Posted : 2013-05-15 17:07
Updated : 2013-05-15 17:07

Out of fight

Former World Boxing Organization (WBO) intercontinental flyweight champion Choi Yo-sam lands a punch on the face of Indonesian challenger Heri Amol during their title match in Seoul on Christmas Day, 2007. It was the last match Choi ever fought in.

Lack of talent, spectator interest leaves boxing gasping for air on the ropes

International Boxing Association (AIBA) President Wu Ching-Kuo speaks during an interview with The Korea Times.
/ Courtesy of International Sports Cooperation Center of Korea

By Jung Min-ho

Reports about the death of boxing have not been greatly exaggerated, at least not here. It was just a few years ago that Koreans hailed boxing champions, excelling in a profession that requires a level of courage athletes in other sports couldn't match, as bona fide national heroes. Now even, the best boxers fight to the background of the sound of crickets.

The only fighter in the country who seems to consistently draw crowds and media attention is not even a full-time athlete ― she's Lee Si-young, a bubbly television and movie actress, who has done well enough in the amateur ranks to earn the right to compete at next year's Asian Games.

The death of Choi Yo-sam, the former World Boxing Organization (WBO) intercontinental flyweight champion, who collapsed after a 2007 bout with Indonesia's Heri Amol in 2007, proved a decisive blow for Korean boxing.

Shocked by the death of his close friend, former World Boxing Council (WBC) featherweight champion Ji In-jin hung up his gloves later that year, and the country has yet to produce a high-profile fighter since.

The talent pipeline appears to have dried up. The country's last Olympic boxing gold medal came in the 1988 Seoul Games. It doesn't help that the sport continue to lose young athletes to mixed martial arts (MMA), which seems to be everything boxing isn't _ organized, business and media savvy and popular.

Choi lies in the ring after collapsing, following his bout with Amol, just after judges announced him the winner. He died on Jan. 3. / Yonhap

In a recent interview with The Korea Times, International Boxing Association (AIBA) President Wu Ching-Kuo claimed boxing is undergoing dramatic and important changes to remake itself into a 21st century sport. But he also admitted that progress in Korea has been slower than in other countries.

"If you judge boxing's popularity through the U.S. or Korea only, you miss the opportunity to recognize the whole world's development," he said, in an English-language interview.

"Boxing has started to change."

The president said the sport bounced back from its popularity setback at the 2012 London Olympics, where more than 99 percent of tickets were sold. However, Korea is still stuck behind the eight ball, he observed.

"AIBA has the responsibility to help the boxing federations make changes. But we have 196 members," Wu said. "(The future of Korean boxing) is in the hands of the Korean boxing federation. This is your territory."

The scandal-plagued Korea Boxing Association is still in a bind without leadership. Former World Boxing Association (WBA) bantamweight champion Hong Soo-hwan tried to take the wheel by literally sweeping out the old members in December, 2011. But his coup soon faced legal action from the conservatives, which is still far from over.

The Korean Amateur Boxing Federation had also run without sound leadership for years and was deprived of membership by the AIBA last year. With Saenuri Party lawmaker Jang Yoon-seok elected as the new president on April 8, the organization finally got back on track and regained its membership Monday. It remains to be seen whether the long-disoriented sport will be able to stand up.

"Boxing needs to be very clean, honest and transparent," Wu said. "You need a good leader to lead. If the leadership is bad, how can you develop? Now I'm happy that Korea got a new president."

MMA is proving a considerable threat to boxing. After Ji and former WBA super featherweight champion Choi Yong-soo moved to the MMA ring, the new combat sport proved a threat to the old one.

"I'm not trying to criticize them (MMA organizations). But they have different agendas," Wu said. "MMA is not in the Olympics. Do you think that is sports? It is entertainment."

AIBA has an extensive marketing plan in preparation but "it cannot be revealed before we finalize it," he added.

AIBA is also going to launch its own professional league at the end of this year. The plan came from Wu's idea to "open up new horizons for boxers seeking to pursue their dreams as professionals, within a transparent competition structure."

''We care about boxers' futures,'' Wu said. ''There are more than 20 to 30 boxing organizations in the U.S. They only sell titles and belts. Where is the boxers' future? Upon the change, you are going to see a new birth of boxing.''

The London Games last year witnessed a historic moment for boxing with women making their Olympic debut. A total of 36 boxers, including gold medalists Nicola Adams of Great Britain, Katie Taylor of Ireland and Claressa Shields of the United States, participated in three categories – fly, light and middle weights – and showed the sport still has a future.

"It was an incredible success," said Wu, noting the achievement will help boxing bring back the "golden age."

Korean boxing is trying to take advantage of actress Lee recently joining the national team, in order to hold the sport back from the grave.

The country's female boxers have proved their competitiveness despite a decline in male boxing. Including World International Boxing Council light flyweight champion Kim Ju-hee, Korea has 10 female world champions.

It bears further watching whether the actress' punch will open doors for others to showcase their abilities in front of cameras that boxing has missed for a long time. Even if it does, with a heady mix of challenges, Korea's boxing has a long journey ahead to reconstruct its past glories.

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