SpiritMC CEO Speaks on MMA in Korea
After earning an MBA at Vanderbilt University, Kwang Hyun Park
worked as a consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers. However something
pulled him away: mixed martial arts.
After following a friend into the sport, Park is now the
business-savvy CEO of SpiritMC, Korea's largest MMA promotion. He
has approached the fight game as he would any kind of business --
with a shrewd eye on the bottom line.
"I agreed to come in for three months at first, but later I decided
to stay on longer because I really enjoyed the work," Park says of
his entry into MMA. "In between my friend indicated that he wanted
to exit and I decided to take over [SpiritMC]. I saw an opportunity
to make a profit."
In Korea, where most sports are dominated by corporate ownership,
the burgeoning MMA business has relied on a small but staunch group
of aficionados to keep the embers aglow.
"The size of the industry itself is only about $5 million [per year
in Korea], but that number tends to go up when K-1 holds a local
event," the promoter says. "For our last event with Kwang Hee Lee and Ah Sol Kwon,
we drew in about 3,500 fans to Jang Choong Stadium, which normally
seats around 4,500. And, I'm fudging the numbers here a bit, but
that roughly translates into about U.S. $250,000 for that one
The relatively low figures show that MMA is still a niche market in
Korea but also that there's room for growth.
That's where ProElite comes in. The parent company of EliteXC,
ProElite signed a multi-million dollar deal with SpiritMC in August
that should help the South Korean-based promotion make a dent in
"We are very proud of this deal," Park says, beaming. "It is
literally a historic event. It represents the first-ever case of
foreign investment in Korea's sports entertainment industry. More
importantly, being under the ProElite banner means being part of
"It's not like they're just looking to recruit talent," Park adds,
subtly rebuking the cherry-picking tendencies of Japanese
promotions, particularly the now-defunct PRIDE, with which SpiritMC
had worked. "As shareholders, [ProElite] is genuinely interested in
developing talent and cultivating the MMA landscape in Korea."
As late entrants to the MMA arena, ProElite has used its deep
financial resources, which Park says near $40 million, to pursue an
alternative business model. The strategy includes amalgamating
smaller promotions from around the world -- like Cage Rage in
England and ICON Sport in Hawaii -- that have a degree of name
"The good thing about ProElite is that we can develop our fighters
and give them an opportunity to get more experience," Parks says.
"I've talked personally to Gary Shaw about sending up-and-coming
Korean fighters to EliteXC or ShoXC events. This relationship is a
great way to get more exposure and experience for Korean fighters,
as well as getting SpiritMC's name out there."
Park wanted former SpiritMC middleweight champion Jae Suk Lim to compete in the
September EliteXC show. The date passed, though, and now the
October ShoXC event is a possibility.
This culture of sharing fighters sharply contrasts with the
exclusive clauses that the UFC often demands. While UFC remains the
major force in MMA, EliteXC is slowly rising from obscurity into a
legitimate player. Under the guidance of ProElite, other key
promotions from around the world could flourish as well.
SpiritMC hopes to be one of those organizations and the promotion
already has one internationally ranked fighter to push: Denis Kang (Pictures).
Yet Kang's future has been the source of speculation and
misinformation. At one point it seemed as if even his management,
Entlian Co., the parent company of SpiritMC, did not know his
"While Denis is under contract with us, we thought it would be in
Denis' best interest if [American Top Team, Kang's camp] handled
all contract negotiations for fights," Park says.
In fact, on Monday it became official that Kang will compete on the
Oct. 28 K-1 HERO'S card in Seoul, South Korea.
As for SpiritMC middleweight champion Steve Bruno (Pictures), Park says, "As far as I know,
Steve has signed with the UFC, but we have made it clear that he
needs to defend his title."
With the UFC's adherence to exclusivity clauses it is unclear
whether Park's request will be met.
Regardless, SpiritMC faces another challenge that's more important
than fighters defending titles: athlete safety.
Medical standards for MMA are notoriously inadequate in Korea due
in large part to a lack of government oversight. Additionally,
financial constraints on the parts of most promotions have limited
fighters to only bare-minimum medical testing.
SpiritMC requires pre-fight heart and blood tests as well as
screening for transmittable diseases, but Park says it will take
regulation to see the wide range of tests fighters are required to
undergo in places like California, Nevada and New Jersey.
Steroids are also a potential issue for combat sports in the
country, however Park insists there's no market for the
performance-enhancing drugs in Korea, as they're not readily
"I am positive our fighters don't use steroids," he says. "It's
more of a problem with foreign fighters. Once we start bringing in
more foreign fighters, we will examine alternatives to increase
Either the fighter or the promotion must bear the costs of testing,
Park says, but the current levels of compensation and profit make
the burden impractical. As a result, regulation should be the
government's responsibility, including steroid testing and perhaps
mandatory MRI scans, which are not used in Korea.
"Not only would [regulation] increase the safety and well-being of
our fighters, it would help MMA receive recognition as a legitimate
sport in Korea."
Such recognition has propelled the sport in the United States, and
Park knows the same should hold true in Korea, where his SpiritMC
would be the greatest beneficiary.
GRRRR!!!More on Sherdog.com Mobile