‘Five Titles’… The Wrestling Life of Crown Prince Lee Tae-hyun, 2nd Edition
Lee Tae-hyun, 47, a professor of martial arts and sports at Yongin University, who ruled the Korean wrestling scene until the early 2000s as the “Prince of the Sandboard,” enjoys looking at the sandboard these days. Wrestling, which once enjoyed great popularity as a national sport, has recently seen a resurgence of fans after a long period of stagnation. Most notably, the number of younger fans, especially women, has increased. “Not long ago, people would say, ‘Isn’t it hard to wrestle?’ Nowadays, they say, ‘I enjoyed watching you wrestle,'” says Lee Tae-hyun, unable to wipe the smile from his face.
Until the day wrestling takes over the world
Since stepping off the mat in 2011, Lee has been busy. His main job is to train younger wrestlers at his alma mater, Yongin University, but his business card also lists the following titles: Director of the Korea Wrestling Association, head coach of Yongin University’s wrestling team, TV commentator, and chairman of the Korea Wrestling Foundation for the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. “I’m so busy that I don’t have enough time for even ten,” he said, but he was excited to say, “It means that there are more things to do in wrestling.”
The Wrestling Promotion Institute, chaired by Lee Tae-hyun, promotes the preservation, transmission, and globalization of the sport of wrestling. Wrestling was inscribed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in November 2018 in Mauritius, Africa. Lee Tae-hyun, who served as an ambassador at the time, said, “The moment it was determined to be an intangible cultural heritage of humanity, I felt chicken pox on my body and tears welled up in my eyes. “For wrestling to become a globally recognized sport, it first needs to become more popular domestically,” he said.
“There have been a lot of changes inside and outside the sport, such as the development of the internet and the rise in popularity of extreme sports, but wrestling is still saying, ‘Come see our folk wrestling,’ and people are saying, ‘So what?’ You have to constantly change to appeal to young people who will be adults in five to 10 years. If you don’t change, you’ll never survive.”
Wrestling, which was once on the fringes, is starting to gain traction again after a cable channel program featuring male athletes went viral on social media.
“At the 100th National Championships in 2019, young women came to the sandlot to take pictures, and I thought they were the girlfriends of the athletes, but I was surprised to find out they were fans. I didn’t realize the program would resonate so much, even with wrestlers. That’s when I realized that it’s not just about the sport, it’s about creating a story that people can relate to.”
Together with other seniors and juniors, Lee is focusing on developing “new wrestling products. They are discussing ways to make wrestling easier to understand by developing a program that incorporates each of the technical movements of wrestling, such as taekwondo, and how to improve the way the game is played to make it more interesting for fans. A wrestling broadcast program involving foreigners living in Korea is also in the works.
“We’re also looking into what wrestling was like for our ancestors in the past, and we’ll do everything we can until we have an answer. I think wrestling deserves to become a ‘Hallyu’ because interest in Korean culture has grown globally. Wouldn’t it be more synergistic to have joint marketing with taekwondo, which succeeded in globalizing first?”
◇”Wrestling is the highs and lows of my life”
Lee Tae-hyun said, “I’ve enjoyed the glory of wrestling, but I’ve also seen the decline and the real breakdown. I’ve seen and felt things, so I have a lot to say.” In the early 1980s, when clouds of spectators flocked to the sandpit, Lee was fascinated by the performances of Lee Man-ki, Lee Bong-gul, Lee Jun-hee, and others who shaped the era. He won seven titles in the third grade at Uisung High School in Gyeongsangbuk-do, and after graduating from high school, he joined the Chung Hae Construction team in 1994 and became a cheonha-jangsa shortly thereafter. After an hour-and-a-half battle with the then-strongest player, Baek Seung-il, he won by weigh-in. “My other matches have faded away, but I think the pain I experienced in that match is still in my body,” he said, “I felt like I was floating on clouds when I won.”
