The photo shows the boxer's hand. It is wrapped with hand wrap and there are gloves on the floor.

Photo courtesy of David Mun.


The decline of Korean boxing

In Korea, boxing is no longer a widely-practiced sport. In this article, I describe the reason for its decline in popularity as well as some measures we can take in order to revive the sport. This is achieved by synthesizing an interview I conducted with Jae Sung Lee, former IBF Bantamweight Champion.
<a href="" target="_self">David Mun</a>

David Mun

March 25, 2022
During the 1970s to the 1980s, boxing was dominated by Korean fighters. The likes of Shin Joon Sup, An Young Su, Jung Koo Chang and Sung Kil Moon prevailed in the international boxing scenes. With Jung Koo Chang making his impressive 16th defense on his WBA light flyweight title, and Shin Joon Sup earning gold at the 1984 Summer Olympics, Korea became known as one of the major names for boxing.

In recent years, however, we no longer see Korean Boxers under the spotlight, which begs the question: what changed?

“The Korean Boxing scene is rapidly declining because making a living through boxing is not an option for most Koreans,” Lee Jae Sung, former IBF Bantamweight Champion and current boxing coach, said. “Back in the 1970s and the 80s, boxing kept people alive but now, there are other ways to make an income. More safe and stable ways.”

During the 70s and the 80s, Korea underwent an economic recession, and as boxing presented itself as a way for poor Koreans to drag themselves out of poverty and make a living, there was more fierce and apt competition. But Korea is no longer the poor country it was back then.

According to the data provided by World Bank, the difference between GDP per capita from 1970 to 2020 is close to $30,000. With this dramatic change, they no longer feel the need to risk their health to make a living through a “poor man’s sport” like boxing. Although this change may have positively impacted Korea overall, it ensued the opposite effect on the Korean boxing scene.

But America is much like Korea yet boxing is still a well-practiced sport there. A palpable response to this question is the popularity of Taekwondo in Korea. Taekwondo, a Korean martial art, is the most practiced form of martial art in Korea. This is because Koreans place great value in indigeneity, and because it is a Korean martial art, Koreans are more open to learning it.

Boxing, on the other hand, is not welcomed. 

“Taekwondo is harming our business, it’s a well-accepted form of martial art in Korea, and almost every kid in Korea practices it. And when kids take Taekwondo, parents don’t see any reason why they should practice boxing.” Lee Jae Sung said.

Another reason for Korean boxing’s decline is also closely linked to Korea’s economic transformation. Simply, boxing is regarded as a barbaric sport enjoyed by the poor. Because boxing is a combat sport, and violent, there is a stigma surrounding it. As Korea is now a country that greatly values academics and frowns upon students who practice sport, this stigma is amplified which drives Koreans away from learning the sport as they may be subject to judgment. 

“There is a misconception about boxers. Yes, boxing is violent but boxers are not. Boxers are taught to be humble and restrain themselves in the heat of the moment. In my experience, people who practice boxing are far less likely to get into a fight or start it.” Lee Jae Sung said.

In many ways, Korean boxing is dying. But Lee Jae Sung still keeps an optimistic view about the situation.

“Korean boxing is indeed dying but coming together and paying more attention to Korean boxing matches can revive the sport,” he said. “But as boxing practitioners, we must also set a good example to those around us, to break the stigma that we are violent people so that more people are inspired to join.”

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