Contributed by Gabriel Rodriguez
On December 23, 2014 Kron Gracie will make his highly anticipated MMA debut against Kim Hyungsu at REAL 1 in Tokyo, Japan.
Kron’s reputation and accomplishments warrant the vast recognition he has earned around the world; his opponent however, is unknown outside of his home country of South Korea. While the majority of attention will be on the great Kron Gracie, people should know the amazing story behind his opponent Hyungsu.
At 13 years old, wrestling sensation Hyungsu had already impressed the top wrestling recruiters in the country. He was a national champion in both Greco-Roman and Freestyle wrestling. Scholarships from the best programs were dangled in front of him ripe for the picking.
Tragically, at a young age Hyungsu saw his ambitions as a wrestler fall apart. This was also the year he was diagnosed with Aplastic Anemia, a disease which required him to undergo a bone marrow transplant. The doctors told him having this procedure likely meant he’d never wrestle again, thus his life as a sportsman would come to a crashing halt. Upon hearing this, with his IV still attached,
“I got up and stood by the window, and I got into my wrestling stance. I thought ‘[forget] them’. I don’t know why I did that… It felt right.”
Recalling the days of the procedure stirred up a lot of emotions in Hyungsu as he explained his fears going into the operation,
“I’m not afraid of wrestling and MMA and Jiu Jitsu, but this, I hate. But I said, ‘just go’. [I hated the idea of a transplant] because [another person’s marrow was] not me.”
When asked if he still believed he could compete, Hyungsu answered,
“I wanted to, [even if it meant on one leg]… just go! I live, I don’t die. I felt: I don’t die.”
He chuckles as if to dismiss the gravity of his words. Most people aren’t strong enough to endure seeing a promising future being ripped down in front of them, and have to stare at a meek reality filled with treatment and medication. Hyungsu explained,
“I’m crazy. My mom, my father, they’re very careful. I’m so sorry to my mom and my father and my brother, but I’m crazy. My family thought, ‘No way, Hyungsu, no way. We [already have a] long and [hard road].”
Although he was conflicted, Hyungsu fought. He held on to his dream to continue competing despite the hardships before him. To his good fortune, the procedure went off without a hitch, and his body accepted the new bone marrow. Through rehab and regular check-ups he began to rebuild his health. But unfortunately, it was not over. The world around Hyungsu to crumble.
For almost 7 years, Hyungsu dealt with the weight of being afflicted with Aplastic Anemia. He was bedridden, tired, weak, and away from the wrestling mat. At times he felt alone and forgotten. Not only did he have to deal with the physical costs of this affliction, but also the emotional and even social costs that came with it.
Additionally, even the medication prescribed to aid his recovery was a barrier to his dreams. It was deemed as “performance enhancing” and the wrestling body barred him from the sport. To make matters worse, when Hungsu’s girlfriend’s parents found out he was kicked out of wrestling for using “steroids”, they decided it would bring shame to the family if their daughter continued seeing him, and they were forced to break up.
In a tragic turn of events, the world Hyungsu lived in was gone. In Korea, young kids choose a path early and stick to it. Hyungsu’s path was wrestling; it’s all he ever knew, and now it seemed forever beyond his reach.
But it was in this dark place where Hyungsu found a new passion: the sport of Mixed Martial Arts.
After reaching his nadir, Hyungsu still found the silver lining. He decided to become a physical therapist, it was something he picked up during his recovery. This led him to meet Kyler Daehwan Kim. Daehwan is the Korean commentator for the UFC and Road FC, and at the time he was opening his own gym. Daewhan remembers,
“I was suffering from neck [problems]… He started to visit me several times a week and I got so much better. At the same time he started to teach me wrestling… So I offered him [a job as] a coach at my gym and he accepted.”
And so Hyungsu found a way to enjoy wrestling outside the reach of the governing body.
When I first met Hyungsu, he was still very green in terms of fighting ability. His wrestling was on point, but he was still developing his jiu jitsu and striking. Unsurprisingly, this development didn’t take long. That same fire that brought him to the heights of wrestling as a youth, that pushed him through his disease as a teen, brought him quickly to understand MMA.
After only two years in MMA Hyungsu developed good enough skills to be invited on the inaugural season of XTM’s television MMA reality show “주먹이운다”, “Crying First”. On “Crying First”, fighters compete and train together much like the UFC’s “Ultimate Fighter.”
After sharing his life story, and being introduced to the nation, Hyungsu became a beloved member of the cast. He was so popular that the producers asked him to stay on the show as a wrestling coach. His career as a fighter had finally begun, as he was been offered fights in South Korea and Japan.
Despite his fame and his success, Hyungsu still stays loyal to his roots. He has the words “SAVED LIFE” tattooed across his chest, and “wrestling saved my life” written just underneath that. These words carry deep meaning to Hyungsu, a meaning most people will never truly understand.
But Hyungsu’s fighting spirit didn’t stop with his recovery. He continued to volunteer in the children’s Leukemia ward. He wanted to inside others to fight as well. Hyungsu explained,
“During my experience, many children were gone … in my bed, next to me on either side, I’d wake up and the kids weren’t there. ‘Where? What? Where?’ The nurse said, ‘he’s gone home.’ But always I knew, he’s gone to the sky. after I finished [my treatment] I had many sojus and many beers. I thought of the children in the hospital… fighting with the sickness.”
Hyungsu struggled as he got out the words. He continued, “I give them the power. I say, ‘You can do it! Look at me! Look at me! You can do it!’ I said you are the same as me. I fight. Look at me.”
One day a few years later, after finishing volunteering with the kids, he was on his way to his own birthday celebration and saw a man inappropriately rubbing himself against a young girl. So he yelled at the man and held him in place while the police came. It made the news headlines and Hyungsu became even more of a sensation in Korea. But it was just who he is; he didn’t do it for the fame, he only did what he knew was right.
Whether in athletics or social responsibility, Hyungsu strives to reach the highest level. The guy is a fighter; long before he ever laced up 4oz gloves, he was fighting. No fight in a cage will ever compare to the battles he’s already waged; no punch or kick will ever compare to the pains he’s already withstood. If Aplastic Anemia couldn’t do it, then no man will ever break his spirit. Hyungsu’s simple, humble words describe his drive,
“After I started wrestling, jiu jitsu, and striking, I don’t die. I live.”
Gabriel Rodriguez writes about his martial arts training and experiences across Asia at Language Fight.