Posted : 2013-04-14 17:31
Updated : 2013-04-14 17:31

Combat sports in Korea: alive and well

The latest Road FC mixed-martial arts event was held in front of packed spectators at the Olympic Hall in southern Seoul Saturday.
/ Courtesy of Road FC

By Jung Min-ho

Despite losing money for three years straight and a dearth of impact fighters, the Road Fighting Championship, Korea's largest Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) organization, is in good shape.

The Road FC finished its 11th event with its biggest success ever at the Olympic Hall on Saturday. Although the ticket sales remained to be counted, the 3,000-capacity venue was almost filled with avid fans and the largest number of media participated in covering the yet-to-be popular sport here.

"Last year showed the Road FC's rapid growth. This year, we will continue to work hard to make the sport global and more popular," Road FC Chief Jung Mun-hong said.

For the first time, the event made its foray into international broadcasting with a live pay per view on Ustream.

That night, the three-year-old organization's inaugural lightweight champion Nam Yui-chul defeated Japanese Kume Takasuke by unanimous decision after an exhausting four-round fight. The Road FC also successfully set up the bantamweight champion title bout between Lee Kil-oo and Song Min-jong for its next event. The title was released by former champion Kang Kyung-ho in his move to the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) last year.

The audience gave shouts of joy and excitement as the show reached midway, and the loud cheers continued until the final bout ended close to midnight.

A day before the contest, a slew of fans gathered at Dongdaemun to watch the fighters weigh in. The showcase also drew its most attention ever, although many of the spectators were there to see the half-naked ring girls, who hold a "free hug" event at the venue. For whatever reason, the Road FC, perhaps for the first time, attracted cameramen from major media outlets.

The Road FC chief once blamed the UFC for being "cheap," saying the world's biggest MMA organization took domestic talent without proper compensation. But clever Jung did not give up taking advantage of even such an adverse situation.

UFC fighter Jung Chan-sung, also the owner of the Korean Zombie MMA gym in Seoul, helped promote the event more broadly with his international reputation built at the UFC.

Although the American organization was able to recruit some of the finest Korean fighters, including Kang and Jung, with the promise of more cash, the connection with Jung Mun-hong remained intact in the small MMA community here.

Given that fighters' career tends to be short, ironically, Korean UFC fighters are expected to be assets to the Road FC marketing.

And some do not seem to be even interested in going to the UFC.

"People asked me if I would go for the UFC," Nam said after taking the belt. "But I would like to contribute to making the Road FC the world-class organization."

Still, stiff challenges remain ahead.

"People do not buy tickets for MMA events. Such a culture is not rooted here yet," cable channel XTM's MMA commentator Kim Dae-hwan told The Korea Times Friday.

Despite its unprecedented success this time, the relatively new sport will have to continue to compete with other sports, such as baseball and football, which have more solid fan bases. The cheapest baseball ticket price is 7,000 won ($6.19) and 9,000 won for football. But for the Road FC event, fans needed to pay at least 44,000 won to see the fighting in person.

The UFC is also expected to keep watch on the Road FC in its hunt for talent. If the Road FC cannot pay enough money to first-rate fighters, they will leave for a wealthier stage, as did inaugural Road FC bantamweight champion Kang.

Nonetheless, inexplicable optimism is pervasive in the Road FC's air. Saturday's event proved well enough that the young organization's best days lie ahead.

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