Relations between South Korea and Japan have been strained ever since the Second World War and in MMA the patriotic rivalry between these two nations has played itself out in rings or cages across Asia for almost two decades. Fighters from the two countries have not always met on an even playing field, in that Japan had at least a decade’s head start in terms of its MMA infrastructure and events were taking place in Tokyo before the concept of the sport had really arrived in South Korea.
One of the first Koreans to travel to Japan to test himself in MMA was Jong Wang Kim. With black belts in Judo and Taekwondo his background was typical of fighters from his homeland but the heavyweight soon discovered that these skills didn’t translate automatically to the Pancrase ring. Between 1996 and 2006 Kim fought 23 times in Japan, losing on 18 of those occasions. He didn’t get to fight in South Korea for the first time until Spirit MC was formed in 2003 by which time he was firmly established as the favorite whipping boy for the top Japanese heavyweights.
Predictably Kim would also become the first Korean fighter to compete for Pride, continuing his dreadful run of results with a quick-fire loss to Takayuki Okada in 2002, but by this stage the sport was starting to gain traction among the television audience in his homeland. Eun Soo Lee, who beat Kim by DQ en route to winning the first ever Spirit MC tournament, was able to follow a very different career trajectory because by the time he was ready to pursue his professional career Korean fighters had the opportunity to compete on home turf.
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