Traditional Korean wrestling faces its toughest bout yet

Traditional Korean wrestling faces its toughest bout yet

Will fans and fighters be able to save ssireum from oblivion after decades of decline?
A ssireum match between two former champions on the hit variety show "One Night Two Days" spurred renewed public interest in the ancient sport.

Given the manic following of baseball and soccer in Korea these days, it is difficult to believe that ssireum used to be the most popular sport in Korea as recently as the 1990s.

Ssireum is a sport quite similar to Japanese sumo. While the two athletes try to push the other out of the ring in sumo, ssireum athletes use various techniques with their legs, arms and torso to bring the other down on the sand. 

Usually commanding great honor and wealth, ssireum champions used to be the nation's greatest sports heroes in the vein of today's Kim Yuna or Park Tae-hwan. The champion of the first Ssireum Champion Competition in 1983 took home a hefty ₩15 million (approximately US$14,265) prize, which was equivalent to the cost of a mid-sized apartment in Seoul at the time. The prize now is ₩10 million. 

As they were considered the height of masculinity, even the "satba"  -- the belt and thigh band worn in ssireum matches -- was believed to be imbued with certain powers. Wearing underwear made out of satba was believed to help Korean women bear sons, which often led to great competition for the "holy material." 

Choi Hong-man became a K-1 fighter after his ssireum team was disbanded.

Career changes 

In the 2000s, following the financial crisis, ssireum fell into decline as corporate sponsors began pulling funding and disbanding their namesake teams. Currently there are only 18 teams around the country. 

When LG Investment & Securities folded its ssireum club in December 2004, Choi Hong-man, the leading wrestler on the team, announced that he was changing his career to martial arts in Japan. He raged at how ssireum teams were treated compared to other sportsmen such as baseball players, who were still receiving funding. Other ssireum champions also had no choice but to turn to other professions such as mixed martial arts and entertainment.

Although Choi himself went on to a career in mixed martial arts (also known as K-1) and fellow ssireum wrestlers soon followed suit, it soon became clear that they were not accustomed to hitting their opponents as ssireum entails pulling, pushing and using various foot and leg techniques instead of the kicking, hitting and pounding that characterize martial arts.

“Whenever I go to sleep, I have a terrible dream of getting beaten up by people,” Choi said at the time.

After an initial successful streak, Choi's career started to slide when he was defeated by Mighty Mo in the K-1 Yokohama match in March 2007.

Other former ssireum wrestlers experienced similar disappointments as they found it difficult to learn the new techniques.

Ssireum used to be the most popular sport in Korea only a few decades ago. Is there any hope for a resurgence in popularity?

A ray of hope?

Last November, popular comedian and former ssireum champion Kang Ho-dong invited another ssireum champion, Lee Man-ki, onto his popular variety show “One Night Two Days” for a wrestling face-off onscreen.

The match between the two champions swiftly drew national interest, as it rekindled fond memories of the sport among the older generation and stirred curiosity among the younger audience.

Currently the ssireum industry is making a concerted effort to rebuild its reputation. The first step? A weight loss plan.

In an effort to promote ssireum as a sport of technique rather than one of sheer weight, The Korea Ssireum Association introduced a weight cap of 160 kilos in March this year. During the sport’s years in the doldrums, the public impression of ssireum wrestlers changed from speedy and skilled to huge, slow and just plain fat. 

The Association ultimately plans to set the weight cap at 140 kilograms. 

Need for official support 

While Japanese sumo was cultivated by aristocratic support with the protection of the royal family, Korean ssireum has always been entertainment for the masses.

As the industry has been struggling for quite some time, it is clear that official support and marketing on a national scale will be needed to promote ssireum in the national consciousness. Ssireum former champions are eager to kickstart the campaign, which was why Lee Man-ki -- who is now a physical education professor at Inje University -- so eagerly agreed to appear on "One Night Two Days," which has single-handedly brought a great deal of positive attention back to the sport. 

"Watching the match between Lee Man-ki and Kang Ho-dong brought tears to my eyes," said one older audience member.

Ssireum champions, meanwhile, wax nostalgic about the days when they were revered and worshipped for their mastery of the sport. "The stadium used to be full of people right up to the entrance -- middle-aged men and women would try to touch my arms and legs," said former champion Hwang Kyu-yeon. 

Koreans are intensely patriotic, so the appeal of a traditional sport should be strong. Whether ssireum regains its popularity remains to be seen. Perhaps it's a case of the flesh being willing, but the spirit being weak.