The Making of a Superstar in Korea
Dong Hyun Kim's
impressive May 24 UFC debut was not televised in North America, but
in South Korea it was shown live.
And then it was shown again.
And then it was shown again: three times total, with commentary,
prior to the resumption of live coverage.
Even before the translator could mangle Kim's responses to Joe
Rogan in the postfight interview, YTN, the Korean cable news
network, had added "Kim Dong Hyun wins by TKO in first UFC contest"
to the news ticker at the bottom of the screen, amid updates on
American beef imports and the earthquake in China. KTX trains also
added Kim's picture to the queue of rural photographs cycling on
the aisle monitors.
Virtually unknown to all but hardcore fight fans, suddenly it
seemed as if Kim was on every screen in Korea.
But was anyone watching?
When an hour-long special on Kim was shown in prime time a week
before UFC 84, it had been almost four years since one of his
fights had aired live on Korean television. In the interim, the
"Stun Gun" had wreaked havoc in Japan among the ranks of Deep's
welterweights. He racked up seven wins, five of them by knockout,
including an impressive KO of welterweight champion Hidehiko Hasegawa
(Pictures) in a non-title match.
But when the ensuing rematch, a title bout, was ruled a draw and
Hasegawa was allowed to retain the belt, Kim decided he'd had
enough of Deep. Shortly thereafter he was signed by Pride,
fulfilling a long-time dream, but the UFC purchased and scrapped
Asia's premier MMA promotion just prior to what would have been his
first event. Kim was left hanging without a contract.
Meanwhile, Super Action, the No. 1 cable network in Korea at the
time, was also left hanging. Boosted previously by its partnership
with Pride, Super Action's ratings plummeted when substitute UFC
live events and replays failed to generate enthusiasm in Korea.
Accustomed to the pyrotechnic-adorned grandeur of Pride and K-1
Hero's, the UFC events, and specifically the idea of fighting in a
chain-link cage, struck the Korean public as something illicit and
unprofessional, akin to an impromptu brawl near a scrap yard.
And there was also the problem of live television scheduling. Asia
is full of Mirko "Cro Cop"
Filipovic fans, but few of them want to stay up until 4:30 a.m.
to watch him fight. Las Vegas provided slightly better time zone
arithmetic, but it is equally unlikely that many kids stayed home
from Sunday school, curious to see if B.J. Penn (Pictures) would lick Sean Sherk (Pictures)'s blood off his gloves.
Finally, and so obvious it justifies the danger of a cultural
stereotype, Koreans love Korean athletes. Until Dong Hyun Kim came
around, there wasn't a single Korean fighter to cheer for in the
Ji Sung Park created a Korean television market for English Premier
League Soccer and Chan Ho Park did the same for Major League
Baseball. There is no doubting that French-born, Canada-raised and
American Top Team-trained "Super Korean" Denis Kang (Pictures) is genuinely proud to represent
Korea in the ring. But he's also making a heck of a lot more in
endorsements with his current moniker than he would as the "Super
Japanese fighter Yoshihiro Akiyama
(Pictures) surrendered his Korean
citizenship in 2001 and defeated a Korean judoka in the gold medal
round of the Asian Games a year later, but Korean MMA fans and
television commentators still refer to him by his Korean name, Choo
The list goes on, and, at times, the criteria for membership is
pretty relaxed. To say that Koreans are simply "loyal" to their
athletes is an understatement; they are, in fact, fanatical.
It is even plausible that had B.J. Penn marketed the Korean portion
of his ethnicity, senior citizens would have skipped church in
droves to support him. This is why Spirit MC, the Korea-based Pro
Elite partner organization, and its cable outlet, XPorts, regularly
double the watch rate of a UFC live event.
The Super Action cable network and the UFC needed Kim even more
than he needed them, and he will continue to carry more than his
share of weight for the network. Six months ago, without better
ratings (without a Korean fighter), it was likely that Super Action
would stop buying UFC programming at the end of its current
contract. A good part of the UFC's tenuous foothold in Asia would
disappear, and Dream, Pride's reincarnation, would gain
Connect the dots and infer what you will. Just take a look at the
fighter salaries from UFC 84. The world of cable television, MMA
promotion and fighter compensation is a complicated and somewhat
shrouded affair, but it has its moments of justice.
As evidenced by Kim's methodical destruction of Jason Tan, Super Action has placed
its bets wisely. Make no mistake, Kim doesn't need any public
relations assistance inside the Octagon. His skills are for real,
and he knows how to apply them. A lanky welterweight with strong
strikes and takedowns, his submissions are smooth and he pounds
from guard as well as anyone.
How does he match up with the best welterweights in the world? It's
difficult to tell at this point. Did the UFC make the right
decision by signing him to a four-fight contract? One look at the
way he integrated elbow strikes into his arsenal and you'll join
the ranks of the believers.
"I know exactly what UFC fans want," Kim told Sherdog.com, "and I
want to be a popular fighter. Remember ‘Stun Gun' Dong Hyun Kim. I
will be the welterweight champion someday."
There might be a few fights and several hundred training sessions
between Jason Tan and Georges St. Pierre
(Pictures), but one fact is clear: The
future of the UFC in Korea is on Dong Hyun Kim's shoulders, and
that's exactly the right place for it.
Translation assistance provided by Do Hyun Kim
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