Wayguk Fighter and the Seoul Sambo Tourney
This past weekend I headed to Seoul for my first chance to compete in Korea. It was a little on the wild side to say the least. From the word go I never really new what was going on. There were times when I had to check twice just to make sure that what I thought was happening was really happening. Despite, or maybe because of, all of the craziness and uncertainty around the weekend it was possibly the most fun that I’ve had since coming to Korea.
Two weeks ago, the head coach from my club asked if I wanted to compete in a Sambo tournament. I jumped at the chance. Having missed a Jiu Jitsu tournament and an MMA fight due to injury, I was itching for a chance to crash heads with someone other than my training partners. Having a good background in wrestling as well as some solid Judo and Jiu Jitsu training, I thought that Sambo suited me very well. For those who are unfamiliar with Sambo, it lies somewhere between those three sports. Takedowns are emphasized like judo and wrestling with points also awarded for gaining dominant positions like in Jiu Jitsu. You can submit your opponent on the ground but you have a very limited amount of time to make something happen before you are stood up. For the few weeks before the tournament we altered our training to be much more takedown oriented. This was great for me as it provided a break from getting worked over on the ground every day and allowed me to administer some beatings of my own.
The tournament was going to be held on Sunday (normal, because lots of Koreans work on Saturday) so we would be leaving Saturday evening. I showed up at the club for what I thought was our scheduled 6:00 pm light workout and jimjillbang. A jimjillbang is a public bath house with saunas, steam rooms, and huge baths that range in temperature from ‘surface of Pluto cold’ to ‘liquid hot magma’ and everything in between. These places are very popular for relaxing and also a great place to go cut some weight. If you are traveling you can also sleep at a jimjillbang for very cheap.
By the time 8:30 rolled around and no one was at the club and I figured what we had made a communication error. Easy to do considering most of the guys I train with have terrible English, which is to say it’s still better than my Korean. A few guys finally started to roll in around 9:00 with the full team finally assembled at 10:00pm. Several fighters still had some weight to cut, including me. My understanding was that we would hit the jimjillbang to cut some weight and drive to Seoul where we would weigh in. When we got in the van, we immediately turned the opposite direction of the jimjillbang. We ended up at a restaurant for team dinner. Everyone ate a full meal, even one of the guys on our team who still had 3 kgs. to cut. This seemed pretty odd but I figured these guys new the plan better than me and new what they were doing. I wasn’t too worried as I had under two pounds to cut.
After our meal we hit the road and picked up a few teammates along the way. We stopped in the city of Daejon to pick up our coach who was visiting some friends. One of my teammates mentioned that our coach was hanging out with his friend “Tiger”. There was a minor freak out when the other Koreans heard this; they seemed legitimately worried. It turns out that “Tiger” is a former pro kickboxer and one of the best from Korea. I would later find out that he is well respected for his fighting skill but has a reputation of being a bit off the deep end mentally. Understatement.
After calling our coach for directions we arrived at a huge nightclub in the heart of Daejon. The biggest Korean doorman I’ve ever seen met us at the entrance and guided us through the smoky crowd to a VIP room at the back. The only way I can describe the scene in the VIP room is to say that if the Sopranos was set in Korea, this would be it. Our coach was sitting with “Tiger”, and there were pretty young girls hanging off of both of them. There were a few other younger guys who seemed the lackey type and did whatever Tiger said. The guys that I came with, who are some of the toughest guys I’ve ever met, turned into instant pussycats. They kept their eyes down and hands held behind their backs. They answered politely but quickly. They bowed deeper to Tiger than I had seen them bow to anyone and they stood every time he spoke.
By this time it was 1:00 am. We still had to cut weight, get to Seoul and sleep before weighing in at 9:00 am. Tiger was having none of it, though. He was running the show, telling some of the girls to come and sit with the athletes and making repeated toasts of Soju shots. It was obvious by everyone’s behaviour that saying no was not an option. We finally managed to get ourselves out of the bar at about 3:00 am and head to the Jimjillbang. By the time we got into the steam room it was 3:30. We still hadn’t slept, still had weight to cut, had been fed multiple Soju shots for the last two hours and still needed to drive the rest of the way to Seoul which was two hours away.
I managed to cut my weight by 4:30 am. The last of our guys got out of the Sauna at about 6:15 am. In that time I managed to sneak in a quick hour and a half nap. After everyone showered and changed it was close to 7:00 am. Some of our guys had not slept at all. After picking up our coach we had to cram 12 people into an 11 person van for the rest of the drive to Seoul. I’m not sure about the others but being dehydrated, over tired and cramped made it impossible for me to sleep.
After a few missed turns we finally found the venue for the tournament. I knew I was in for a hell of a day as soon as I walked in. At this point I was under the impression that I was going to be competing in “a Sambo tournament”. I was more than a little surprised to walk under a huge banner announcing the ‘East Asian Sambo Championships’. The elevated platform where the president of the International Sambo Association and his associates would sit to watch the tournament added to the atmosphere. Despite starting to think that I may be in over my head, I was happy to be at the tournament where I could weigh in and finally eat something.
