Korean boxers were must-see TV during the 70s, 80s and early 90s.
Here are the best K-pugilists you haven’t heard of!
But in the 1980s, Mexican and Korean boxers were synonymous with all-action fights.
Korea did produce technical boxers; they were just overshadowed by the ultra-aggressive sluggers who left it all in the ring.
From light flyweight to super middleweight, these legends put on some wars in their heyday.
11. Yul-woo Lee (이열우)
Deliciously nicknamed the “hot pepper”, Yul-woo Lee was prone to violence like most on this list, while being versatile.
He could fight well enough on the outside but excelled at putting his head in his opponent’s chest and throwing hooks to the body.
Even though Lee didn’t have one-hitter-quitter power, he went on to stop half his opponents with volume.
He held titles in two weight classes at light flyweight and flyweight.
Lee retired early at 23 after his heroic defeat to Leopard Tamakuma that saw him leave it all in the ring.
He started a boxing gym in Daejeon to help keep the sport alive.
Sadly, he died young at 42 after a five-year battle with cancer.
10. Young-kyun Park (박영균)
Awkward but effective, Young Kyun Park was the lineal Featherweight champion from 1991–1993.
He would use unorthodox defensive moves like dipping at the waist to where he was looking at the canvas, then follow up with an impressive barrage of punches.
Even though he was a lanky fighter at 1.70 m (5 ft 7 in), he preferred to get in close and throw a variety of punches.
9. Chang-Soo Hong or Masamori Tokuyama (홍창수)
The last of the great Korean fighters who was ethnically North Korean but born in Japan. He repped North Korea for most of his career, while living in Japan, and eventually settled for citizenship in South Korea.
A controversial figure who went by both his Japanese and Korean name (Zainichi or Korean Japanese either hid their Korean ethnicity by adopting a Japanese name or stuck with the Korean one).
People basically wanted you to pick a lane as either Japanese or Korean, while he embraced being both.
He won the super flyweight title in 2000 and held it for six years. Probably the most talented of the Korean flyweights, he had laser fast punches.
Hong was a bit predictable and didn’t really set up shots, but made up for it by having lightning-fast hands and cat-like reflexes.
8. In-Chul Baek (백인철)
Baek had a great career even with glaring flaws like holding his chin in the air and hands at his waist.
He could box pretty well from the outside when he was so inclined. But his biggest strength was the hammers he hid in his gloves (metaphorically of course).
He won the linear Super Middleweight title against Fulgencio Obelmejias and defended it twice at the tail end of his career.
I did rank Baek behind Chong-pal Park, even though he beat him by knockout in a changing of the guard of Korean middleweights. This is because he fought Park at the twilight of his career and Park had a better record in his prime.
7. Yong-kang Kim (김용강)
A good technical fighter who worked behind a nice jab, Kim Yong-kang preferred to fight at a distance.
He held the flyweight title twice, including the Ring Championship belt, which made him the linear champion.
Not as durable as other fighters on this list, he employed feints and good distance control to avoid punches and outpoint opponents.
Kim moved up in weight after losing his light flyweight title to Sot Chitalada, one of the best flyweights of all time. Things didn’t get easier as he challenged Khaosai Galaxy, arguably the greatest Thai boxer of all time.
Striving for greatness and falling short is better than ducking the best.
6. Chong-pal Park (박종팔)
A fearsome fighter who won titles in the newly minted super middleweight division.
He had a tremendous run from 1983 to 1988 that saw him defend his linear title 11 times (he vacated the IBF title to successfully challenge for the WBA title).
Park was the epitome of the blood-and guts-Korean fighter in his day.
He was limited by poor defense (he seemingly blocked punches with his face), but made up for it by having cinder blocks for hands and a granite chin.
5. Ki-soo Kim (김기수)
Kim Ki-soo is known as a pioneer in Korean boxing.
He’s the first Korean to win a world boxing title in a match that saw him gain revenge against Nino Benvenuti for a loss in the amateurs.
He was also undefeated from 1961 – 1968 and the undisputed junior middleweight champion for two years.
Kim Ki-soo fought in a southpaw stance utilizing a good clinch game in close to avoid damage and frustrate opponents.
I totally understand.
Going 15 rounds in gloves with detached thumbs when rules were more suggestions would make me hold on for dear life too.
His major upset over international star and legendary Italian fighter Nino Benvenuti to win the unified junior middleweight title inspired a generation of Korean fighters.
His style wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing, which might be why you haven’t heard of him, but it was effective.
4. Soo-Hwan Hong (홍수환)
A tough as nails boxer with heavy hands who won titles in two weight classes.
He held the Ring Magazine title which made him the best Bantamweight in the world from 1974 to 1975.
