Relations between South Korea and Japan have been strained ever since the Second World War and in MMA the patriotic rivalry between these two nations has played itself out in rings or cages across Asia for almost two decades.
Fighters from the two countries have not always met on an even playing field, in that Japan had at least a decade’s head start in terms of its MMA infrastructure and events were taking place in Tokyo before the concept of the sport had really arrived in South Korea.
One of the first Koreans to travel to Japan to test himself in MMA was Jong Wang Kim. With black belts in Judo and Taekwondo his background was typical of fighters from his homeland but the heavyweight soon discovered that these skills didn’t translate automatically to the Pancrase ring.
Between 1996 and 2006 Kim fought 23 times in Japan, losing on 18 of those occasions. He didn’t get to fight in South Korea for the first time until Spirit MC was formed in 2003 by which time he was firmly established as the favorite whipping boy for the top Japanese heavyweights.
Predictably Kim would also become the first Korean fighter to compete for Pride, continuing his dreadful run of results with a quick-fire loss to Takayuki Okada in 2002, but by this stage the sport was starting to gain traction among the television audience in his homeland.
Eun Soo Lee, who beat Kim by DQ en route to winning the first ever Spirit MC tournament, was able to follow a very different career trajectory because by the time he was ready to pursue his professional career Korean fighters had the opportunity to compete on home turf.
Lee, who has been out for over a year with a serious knee injury, is now 16-4 and the reigning Road FC middleweight champion but he has only needed to fight outside of South Korea three times to run up this impressive record.
Spirit MC also helped launch the career of current UFC 170 lbs contender Dong Hyun Kim but when the promotion folded in 2010 it left a void and although camps like Korean Top Team had, by this stage, been around for many years fighters wanting to compete without travelling to Japan were left with a paucity of options.
Fast forwards four years and the MMA scene in South Korea is revitalized and resurgent, largely thanks to local promotion Road FC. Founded in late 2010 in order to give Korean fighters a much needed platform to perform, the promotion has put on events with increasing regularity and eight cards have been held in cities all across the country so far this year.
Road FC fighters have also gone on to enjoy success in major international promotions with former champions Yui Chul Nam (155 lbs) and Kyung Ho Kang (135 lbs) both signing with the UFC and enjoying success inside the Octagon, some of which has come at the expense of Japanese fighters.
Rather than send their own fighters to compete at Road FC, Korean Top Team preferred to form a bespoke promotion called ‘Top FC’ which has held five cards to date and looks set to become a serious player on the country’s MMA scene.
One thing that Road FC has done extremely effectively is to garner mainstream attention, be it by putting a Korean comedian on one of its cards or converting a ring girl to become a professional mixed martial artist.
The man behind it is Moon Hong Jung and he says he is pleased with the progress that his promotion has made.
“I’m happy to be growing Road FC but I’m still hungry for it to grow more, I want to make Korean MMA number one in Asia,” he told Fightland.
To overtake Japan as the undisputed king of Asian MMA, at least in terms of producing fighters, is no easy task because events happen in Tokyo far more frequently than they do in Seoul or any other South Korean city.
However the gap is closing rapidly and Korean fighters have enjoyed a lot of success at the expense of their Japanese counterparts in recent months with Kyung Ho Kang and Yui Chul Nam beating Shunichi Shimizu and Kazuki Tokudome respectively under the UFC banner while A Sol Kwon outpointed Takasuke Kume to win the vacant Road FC 155 lbs title and Soo Chul Kim and Min Jong Song both registered wins against experienced Japanese opponents.
The days of Jong Wang Kim losing six fights in succession in Japan are long gone. South Korea might not have MMA events happening every single weekend but its fighters are among the most feared and respected in Asia with plenty of new prospects in the pipeline.
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