The fans at Olympic Park Gymnastics Arena were on their feet as I rushed into the arena to take my seat. Korea’s inaugural UFC event was just seconds old but had already ignited the excitment of the 12,000+ fans in attendance.
Local fighter Dong Hyun Kim, one of two with that name fighting on the card, was getting pummelled by American Dominique Steele. The crowd egged on the Busan native with baseball-style fight songs hoping to inspire a comeback. The battered Kim managed to survive with tremendous guts and heart to make it to the third and final round. The audience heartily acknowledged his courage. But in the final round Steele grabbed ahold of Kim, lifted him high into the air, and slammed him into the mat: knocking him out in spectacular fashion.
In a show of class, the crowd warmly applauded the American. Steele returned the favour by mugging for some goofy-faced selfies with Korean fans on his way back to the locker rooms. Fans laughed and roared their approval when it was caught on the big screens. UFC Fight Night Seoul was one fight in but it was already a success.
There were twelve fights that night, most of them spectacular. The event lasted over five hours with very few lulls between match-ups. The greater UFC spectacle lasted for four days. On Wednesday there were open workouts with the headliners and local fighters at Times Square Mall, Thursday was Ultimate Media Day at COEX mall, and Friday was weigh-in day at the Olympic Park Gymnastics Arena–the venue for Saturday’s action. Benson Henderson also worked out at “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung’s gym, which can be seen on YouTube. For UFC fans who couldn’t make the event, there were plenty of oppertunities to meet the fighters.
The Fight of the Night went to the only women’s MMA contest between American Cortney Casey and Korean Ham Seohee. The crowd clearly had no bias towards women competing, as Ham came out to one of the biggest pops of the night: dancing and grooving to the ear-splitting bass of her entrance music. Sporting a funky hairdo with shaved sides and a braided top, Ham exuded confidence
The two women went to war, trading lead straights and powerful leg kicks. Casey’s length and athleticism earned her the first round but Ham showed toughness and aggression. With the crowd behind her, she weathered the storm and mounted a great comeback. Ham finally started to time and slip Casey’s straight right, hitting her on the counter. Late in the third, Ham had Casey in big trouble when referee Herb Dean separated the ladies. The crowd and fighters were confused until they realized that the horn had sounded to end the round. The noise from the crowd was so deafening that no had heard it! The crowd popped even more when the split decision victory was awarded to Ham.
If this fight was a war, I’m not sure what to call the contest between Alberto “Soldier of God” Mina and local celebrity and PRIDE fighting veteran Choo Sung Hoon. Better known as Yoshihiro Akiwama or “Sexyama”, Choo is perhaps the most famous South Korean to participate in Fight Night Seoul as the star of the KBS2 reality TV show The Return of Superman.
Choo, or Sexyama, got rocked out of nowhere midway through the second round. With Choo on wobbly legs, Mina closed in for the finish. Sexyama fell but, amazingly, was inspired to regain his feet by a raucous crowd. I thought the fight was over but Sexyama gutted it out until the horn sounded. Legs still rubber to begin the third, Choo managed to survive and then rock Mina. Exhausted and stunned, Mina wanted nothing to do with the rest of this fight. Five times Mina hit the mat, sprawlling on his back, inviting Sexyama to grapple with him there–much to the audible displeasure of the crowd. The Korean vetern let Mina get up four times, but pounced on him with punches the fifth time. Sexyama was close to finishing the fight when the horn sounded. The only real hissing and booing from the crowd came when Mina was awarded the split decision victory.
In the co-main event, the greatest current Korean martial artist, and second Dong Hyun Kim on the fight card, easily schooled his opponent Dominic Waters. The ref called the match in the first round after Kim had pinned Waters’ arm in a mounted crucifix and spent about three minutes hitting him in the face. The descrepancy in skill level was obvious as Waters flopped around, trying to shake Kim off, but couldn’t do anything to regain his arm and protect his face. Kim has serious talent and might earn himself a title shot in the near future.
The main event saw Korean American Benson “Smooth” Henderson take on Jorge “Gamebred” Masvidal on short notice. Masvidal is not well known to casual UFC fans and most thought he was going to get schooled by the former champion. However, this main event was a technical striking and grappling clinic. Not as exciting as the slugfests before it, hardcore fans were still treated to a very close, high-level MMA bout. Masvidal was aggressive with his kicks, Henderson strugged with his grappling, and there were times in the the fight that the former champion looked in danger of being bested. However, Henderson is a very intelligent vetern and managed to do enough in the rounds to earn the split-decision victory. The crowd cheered graciously as “Smooth” addressed them in Korean and then asked them if they were impressed and if he could get an “Amen.” Henderson was indeed impressive, but it was perhaps Masvidal that impressed the most by giving such an accomplished fighter like Henderson a very tough contest. Now winning two straight fights at a higher weight-class, Smooth has a bit more negotiating power with his current UFC contract finished.
Although UFC Fight Night Seoul didn’t sell out, falling about 3,000 tickets short of that, it did entertain the fans. The card was full of exciting bouts and the crowd was rarely restless. Rumors suggest that the UFC is looking to come back to Seoul next year, but no decision will be made for a while. If it does return, hopefully word-of-mouth from the fans in attandance this time will help make the next event an even bigger success. And perhaps if the UFC does return to the ROK, Henderson or Dong Hyun Kim will be fighting for a title.
Rob Shelley also writes about craft beer for www.CraftBeerAsia.com/Korea.