Kim Represents Korea in UFC Debut

By John Lee May 21, 2008
At UFC 84 on Saturday, welterweight standout Dong Hyun Kim will become the second Korean fighter to grace the Octagon. Technically speaking, the proud distinction of the first goes to none other than cult icon Joe Son (aka the Asian guy in "Austin Powers").

Son's cross-bearing entrance and bare-knuckled castration by Keith Hackney (Pictures) at UFC 4 almost 14 years ago are admittedly not some of the proudest moments in Korean MMA history, but the bout was important in helping to introduce MMA to Korea and the Korean diaspora. And spreading MMA, as the initiated will agree, is in itself a virtue much like spreading democracy.

Korean MMA has come a long way since then, but with recent claims that the stock value of Korean fighters is plummeting like the Asian financial crisis, why should MMA fans, especially in North America, pay heed to Kim?

Well, for starters, Kim -- who stands just above six feet and normally walks around at 192 pounds -- has been training with middleweight stalwart Yushin Okami (Pictures).

"[Okami] is the strongest on the team and has the best balance," Kim said. "At first I got pushed around, but by sparring more with Okami, I could feel my game gradually improving. Because he and I are the two biggest guys in the gym, we end up sparring with each other for almost an hour every training session and I think we were able to help each other out."

Kim resides in South Korea, but due to a dearth in talent and training partners, he routinely makes the trek to Japan before bouts to train at Wajyutsu Keisyukai. The gym is a veritable pantheon of talent that houses fighters such as Okami, Yoshihiro Akiyama (Pictures), Caol Uno (Pictures), Katsuya Inoue (Pictures), Eiji Mitsuoka (Pictures) and the list goes on.

Wajyutsu Keisyukai is operated by the promotion Greater Common Multiple, which wields significant clout in the Japanese MMA scene. A telling rumor of the organization's influence is that Caol Uno received a pass into the second round of the Dream lightweight tournament on the strength of his ties to GCM.

"At first I didn't know it was such a famous gym," explained Kim, probably echoing the sentiments of many. "But when I started training, I realized this place was crawling with really good talent. When I first arrived, it was really awkward because I was the only Korean there, but [Yoshihiro] Akiyama went out of his way to help me settle in."

Kim was introduced to the premier gym through some string pulling by cloak-and-dagger figure Hidekazu Morooka, president of CMA -- a powerhouse Japanese management agency that also holds a local branch in Korea.

Back in 2006, CMA recruited Kim as part of an aggressive campaign to loot Korean prospects and bring them over to Japan. CMA has shown a propensity for culling strong talent, and any fighter associated with the CMA name is worth banking on, including Seung Hwan Bang, who recently claimed the Deep lightweight belt.

In Japan, Kim tore through Deep's welterweight division and earned a shot at the title by rendering champion Hidehiko Hasegawa (Pictures) unconscious in a non-title affair. The ensuing rematch, for the title this time, was a disappointing one for Kim. Despite connecting well from the outside and landing successive takedowns, Hasegawa's wild, flailing punch rushes and submission attempts seemed to even up the judges' scorecards and the bout ended in a controversial draw.

"I really wanted the belt in the rematch with Hasegawa," Kim reflected. "When it was judged a draw, I felt really empty. At the time, I was very upset at the decision, but looking back I can at least understand why it happened with the home-court advantage and all."

The bout was a blessing in disguise. Kim's performance caught the eye of a UFC scout who initially approached Kim about signing with the WEC. Since the WEC is not televised in Korea, however, Kim and his management pushed for a contract with the UFC, which is on cable TV.

News of Kim's entrance into the UFC has galvanized the Korean MMA community. It also opens up new possibilities for the UFC to make headway into the South Korean market, which Japanese promotions have traditionally dominated, and the virtually untapped Korean demographic stateside. Without a single fight in the UFC, there is enormous pressure on Kim's shoulders.

"I'm thrilled that I can represent Korea," he said. "But I don't really feel any pressure. … What's more important for me is to give hope to amateur MMA fighters in Korea and give them a goal to strive for."

With paltry pay and poor training conditions, there are serious obstacles to becoming an MMA fighter in Korea.

"In 2005, I left the ring to get a ‘real world job,'" Kim said. "But I couldn't concentrate on anything; all I thought about was MMA. I decided to leave for New Zealand to study and start afresh, but I took up judo as a hobby there and returned to Korea because I couldn't get rid of the itch."

By succeeding in the UFC, Kim hopes to open new doors for Korean fighters who might otherwise have to quit the sport due to financial difficulties.

His first challenge is English fighter Jason Tan.

Kim admits that he doesn't know much of Tan besides that he has good striking and a solid ground game: "There's not a lot of information on him, so I'm preparing for all areas. I'm just going to go into the cage and fight on instinct."

The bout will be Kim's first foray in a cage, which could prove to be an obstacle as well as the fact that he hasn't fought for several months. Yet Kim believes his strong wrestling defense and takedowns, which he has honed with an Olympic-level wrestling squad at his home team in M.A.D. and affiliate school Korean Top Team, will more than compensate.

He also believes he will be able to take advantage of the Octagon's more spacious fighting surface to use his long reach. Kim isn't known to throw a barrage of combinations but rather single bursts from his awkward southpaw stance to stun his opponents, earning him the moniker "Stun Gun."

True to form, Kim will try to stun Tan and the world on Saturday.
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