As I stood in line for weigh ins one of my teammates told me to make sure the officials knew I was weighing in for the Sport Sambo and Combat Sambo tournaments at the same time. This was an even bigger shock to me as none of my teammates were competing in Combat Sambo and I had absolutely no clue that I was either. I could almost hear the voice in the back of my head saying “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”
For those who have never seen it, Combat Sambo is scored like Sport Sambo but you can also knock your opponent out for the win. 4 oz. MMA gloves are worn with headgear and shinpads. It is certainly not far off from MMA. I hadn’t been doing any standup training for the last two weeks as I was focused on preparing for the sport Sambo tournament, but I was too tired to argue and I just stepped on the scale and weighed in for both events.
After a bite to eat it was time to get down to business. The sport Sambo competition went well. I won my first match by armbar. I won my second by a very close 6-4 score and blew my opponent off the mat for a 12-0 win in the semi final. Three wins put me in the final against my teammate Hyon Gul Lee, the Korean Jiu Jitsu Champ. He had won all three of his matches by submission for a total fight time of about 40 seconds. Our match was fast and furious with lots of takedowns, submission attempts, sweeps and escapes. I managed to avoid all of his submission attempts but get swept directly to side mount with 20 seconds left. That sweep gave Hyon Gul the match by 3 points. I felt okay with a silver in my first Sambo tournament against some good competition but wasn’t happy with the conclusion, even if I did lose to my own teammate.
Two other teammates had also won their weigh classes. With another silver and a bronze medal thrown in the mix Daegu MMA managed to win the team title; pretty good considering we were one of the few non-Sambo clubs in attendance. Our coach was smiling from ear to ear. His club was now the National Jiu Jitsu Champions as well as the East Asian Sambo Champions.
In between the Sport and Combat Sambo tournaments I grabbed some food and managed to grab a quick nap. During this time one of my teammates, Un Sik “Tornado San” Song, was doing a lot of interviews, signing autographs and taking pictures. Un Sik was 7-0 in MMA ,including some big wins in K-1 Heroes, before he enrolled in his mandatory 2 year Military service and was forbidden from fighting professionally. Un Sik only has 3 months left in the army and people are pretty excited to see him return to MMA. I think you’ll be hearing his name in the next few years as he had already attracted a lot of attention from major organizations before his hiatus from fighting. You can see him fight here. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GFrla9GvkSY
Despite running on very little sleep and having had 4 matches already during the day I started off the Combat Sambo tournament with some fire in my belly. My first fights went well. My hands felt good despite not having done much kickboxing. I was able to stick and move and land some decent combinations. The striking helped set up some takedowns as well. In the semi finals I ran into the Japanese Sambo champion who was also a professional fighter. He had pretty quick hands and moved well. Fortunately I was able to block most of his striking attacks. Unfortunately I blocked a most of them with my face. The lack of sleep, weight cut, long day and beat up body was starting to catch up with me at this point. Me feet felt like I was wearing cement shoes and I couldn’t get anything going. I changed strategies and went directly into takedown mode where I found success and was able to gain some strong positions. Even on the ground this guy was more dangerous than my other opponents. He threatened with Kimuras, knee bars and triangles but couldn’t lock anything up. I eventually won the fight on points. Here is that combat sambo semi-final fight.
In the final I faced an opponent who had snuck into the championship match via a last second armbar while being dominated in his semi final. This match was never really in doubt from the get go. I was able to score some early points and use my jab and push kick to stay active and keep my distance in the later half of the fight. I eventually won by a score of 6-0. If you want to read more detail about, or watch video of my matches, you can find both on my blog at http://mmatlas.blogspot.com/ .
Being the only fighter from our club competing in Combat Sambo, it was awesome to have the rest of the team cheering me on while I fought. I gained a lot of strength and energy from them literal and figuratively. In between matches they were bringing me food and water and giving me massages. I think they were more amped up than I was. I’m glad that I was finally able to compete under the Daegu MMA banner and represent the team well.
While I’m not under the impression that I beat any world class Samboists, I was very happy to have had several tough matches against some solid fighters. I hadn’t been in a live fight situation in a long time and it was a blessing in disguise that I was accidentally entered into the Combat Sambo tournament. Every muscle in my body was aching and I had bled from every hole in my head as well as a few new ones, but I felt satisfied with my day’s work. As soon as the tournament finished, I could barely keep my eyes open. I crashed hard and slept the whole way back to Daegu. Getting home at 2:00 am, I fell into bed wondering what on earth I was going to tell 45 Korean kindergarten students when they asked me what happened to my bruised and battered face the next morning. I figured I’d just say “Kids, it was a hell of a weekend.” They won’t understand anyways.
Brent Fryia contributes to Top MMA News and also writes for http://mmatlas.blogspot.com/.