UFC’s Kim Dong-hyun ready for dream come true

October 15, 2015
UFC fighter Kim Dong-hyun poses after an interview session with The Korea Times at Reebok Crossfit Sentinel Uptwon gym in Gangnam-gu, southern Seoul, Sunday. (Korea Times/Choi Won-suk)

UFC fighter Kim Dong-hyun poses after an interview session with The Korea Times at Reebok Crossfit Sentinel Uptwon gym in Gangnam-gu, southern Seoul, Sunday. (Korea Times/Choi Won-suk)

By Nam Hyun-woo

Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) fighter Kim Dong-hyun’s career has run parallel to the growth of mixed martial arts (MMA) in Korea.

As Koreans have become huge English Premier League (EPL) fans, after former Manchester United midfielder Park Ji-sung landed in the league, the same thing has happened with UFC and Kim, except for a small difference. Kim is still fighting and wants to fight more.

Seven years after he became the first Korean to fight in the Octagon, he has compiled a MMA career of 20-3-1 and will finally fight before his home crowd as a main-card fighter at the first UFC live event in Korea, UFC Fight Night Seoul, in November, which he said “had been a distant dream.”

“I used to make jokes about the UFC coming to Korea,” Kim said during an interview with The Korea Times at Reebook Crossfit Sentinel Uptown, a gym in Gangnam-gu, southern Seoul. “Back then it was a silly joke. But that will come true in November.

“The Seoul event is important because it shows that the UFC is gaining interest in Korea. Though the country’s fighters are good, the UFC has not considered Korea to host a card until now. As Seoul will host the event, I think Korean fighters have proved the country is a MMA powerhouse with their performances.”

Kim’s career bears a huge significance in Korea’s MMA history, because his road to the UFC is said to have resuscitated the sport’s popularity here.

About a decade ago, MMA started to become popular with Koreans, boosted by so-called “first-generation” fighters Mirko Filipovic, better known as “Cro Cop,” Fedor Emelianenko and other fighters’ successes with promoters such as Pride FC and K-1.

But the popularity soon faded as Pride FC, which once was popular enough to have an audience of 90,000 attend an MMA card in Korea, was merged by the UFC after struggling with management and shuttered in 2007.

“These are good times,” said Kim. “When Pride FC went out of business, the atmosphere here was devastating. It seemed that the sport was dying out and athletes were quitting because they couldn’t see a future in the sport.

“However, the future is brighter these days and other elite athletes (Olympic athletes) want to fight in MMA because, if you are good enough, this sport guarantees you will be a star and attract roaring crowds. Elite athletes have a hunger for cheering crowds. And this is a good momentum.”

The rebound came with Kim’s move to the UFC. After Kim’s UFC debut against Jason Tan in UFC 84 on May 24, 2008, the country’s MMA prism started to be tinted with the UFC ― though the rest of the world was also turning their eyes to the UFC at the same time ― and watching UFC events became a favorite weekend pastime with Korean men.

“To be honest, MMA’s growth in Korea didn’t come with my success alone,” Kim said. “Other Korean fighters made it into the UFC and put on thrilling performances, inspiring Koreans to pay more attention to the UFC. I really want to thank those fighters.”


Kim Dong-hyun battles T.J. Grant during their welterweight bout during UFC 100 in Las Vegas, Nevada, on July 11, 2009. Kim defeated Grant by unanimous decision. (Yonhap)

Kim Dong-hyun battles T.J. Grant during their welterweight bout during UFC 100 in Las Vegas, Nevada,
on July 11, 2009. Kim defeated Grant by unanimous decision. (Yonhap)

Kim still wants more

After piling up an 11-3-0 record with one no contest in the UFC, Kim is now No. 7 in the welterweight class, etching his nickname, “Stun Gun,” into the memories of UFC fans worldwide. Still, he says he wants more.

“I initially thought I would be the main eventer because there have been rumors about me facing Matt Brown in Seoul,” Kim said. Ben Henderson and Thiago Alves will headline the Seoul event on Nov. 28. Instead, Kim will face Jeorge Masvidal (29-9-0) in a main-card match.

Kim said he has been preparing for the bout against the American veteran for “eight years,” meaning he has been training with the same mindset for every combat since he first stepped into the Octagon.

“I’m not saying I literally prepared for this match for eight years, but preparing for a match has become part of my life as a UFC fighter to survive in the circuit,” he said.

“This will be my 16th UFC match. So there is nothing special in terms of preparing for a certain match. I don’t skip training after a match or do extra workouts before a match. And there would not be much difference in the fight with Masvidal. I can use the same tactics I used during the previous match against Josh Burkman in May.

“I cannot tell you more details about what is going to happen in the Octagon, but I can tell you that I want to make Masvidal feel I am a really tough opponent.”

He vowed that his fight may not be as dynamic as viewers want but says he will clinch a win before his home crowd, which will be crucial in accomplishing his hope of having a title match in Seoul next year.

“I’ll leave my main event match to next year,” he said. “Next year, I want to fight Jason Tan, Nate Diaz or Damien Maia in a title match. I think Tan and Diaz refuse to accept the result, so maybe I can have a rematch with them.” Kim clinched a TKO victory over Tan in his UFC debut and bagged a unanimous decision over Diaz in the UFC 125 in 2011.

“For Maia, I want to fight him again,” Kim said. “I can accept the other losses (against Carlos Condit in 2011 and Tyron Woodley last year) because they outperformed me, but during the Maia match, I think I hurt myself and had a rib injury resulting in a TKO loss. I really want to have another chance to prove myself against him.”


Life after retirement

Kim, who turns 34 at the November event, has said in previous interviews he will perform in mixed martial arts as long as he can. Nonetheless, he said he is nearing retirement age and has been considering life after retirement

“The UFC is a harsh place where one doesn’t know when he’s going to be kicked out of the circuit,” Kim said. “I have often heard talk of dismissal after someone had two consecutive losses. That means when you lose your competitive edge, you get kicked out immediately and have to look for a different job.”

Kim, who described himself as a “thorough planner,” said he has been preparing for his retirement since he arrived at the UFC. In part of the plan, he now trains young fighters at a local university, runs his own gym and appears on TV shows.

“I think I’m more serious than others when it comes to the future,” he said. “I can say I want to be in the UFC for five more years, but there is no guarantee that that’s going to happen.

“The necessary condition so that I can maintain those jobs and be remembered among people is MMA’s growth in Korea. So that means more talented athletes should appear from Korea. As Kim Yu-na created the figure skating boom in the country, a star’s appearance is critical for a sport to grow in a country.

“And, thankfully, many young fighters are doing great these days and maybe I can keep my job for a while.”