The Making of a Superstar in Korea

By John Evans Jun 9, 2008
Dong Hyun Kim's impressive May 24 UFC debut was not televised in North America, but in South Korea it was shown live.

And then it was shown again.

And then it was shown again: three times total, with commentary, prior to the resumption of live coverage.

Even before the translator could mangle Kim's responses to Joe Rogan in the postfight interview, YTN, the Korean cable news network, had added "Kim Dong Hyun wins by TKO in first UFC contest" to the news ticker at the bottom of the screen, amid updates on American beef imports and the earthquake in China. KTX trains also added Kim's picture to the queue of rural photographs cycling on the aisle monitors.

Virtually unknown to all but hardcore fight fans, suddenly it seemed as if Kim was on every screen in Korea.

But was anyone watching?

When an hour-long special on Kim was shown in prime time a week before UFC 84, it had been almost four years since one of his fights had aired live on Korean television. In the interim, the "Stun Gun" had wreaked havoc in Japan among the ranks of Deep's welterweights. He racked up seven wins, five of them by knockout, including an impressive KO of welterweight champion Hidehiko Hasegawa (Pictures) in a non-title match.

But when the ensuing rematch, a title bout, was ruled a draw and Hasegawa was allowed to retain the belt, Kim decided he'd had enough of Deep. Shortly thereafter he was signed by Pride, fulfilling a long-time dream, but the UFC purchased and scrapped Asia's premier MMA promotion just prior to what would have been his first event. Kim was left hanging without a contract.

Meanwhile, Super Action, the No. 1 cable network in Korea at the time, was also left hanging. Boosted previously by its partnership with Pride, Super Action's ratings plummeted when substitute UFC live events and replays failed to generate enthusiasm in Korea. Accustomed to the pyrotechnic-adorned grandeur of Pride and K-1 Hero's, the UFC events, and specifically the idea of fighting in a chain-link cage, struck the Korean public as something illicit and unprofessional, akin to an impromptu brawl near a scrap yard.

And there was also the problem of live television scheduling. Asia is full of Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic fans, but few of them want to stay up until 4:30 a.m. to watch him fight. Las Vegas provided slightly better time zone arithmetic, but it is equally unlikely that many kids stayed home from Sunday school, curious to see if B.J. Penn (Pictures) would lick Sean Sherk (Pictures)'s blood off his gloves.

Finally, and so obvious it justifies the danger of a cultural stereotype, Koreans love Korean athletes. Until Dong Hyun Kim came around, there wasn't a single Korean fighter to cheer for in the UFC.

Ji Sung Park created a Korean television market for English Premier League Soccer and Chan Ho Park did the same for Major League Baseball. There is no doubting that French-born, Canada-raised and American Top Team-trained "Super Korean" Denis Kang (Pictures) is genuinely proud to represent Korea in the ring. But he's also making a heck of a lot more in endorsements with his current moniker than he would as the "Super Canadian."

Japanese fighter Yoshihiro Akiyama (Pictures) surrendered his Korean citizenship in 2001 and defeated a Korean judoka in the gold medal round of the Asian Games a year later, but Korean MMA fans and television commentators still refer to him by his Korean name, Choo Sung Hoon.

The list goes on, and, at times, the criteria for membership is pretty relaxed. To say that Koreans are simply "loyal" to their athletes is an understatement; they are, in fact, fanatical.

It is even plausible that had B.J. Penn marketed the Korean portion of his ethnicity, senior citizens would have skipped church in droves to support him. This is why Spirit MC, the Korea-based Pro Elite partner organization, and its cable outlet, XPorts, regularly double the watch rate of a UFC live event.

The Super Action cable network and the UFC needed Kim even more than he needed them, and he will continue to carry more than his share of weight for the network. Six months ago, without better ratings (without a Korean fighter), it was likely that Super Action would stop buying UFC programming at the end of its current contract. A good part of the UFC's tenuous foothold in Asia would disappear, and Dream, Pride's reincarnation, would gain momentum.

Connect the dots and infer what you will. Just take a look at the fighter salaries from UFC 84. The world of cable television, MMA promotion and fighter compensation is a complicated and somewhat shrouded affair, but it has its moments of justice.

As evidenced by Kim's methodical destruction of Jason Tan, Super Action has placed its bets wisely. Make no mistake, Kim doesn't need any public relations assistance inside the Octagon. His skills are for real, and he knows how to apply them. A lanky welterweight with strong strikes and takedowns, his submissions are smooth and he pounds from guard as well as anyone.

How does he match up with the best welterweights in the world? It's difficult to tell at this point. Did the UFC make the right decision by signing him to a four-fight contract? One look at the way he integrated elbow strikes into his arsenal and you'll join the ranks of the believers.

"I know exactly what UFC fans want," Kim told, "and I want to be a popular fighter. Remember ‘Stun Gun' Dong Hyun Kim. I will be the welterweight champion someday."

There might be a few fights and several hundred training sessions between Jason Tan and Georges St. Pierre (Pictures), but one fact is clear: The future of the UFC in Korea is on Dong Hyun Kim's shoulders, and that's exactly the right place for it.

Translation assistance provided by Do Hyun Kim
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