A Gentle Giants Existentialist Woes
Last Wednesday, a special report on Hong Man Choi (Pictures) was broadcast on Korea's version
of 60 Minutes, the disingenuously titled In-depth 60
Minutes, which has led to the resurgence of a controversy
surrounding Choi's health.
There was a media circus earlier this June when it was revealed
Choi's scheduled bout with Brock Lesnar (Pictures) on K-1's June 2nd Dynamite!! USA
card was cancelled because MRI results showed the clinical presence
of a tumor near the South Korean's pituitary gland.
The TV special comes hot off the heels of a California State
Athletic Commission (CSAC) hearing on Aug. 6 at which Choi's appeal
of the commission's decision to deny him a license was on the
Not only did the CSAC uphold its original decision to bar Choi from
fighting, it also revealed surprising evidence to suggest that the
fighter's camp and promoter, Fight Entertainment Group, had
possibly falsified medicals for one of Choi's K-1 matches in Nevada
a year earlier.
The paperwork filed with the Nevada State Athletic Commission
(NSAC) showed a "perfect MRI" without a tumor, said CSAC Executive
Officer Armando Garcia, whereas the MRI results taken this year
clearly showed the presence of a tumor roughly 2 cm wide.
Logically, this could mean only two possible scenarios: a) the MRI
submitted in California was doctored, or b) a tumor appeared within
a year, which is plausible, but unlikely as Choi admitted to having
a tumor since high school.
The official position of Choi's camp is that no MRI was submitted
to NSAC, only a medical statement. Choi's camp and FEG Korea are
preparing a case to counter these allegations. Apparently, in
Nevada, if a fighter has taken an MRI within a year, he or she has
the option of submitting a medical statement by a licensed doctor
based on that MRI, instead of being required to take a new scan at
a state appointed hospital as in California.
While Choi has not specifically commented on the impact this will
have on his fighting career, it is generally viewed that he will
not be able to fight in the U.S. any time soon. However, the fact
that neither representatives from FEG or the fighter's camp were
present at the hearing on Aug. 6 suggests that they are not
overwhelmingly concerned with Choi's suspension in the U.S.
What is a concern is that this will negatively impact the K-1 World
Grand Prix Final 16 to be held in Seoul, Korea on Sept. 29. This
event, which has traditionally been held in Osaka, Japan, has
tremendous significance for K-1: it signals K-1's move to expand
its presence in Korea and the rest of East Asia.
Perhaps because this incident threatens Choi's participation in the
September event and by extension his livelihood, the
"Techno-Goliath" seems to be taking the recent media coverage
detailing his illness very personally.
Following the news report that stressed the life-threatening
severity of acromegaly and gigantism, of which Choi is claimed to
be suffering from, he has since gone into seclusion, resurfacing
just once to hold an interview with ISplus.com and express his
resentment towards the Korean media, which he claims has painted a
malicious and erroneous depiction of his illness.
"I'm a human being too," he said. "Like everyone else I want to
live a long and healthy life. I'm the kind of person who believes
your health is more important than money. Why would I have jumped
into K-1 if I thought I was going to die in a few years? If I felt
that there was even a 0.01 percent possibility, I'd walk away.
"I'm thankful people are concerned, but right now I just want to
leave the country and live overseas," wailed an indignant Choi in
response to accusations of the moral depravity in risking one's
health for money.
At the August 6 hearing Garcia entreated Choi to receive immediate
medical attention and duly withdraw from active competition.
"Even I got scared when I head about the CSAC's announcement in
June," responded Choi. "But I felt the initial tests were carried
out a bit carelessly and went out and got a second, third and
fourth opinion, all of which said I didn't need surgery."
Robert S. Bray, a Medical Director with Saint John's Spine
Institute in Los Angeles, confirmed that while Choi does have "an
active growth-hormone-secreting tumor," it is not a serious threat
to his health or life and can be treated with a few weeks of drug
therapy, and so "should not restrict Mr. Hong Man Choi (Pictures) from continuing to fight," which
it did not as recently as Aug. 5 when he stopped Gary Goodridge (Pictures) in Hong Kong.
Choi's reactions are partly understandable: when you are 7' 2" and
350 pounds, it doesn't take a genius to figure out what people are
snickering behind your back.
While all the attention has focused on Choi's illness, one lesson
that could be taken away from all this is the importance of medical
regulation in combat sports, something that should not be lost in
raising greater awareness of fighters' safety in South Korea.
Moreover, Garcia's statement that "the interests of the event,
promotion or management come second to the interests of the
fighter" seems to have reverberated fairly loudly in Korea: since
the TV special, the media, various figures in the sports community
and medical doctors have through interviews expressed the need to
increase the standards of medical regulation in combat sports.
Korea is notorious for its lax medical standards. In most
instances, the onus is placed entirely on the fighters to look out
for their own safety; the Korean government currently leaves it up
to the fighters to deem for themselves whether they are fit to
compete or not.
In fact, Korea witnessed its first MMA related death at a Gimme 5
event (now known as Neofight) in 2005. The cause of death was due
to brain hemorrhaging after the fight, but many blamed the death on
the promotion's inadequate medical standards.
Despite this shocking death, not much has changed since: at MMA
events today, only one or two general practitioners, who do not
have much experience in dealing with MMA-related injuries, are
dispatched from local hospitals.
In comparison, the medical standards are vastly better in Japan;
however, due to this fiasco with Choi, K-1 in particular has
suffered a serious blow to its image.
Many people are now beginning to question K-1's actions in
knowingly allowing Choi to fight at risk to himself and accusing
K-1 of moral corruption and corporate exploitation. And, there is
always the issue of steroids in Japan.
In the long run this incident could prove to be beneficial to
combat sports in Korea and East Asia in general, similar to how
John McCain's renouncement of the UFC as "human cock-fighting"
brought about vast regulatory changes that ended up saving the UFC
and mixed martial arts in the U.S.
The Korean government has not yet intervened, but as more people
take up the cause and demand greater medical regulation, that could
As for Choi, one can only hope that he truly believes in the
aphorism he has displayed on his personal Web site: "What won't
kill me, will only make me stronger."
Choi isn't the most graceful fighter in the world, but he may very
well be the saving grace of combat sports in Asia.
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