News and Notes from South Korea

By: John Lee
Aug 29, 2007
Earlier this month ProElite (parent company of EliteXC) signed a multi-million dollar investment deal with Korean mixed martial arts organization SpiritMC. The newly forged alliance will not only infuse the promotion with fresh capital, but also provide exchange training programs and international exposure for prospective Korean fighters through EliteXC.

SpiritMC was modeled after PRIDE FC, and while it served as a cheap substitute during the lulls between major events, the South Korean based promotion is on the cusp of coming into its own.

The confluence of steady investments and the global rise in popularity of MMA should imbue the South Korean promotion with more credibility and recognition, elevating its status on par with promotions like Cage Rage or Icon Sport.

For those of you less acquainted with SpiritMC, here is a brief synopsis of its structure and rules. The promotion holds three types of events: a) Amateur League, b) the so-called Inter-league (international amateur league), which showcases international amateur fighters and mixes in the occasional professional fight card, and c) the numbered SpiritMC events showcasing exclusively professional matches between both local and international fighters.

Currently, SpiritMC showcases three weight classes: welterweight (154 pounds and under), middleweight (176 pounds) and heavyweight (178 and above).

Non-tournament fights feature what came to be known as PRIDE rules: nostalgic goodies like stomps, strikes in the four-point position, knees on the ground, and soccer kicks. The round structure is the typical three five-minute round format that's used throughout much of the MMA world, while Grand Prix matches feature the same rules, but with two rounds instead of three. Title matches have the option of an extra fourth round in the event judges score a draw.

"Spirited" welterweight showdown

Korea's largest MMA promotion held its twelfth numbered-series event on Aug. 19 in Seoul's Jang-Choong Stadium, Korea's equivalent of Korakuen Hall.

The main event was a highly anticipated rematch between interim welterweight champion "Crazy" Kwang-Hee Lee and Ah-Sol Kwon (and, yes, it is pronounced like that) for the unified welterweight belt.

In their first clash, a title contender's match, Lee put Kwon to sleep with a hellacious right hook during a flurry of exchanges reminiscent of the Takanori Gomi (Pictures)-Tatsuya Kawajiri (Pictures) showdown.

The rematch started off tentatively, but the young guns more than lived up to the hype in the later rounds with exchange after exchange. At the end of three rounds, the judges scored a credible draw.

In the overtime period Lee landed a debilitating left hook to the midsection of the fatigued Kwon, who immediately doubled over and suffered some visceral ground-and-pound before the referee stepped in to stop the fight at the 2:46 mark. This fight had all the frissons of a classic bout and will go down as watershed moment for Korean MMA.

"Open" Heavyweight GP

The heavyweight tournament started off pitting eight fighters in four matches. As a result of SpiritMC's lax weight distinctions the tournament looked more like an open-weight affair, with fighters ranging from 195- to 276-pounds in the mix.

This is perhaps befitting, as middleweight star and apotheosis of SpiritMC Denis Kang is the promotion's heavyweight titleholder.

The final round will take place Oct. 14, with the Grand Prix winner tentatively scheduled to challenge Kang for the heavyweight belt in December.

Dool-Hee Lee, a semifinalist in SpiritMC's amateur heavyweight tournament and the heaviest competitor in this GP at 276 pounds, rushed out of his corner with a spatter of punches at the start of his fight with Jung-Gyu Choi.

Choi weathered the storm by basically absorbing the salvo on his granite block for a head, took Lee down and moved into a high top mount, much like Sergei Kharitonov (Pictures)'s move against Semmy Schilt (Pictures). From there he went for a keylock, Lee swept, but Choi made a slick transition into an armbar off his back, eliciting the tapout at 3:21 of the first round.

Jae-Young Kim is another top heavyweight contender and favorite to win the GP. The shorter and stouter Kim simply overpowered Gil-Myung Chun, rocking him with an Igor Vovchanchyn (Pictures)-esque hook before unleashing a maelstrom of punches against the ropes. The referee mercifully stopped the fight at 1:13 of the first round.

Dong-Woo Shin trains under former PRIDE veteran Mu-Bae Choi, while Ryuichi Murata (Pictures) is a star pupil out of the Yoshida Dojo. With Yoshida on hand, Murata, known for his quick hands, flew out of his corner with a dizzying combination of short right hooks and uppercuts to score a flash knockout just 18 seconds into the first round.

Kelvin Fitial and Chul-Hyun Jung participated in a desultory affair, with Jung, the amateur heavyweight tournament winner, dodging Fitial most of the fight. Fitial wore Jung down with lazy jabs. Trapping a lethargic Jung, who looks like an obese Kazushi Sakuraba (Pictures), in the corner, the brawler from Guam held on to Jung's neck and dirty boxed with right hooks and uppercuts until the ref intervened at 3:57 of the second round.

Insider tidbits

"Crazy" Kwang-Hee Lee trains out of "Jung Shim Gwan," which is establishing itself as the Korean House of Champions. Lee is a popular figure in Korea, having received a media push from a "TUF"-like reality show in Korea called "Super Korean."

Lee was initially scheduled to face then champion Ui-Chul Nam, but Nam pulled out of the fight citing a dubious hand injury. SpiritMC stripped the title from Nam, who was about as popular a champion as Tim Sylvia (Pictures) was in his heyday, citing an obscure rule that mandates a champion must defend his title at least two times a year.

This caused an imbroglio as Nam's camp decried SpiritMC's actions in the media contending the rule had never been enforced and that previous champions, like Dennis Kang, among others, were allowed to retain their titles despite a prolonged layoff.

SpiritMC remained unyielding in its refusal and conceived of the dream match between Lee and Kwon, which was probably not the most ethical move, but certainly the most exciting and marketable.

Another rising "Jung Shim Gwan" fighter is Dong-Hyun Kim, who is set to rematch Hidehiko Hasegawa (Pictures) for the DEEP welterweight title. Their first match was a non-title affair with Kim peppering Hasegawa with strikes before knocking him out with a German suplex.

Former SpiritMC middleweight champion, Jae Suk Lim, who has trained with B.J. Penn (Pictures) in the past as part of the reality TV series, is also from "Jung Shim Gwan."

Im has acute striking prowess, but he has been known to suffer from epileptic fits off his back. He was knocked unconscious by both Yuya Shirai (Pictures) and Steve Bruno (Pictures) from strikes on the ground. His success in EliteXC will depend heavily on how much he improves his guard game.

Korean fighter update

Hong Man Choi (Pictures) will face Siala "Mighty Mo" Siliga in a rematch on the Fields K-1 Grand Prix in Seoul on Sept. 29. In their previous encounter, Mighty Mo knocked out Choi with his patented looping right hook.

The aforementioned Jae-Suk Im will make his EliteXC debut against Brandon Wolf this Sept. Im hopes to rebound off a disappointing loss to Steve Bruno (Pictures), who pounded Im out from the top position to gain the middleweight crown. It is reported that Bruno, who trains out of American Top Team with Kang, has signed a deal with the UFC and is expected to make his debut in the near future.

SpiritMC veteran Jong-Ahn Cha will make his Cage Rage debut in September.

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