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 event."
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 the market.
"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 the family."
"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 recognition.
"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 status.
"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 available there.
"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 screening."
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.