A traveling man, he took fights overseas and fought to two losses against Alfonso Zamora, one of the hardest hitters in the division.
He was a fun watch because he’d often pick himself up off the canvas and go on to stop opponents.
3. Sung Kil Moon (문성길)
The “Beast of Yeongam” with a right hand from hell.
He held world titles twice in two divisions with a total of 11 defenses.
Do yourself a favor and check out his highlights. He fought guys like they stole something from him.
Fun fact, Kim Ki-soo’s historic title win inspired him to go all in with boxing in order to escape poverty.
2. Jung-Koo Chang (장정구)
The first Korean to be ranked in the top 10 by Ring Magazine and inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, Jung-koo Chang was the WBC light flyweight champion from 1983 to 1989.
He also fought like he was double parked later in his career.
Chang set the record for title defenses at light flyweight with 15, which was broken by Yuh Myung-woo. Chang faced better competition in the way of Sot Chitalada and won, so I can understand the argument that he was the better fighter.
Even with technical flaws like carrying his hands low and falling in at times when attacking, he dominated with flurries of punches that would overwhelm and break most of his opponents.
One of the secrets to his success was him being very relaxed in the ring. You can see him early in fights, bouncing around a bit and sizing his opponent up. Then, he’d unleash hell.
He also had a nice counter overhand right against the jab and some underrated defense.
Chang came back from retirement for a few fights due to his then wife taking his money and running.
Now he coaches and advises the next generation of Korean boxers.
1. Myung-woo Yuh (유명우)
While most boxing fans in the US had their eyes fixed on Mike Tyson, Yuh Myung-woo was amassing an undefeated record.
Overshadowed by Jung-koo Chang for most of his career, I have Yuh ranked higher because he was the most complete boxer Korea has ever produced.
As a lifelong fan of the sweet science of hitting and not getting hit, Yuh is a joy to watch.
Aptly nicknamed the “downpour” (소나기 Sonagi or squall), he would fight calm and unleash a torrent of punches when he had his opponent hurt.
Yuh was a consummate boxer puncher who seamlessly blended offense and defense, leaving his foes bewildered.
He stayed at light flyweight (108 lb. division) for his career and made an impressive 17 title defenses. There’s something to be said about consistency.
It may seem easy to compare Jung-koo Chang with Yuh Myung-woo because they’re the same size and fought in the same era. However, they had different styles, opponents, strengths, and weaknesses that would have made for an intriguing fight.
They could have had a rivalry the likes of Carbajal-Gonzalez (Yuh in the role of Carbajal and Jung as Gonzalez stylistically), so it’s still a coin flip as to who’s the best.
I went back and forth between Jung-koo Chang and Yuh in the top spot for a while. After watching more fight footage, I’d favor Yuh who had better technique and versatility.
There’s still the possibility that Chang could have gutted out a fight between them and win by volume and toughness, but we’ll never know.
Mixed Korean champions you have heard of
Countries in the Soviet sphere have a lot of half and mixed Koreans.
This is because Stalin was suspicious of those in disputed territories and relocated them to “stan” countries like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. As a result, some top-level boxers have Korean heritage.
Here are the most famous ones.
While only quarter-Korean and born in Kazakhstan, Gennady Golovkin is such a dominant force that he deserves to make this list.
I actually didn’t know this one until I started researching this article.
Tszyu held junior welterweight titles from 1998 to 2005. He was the undisputed champ for 3 years after knocking out Zab Judah. His father is a quarter Korean.
He’s been in the zone for a decade, holding light heavyweight titles for 8 years. His biggest win to date is over Canelo Alvarez. His mother is Korean.
Why has Korean boxing declined?
The Golden Age of boxing in Korea was from 1970 to 1995.
During that time, the economy was rough and there were limited opportunities. Many Koreans used to go to Germany to work in factories and mines.
It was said by Koreans that they had a “hungry spirit” then with many literally starving.
Thankfully, most Koreans now attend university and get jobs where they don’t have to get punched in the face for a living.
MMA is the popular combat sport now, which attracts many young, athletic people.
Most of the Korean MMA fighters are taught the same hard-nosed, old school way of coming forward, throwing power shots.
Great for the fans, but not their careers.
The rise of woman’s boxing in Korea
Boxing isn’t completely dead in Korea.
From 2000 to now, many women have gotten into the sport which has seen a slight uptick in popularity.
As men were joining the workplace and didn’t want to fight for money in a ring, promoters saw the opportunity to foster female boxers.
So, women started taking up the mantle.
Hyun Mi Choi, the “Defector Girl Boxer”, has been a two-weight world champion.
Bo Mi Re Shin is an up-and-coming female boxer from Korea.