, and knees to the body are frequent, though dampened by the pads. As one might expect from athletes in a country where at least a third of the kids study tae kwon do, there are plenty of kicks.

On the ground, armbars rule. It is difficult to free an arm wearing big gloves, and slams to free an armbar locked from guard are illegal. Submissions that require a tight, closed grip, such as a kimura, are rare. Chokes are a bit easier to defend against while wearing headgear.

Despite the precautions, many of the fights turn into wars, and a free SAL event is typically twice the show of a $40-a-seat professional promotion in North America. With more protection, fighters let go with their strikes. There is blood and there are knockouts. The backboard has been used on several occasions. It's still MMA, with its inherent risks, but an SAL entry fee comes with good insurance. Medical expenses for injuries suffered in the ring are covered 100 percent, excluding MRIs. All fighters are given a free physical before weigh-in, and there are doctors ringside.

The emphasis is on safety, professionalism and fun, and the result is that events often feature 20 or more fights. There is a lawyer who participates regularly, and also a university professor. High school students also fight, and with a parental permission form, kids as young as 15 can take part.

Moon Hoi Choi acts as a cornerman for his 16-year-old son, Sung Bin.

"Some kids say that it's stressful to have their fathers along, but my son and I are training partners and I think he feels good about it. … The world is full of sports, but every sport comes with its own risks. To be honest, my son has been training MMA for three years without a serious injury. Of course, there were minor injuries. MMA might look more violent than other sports, but in my opinion it's safer than boxing or soccer."

Every effort is made to ensure even pairings, such as employing a goal-oriented system akin to traditional martial arts belt designation that is also designed to keep students in the gyms and the gym owners happy. Three bouts or more with at least one win moves a fighter to the yellow level. Five fights or more with at least three wins earns a blue designation. At six wins a competitor reaches the black level.

Fees for a first-time fighter run the equivalent of $60, but the fee decreases at subsequent levels. When a fighter reaches the black level, he is typically offered the opportunity to recover his investment.

The most common way for a SAL fighter to enter the "major leagues" is via a challenge match, or opening match, prior to the main card of a regular Spirit MC show. These fights are comprised of two three-minute rounds, but unlike the amateur contests, challenge matches are free of headgear or pads and the fighters lace up four-ounce gloves. Soccer kicks and stomps also become legal.

This is where Spirit MC begins to see the payoff for SAL. Some of Spirit MC's best fighters and biggest draws have come by way of challenge matches. Others have made the transition via "Go! Super Korean," the Korean equivalent of the UFC's "The Ultimate Fighter," a wake of name recognition and free highlight reel TV content clinging to their amateur league experience. SAL alumni Yoon Youg Kim and Kyeong Ho Kan have both fought in title fight main events. Ho Jin Kim (Pictures) and Nam Sun Kim (Pictures) also fight near the top of Spirit MC Cards.

K-1 Hero's veteran and Sprit MC standout A Sol Kwan, who, ironically, lost his first two SAL matches, is a vocal advocate of SAL.

"Lots of guys train, but most quit before they get the chance to test themselves," he said. "Amateur league gives fighters the opportunity to fight regularly and follow their dreams. I often hear from fighters who want to move from amateur to professional the way I did, and that makes me very happy."

Kwan's home gym, Mokpo Pride Academy, is host to Mokpo Combat Challenge, an affiliate of SAL that uses the same equipment and rules. Plans are currently in the works to create or incorporate leagues from eight other cities around Korea, including Busan, Daegu and Jeonju, into the SAL system.

"The plan is to have tournaments in each city," says Beom Seok Kim, "and to determine a champion from each to come to Seoul and fight in a second tournament which will determine an overall champion. I'm confident that we'll find one or two guys in each weight class with the talent to become a professional fighter."

And that is what makes it all worthwhile for the executives at Spirit MC.

Good MMA amateur leagues aren't just about safety and recreation. They're about expanding the MMA talent pool and helping the exceptional fighters to move to the next level. They're about creating better professionals who put on more exciting shows that people want to watch. They're about gate receipts, TV ratings, pay-per-view buys, public perception and the credibility of the sport. In the end, they can even be about clothes and energy drinks and beer and motorcycles … and there is nothing wrong with that.

The model is already out there. It's free to copy, and it works.
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