In 1978, Choi Young was born a third generation Korean in Osaka, Japan. By his account, he had a normal, peaceful childhood free from bullying and discrimination. There was nothing at all to lead him to a life of fighting.
Choi Young’s first experience with martial arts came while he was at school in the Netherlands. There he met the notorious Gerard Gordeau of UFC 1. At the time he was hooked on basketball. It was his younger brother, Ryoji Sai, who took to the martial arts quickly. In fact, he was recruited by the Japanese promotion ZERO1 and became a professional wrestler.
Choi Young’s dream was far from the cage. He aimed to become a pro basketball player and completely dedicated himself to it. But when his high school team failed to make the nationals, Choi Young’s college hoop dreams were destroyed. He couldn’t get accepted on athletics and he definitely couldn’t get a scholarship.
When his life at a low point, a friend suggested he could use his bilingual skills and become a translator. However, Choi Young wasn’t really bilingual. His parents had raised him in Japanese society and that was what was familiar to him. So he decided to make a huge life change. He went to Korea to attend university. It took Choi Young six long years to graduate because he had to travel home to work construction jobs to pay for his tuition.
Choi Young would attend his brother’s matches and help him train a little, but when the promoter tried to recruit him because of his good looks, strength and physicality, he wasn’t interested. He became a little interested in unscripted MMA, and after a few months of dedicated training he tried out his skills at amateur in Japan’s Shooto and his success motivated him.
Ironically, the same thing that made him shy away from pro-wrestling was how he became interested in Korea’s Spirit MC. He noted a young flyweight who was getting attention and offers because of his good looks. This led Choi Young to Korea’s Spirit MC. He landed a spot on a popular TV show called ‘Go! Super Korean’ and was very quickly elevated to fame.
But after just three years, Spirit MC folded and Choi Young’s MMA career resumed in Japan, minus the fame and celebrity status.
His first opportunity on an international event was at K-1 Hero’s, where he fought on the same card as Akiyama and Denis Kang. It was a return to Korea, and with the experience Choi Young found new impetus in his life. He went back to Korea and represented Japan by changing his ring name to the Japanese “RYO”, but when he saw how his compatriot Akiyama could garner both the Korean and Japanese fans, he was determined to rise to his level.
It was a struggle. In 2007, RYO joined DEEP; it took him six long years to reach his first title shot. It was with middleweight champion Kaz Nakamura, and although it was a rip roaring fight, he lost by decision. Finally in 2015 he earned another challenge and avenged his only other loss in DEEP to Yoshiyuki Nakanishi and Choi Young, at the age of 37, finally took home his first championship belt.
“When I won the DEEP middleweight title, it felt like I received a reward for all my efforts in my fight life.”
In 2016, the MMA scene in Korea was again surging, and Choi Young had the opportunity to return to fight in front of the Korean fans at ROAD FC. It was a triumphant return. He knocked out PRIDE veteran Yoon Dong-Sik. The victory earned him a miracle: a second title shot, for the ROAD FC Middleweight belt.
Choi Young challenged Cha Jung-Hwan at ROAD FC 35 in a three round war for the belt; he aggressively sought to get the fight to the ground, while Cha did his work with jabs and combinations. At the conclusion, the judges could not score the fight for either and they asked the warriors to deliver a fourth conclusive round. It was then that Cha was able to get the job done, all but knocking out RYO on his feet.
But controversy surrounded the fight in the public eye. Cha was called out for grabbing the cage, preventing Choi Young from landing much needed takedowns.
“After the fight, I was really so shocked. I couldn’t think about anything. The fight consumed so much of my energy that I thought something wasn’t right. So that’s why I decided to watch the video. I found out he grabbed the cage several times. And that’s when I realized, ah, that’s not the only reason I lost, but that’s part of the reason I lost the fight.”
ROAD sympathized with Choi Young and gave him the immediate rematch. However, Cha was injured come fight time, so Choi Young faced Kim Hoon for the interim belt.
“No matter who I’m going to fight, before the fight I feel confident. That’s how I get myself ready for the fight. Kim Hoon is really strong striker.”
Finally, with Cha healed, the rematch to unify the ROAD FC Middleweight title was set for ROAD FC 48. Yet tragedy struck again. Just weeks out, Cha was injured during his camp and pulled out of the match. Cha was stripped of the match and Choi Young would become the defending champion.
“I never imagined that my rematch with Cha would be canceled two times by injury. The last time he got injured he didn’t even apologize to me. I was pretty mad because it got cancelled again by injury. If I didn’t want to fight, I could have said no to this fight, but, because this is the main event, I want keep this fight going, so I will fight with La In-Jae. I have no other option but to win this time. As a fighter, that’s our goal.”
Choi Young has worked so hard and so long to reach the apex of his career, holding two title belts in DEEP and ROAD FC at the age of 40. So it’s not with desperation but with frank honesty that he knows he must fight harder than ever in his life to remain at the top of his division.
“It’s not so important how I’m going to perform in the future, for the fighter who has to fight in the cage, one loss could be the end of everything. I have no other option but to keep practicing hard.”
Choi Young “RYO” takes on La In-Jae in his first title defense of the middleweight belt at Saturday’s ROAD FC 48 in South Korea.