A Gentle Giant’s Existentialist Woes

By: John Lee
Aug 15, 2007
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 agenda.

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.

The Sensibilities of a Giant

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.

Garcia vindicated … to a certain extent

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 happen.

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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