Lee has 497 career wins. He has been named to the list of the World’s Greatest Fighters three times and to the list of the Greatest Fighters 20 times. His record of 20 wins remains unbroken to this day. However, in the late 1990s, when he was at the peak of his popularity alongside Lee Man-gi and Kang Ho-dong, the wrestling world collapsed with the IMF crisis. Unemployed teams were disbanded one after another, and internal factionalism was intense. In 2006, Lee stepped off the gridiron and into mixed martial arts.
“I quit wrestling and was invited to Japan to watch Pride, and when I saw the huge crowds, the flashy lights, and the media attention that had disappeared from the Korean scene, I realized that’s where I belonged.”
The challenge ended with a dismal record of one win and two losses. While he had the power, he lacked the experience and fighting skills. He lost his debut in 2006 by TKO and his third and final fight in 2008 by TKO 36 seconds into the first round. His only win was a TKO over a Japanese fighter in a 2007 K-1 Heroes tournament.
“Those three years in mixed martial arts were the hardest of my life. When I lost my first fight, I suffered from agoraphobia for a month and didn’t dare leave the house. That’s when I learned to ride a motorcycle because no one recognized me when I ran with a helmet on. In Russia, where I was trained by Fyodor, I was living alone and it was very lonely and difficult. To be honest, I had suicidal thoughts a few times and climbed up to the roof of a high-rise apartment building. I watched a hundred downloaded Korean dramas to calm myself down.”
Lee’s pride kept him from trying again, but at the urging of his wife, Lee Yoon-jung, he finally gave up his dream and returned to the sandpan in January 2009. After winning the 2010 Lunar New Year’s Day Jangsa and two more Baekdu Jangsa titles, he officially retired in 2011 in his hometown of Gimcheon, North Gyeongsang Province, and has been teaching at the school ever since. After graduating from Yongin University in 1999, Lee continued his studies, earning a master’s degree in 2001 and a doctorate in 2006.
토토사이트 “My goal is to lay the foundation for the sport to be included in the Asian Games or the Olympics by the time I retire,” he said, “and it’s also part of my role to train the next generation to carry on the path after I step down. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the many seniors, and I believe that if we do well, we will have outstanding juniors.”
“A few years ago, wrestling couldn’t even put out a business card in the competition to recruit physically fit elementary school students, but nowadays, I feel that the awareness and interest among elementary school students has increased,” he said with excitement at the end of the interview.
1. How did Lee Tae-hyun, who dominated the wrestling ring, come to stand in a university lecture hall unexpectedly (?)?
He said, “One day, I was sitting in a lecture without a care in the world, and suddenly, behind the professor who was doing judo, I couldn’t hear anything and I saw a light shining. I was wondering what my future would be after I finished my athletic career, and I realized that that lectern was my path.” From then on, no matter how tired he was, he would go to school and take classes.
He attributes his ability to stay on track with his studies to the habit of studying from a young age. He didn’t neglect his studies while wrestling, and he tutored Kukkiwon every weekend. He says that his parents, who were disappointed in his lack of learning, emphasized academics, saying, “You can’t be called ignorant because you’re an athlete.
“In middle school, I asked my mother about a problem and she said she didn’t know, so I asked her why she was trying to teach me when she didn’t know these things,” Lee said. “From then on, my mother was shocked, so I graduated from the GED, broadcasting and communication college, and now I have more than 40 certificates.” Even when he was studying for college and graduate school, his mother waited at school until after class every night to drive him home.
Another person who helped him with his studies was his “best friend” Dr. Taehan Kim. Dr. Kim, who used to wrestle as a child and then quit, helped keep him going when he felt like dropping out. “I was going to quit after my bachelor’s degree, but Dr. Kim asked me to go to graduate school with him. For three years during my master’s, he lived in the lab, and I came up every weekend to help him,” he says, adding, “If it weren’t for my mother and Dr. Kim, I would never have stood in front of a classroom.”