In Asia, the development of Mixed Martial arts can be divided into roughly three phases: the blossoming of the sport in the early ’90s in Japan, then the wildfire that spread about ten years ago, to the recent explosion in the past two years. From that first phase, the original Shooto and Pancrase organizations are still growing strong and changing with the times. From the second phase, those who got in the game and stayed in it are now reaping the rewards as MMA explodes. At the top of that list is Korean Top Team. It has a roster of fighters spanning international competition and has produced three athletes who have entered the premier MMA promotion UFC, which is no small feat for any gym. That they have developed these fighters in a country with limited domestic competition and a narrow support base is even more impressive. Recently, MMA-in-Asia caught up with Head Coach and Co-Founder Ha DongJin and delved into the mastermind of this incredibly successful team.
When did you first start Korean Top Team?
We – my friend Coach Jeon ChanYeul and I – made Korean Top Team in 2003. We were friends from high school through graduate school. We went to different universities, but our graduate school was the same.
What was your competitive background then? Did you have many competitions?
Wrestling. I had a lot of competitions. Jeon was also a wrestler.
What was the team’s first professional fighting experience?
The first time my students fought in professional competition was in Spirit MC 1. It was the first time my student Lee EunSu was in a tournament, and he got second place. Then he won the tournament. At Spirit MC 2, we made the heavyweight champion.
After that, everyone left. I had no students, no team, only my friend and me.
Why did they leave?
I think they just had a different mindset. Then people started calling me saying “Where’s Korean Top Team?” Okay, maybe we’ll make a new team to make professional fighters. That was about 2004-5. In 2005 we moved to another gym. It was a little bit better.
Back then, there was only Spirit MC. Then sometimes we would fight in Guam in PXC, sometimes in Spirit MC. Later there was a Spirit MC Welterweight tournament, and my student became the campion. There were 32 fighters. So there were 8 finalists, and it was Korean Top Team with 4 and the other team with four. Winning the final was Nam YuiChul; he was my student at the time, about 5-6 years ago. A lot of fighters around started their training at Korean Top Team.
So we were there about 7 years. And last November we moved to a very big gym. Right now we have about 250 students. Lots of people together. They love Korean Top Team. I think over about ten years, we are number one in Korea. Still everyone thinks we are number one. I’m most proud right now that we have 3 UFC fighters. Right now, at 145, we hope to have the title shot with Korean Zombie.
What about Dongi Yang?
You know, Ox was too early for UFC. Before, we needed him to go, but it was a little too early. He went 1-3 and he’s out of the UFC right now. We expect him to return to competition at the end of the year.
ChanSung Jung has had a bit more success.
Zombie, also, I thought went a little too early. But he went up very fast, very fast you know.
Now you have another prospect signed to the UFC. Can you tell us a little more about this welterweight with the 200cm reach?
Lim HyunGyu, he’s perfect. Out of every Korean Top Team fighter to go to the UFC, I think that number one is Lim. Because he’s got standing, wrestling, jiujitsu, everything is really good. I think he’s a little bit late for the UFC.
Why late? How long has Lim been with you?
That was seven years ago. The first month I had him, I thought wow. I said “Hey, you want to be a professional fighter?” He said, “Yes.” “Okay, come be a professional fighter.” Back then he weighed 170, no maybe even 165. But right now, when he’s not training, 200. When he’s in training, he’s at 190-95. His fighting style and his body style are very aggressive. Maybe when he hits somebody he can kill them. But most of all, he’s a good person. Every day, he keeps on training. I love him – he’s my son! And my wife loves him. Every Korean fighter loves him. He’s really humble. When he was signed, my heart was broken.
What do you mean your ‘heart was broken’?
I told Lim that for a UFC contract, both of our hearts were breaking. So now we are so happy. Everybody at KTT wanted this for Lim. I think he is the best in Asia. Nobody can kill him in Korea. The big guys, even at 185, also, he kills them.
How long does it take him to do his weight cut to drop to welterweight?
One week. Maybe five days. When it’s after a fight, his weight goes up a little, but when we start training, he drops to 195, so cutting weight is no problem.
These guys have gotten your team some international attention. Do you get many overseas fighters coming to visit?
Yes. People like Gomi and Minowaman, many famous fighters have come to train in KTT and they say, “Wow, this is different. Monster training! Never had this.” Last month Ben Henderson and Vaughn Lee, UFC fighters, came to Korean Top Team for training. After training, Vaughn called me. “Oh, they killed me. I’ve never been training this way. It’s not training, it’s monster training!” And so, everyone knows that Korean Top Team training style is really hard.
What is a normal day for a professional fighter?
Every day from 3-6 we’re training. If they are late, I beat them. Being on time is very important. First thing is warm up, then teach technique. Then pads, sparring, and physical training.
Seperate stand up and grappling training sessions?
Monday and Wednesday, striking, Tuesday and Thursday, grappling, Friday is MMA. But after practice, every day we are sparring. So like Monday, we are striking sparring, and then MMA sparring. Every day, every day. Saturday is maybe just grappling. Sunday, I want training, but nobody else wants it! “I want a break!” they say. It’s okay. But fighting season, we have full training on Saturday also.
So what’s the difference for a fight camp? Or do you train the same way all the time?
Same, all the time. Recently someone asked me, “Every day, your fighters are training?” Sure! It’s a company, it’s school, it’s a job for a professional fighter. Some professional fighters only train about six weeks before a fight, but this is not KTT’s style. Everyday is training. But maybe for one month before, it gets harder, and for a championship, 4-6 weeks before. Even our warm up is hard. Some fighters come, and can’t handle even that.
Does your team ever train with any other teams?
Sometimes we train together with the wrestling national team. I like for KTT to cross-train with other professional teams as well. At Korean Top Team we have several coaches. We all have an open mind. Even though I am a wrestler, I love jiujitsu, we train together. Sometimes we even go to K-1 gyms, you know, kickboxing. We say, “We want to learn, we want to teach.”
Do you travel with your fighters to events?
Yeah, always. I have a busy life. Usually for about three months of the year I’m out of the country. We have fought in Japan many times – HEAT, Shooto, Sengoku, DREAM, K-1. My fighters have fought in Manila, Hawaii. A few months ago in Cage Warriors in Jordan, in Russia – lots of countries. Even the States. I’m so tired! But happy.
So busy. I teach at KTT from 9-11am. Then I have the professionals I teach, and watch after them, and I leave about 11pm. So i’m at the gym about 12-13 hours a day. But I’m not tired, because I’m happy. Most importantly, we are together. Korean Top Team is friendship, and number one I think is that we are family. We are not just training together, we have a very good relationship.
You seem like such an easy-going person, it’s easy to see why your students like you.
Ah, during professional time, I’m different. Other times, like now, I’m always laughing, smiling, funny, I’m relaxed. But during the professional time, my face is different. Like a tiger. Many people tell me I have two faces: one’s like a kids, and one like a tiger’s. So it’s really important that between the fighter and coach is trust. When I beat Lim, he’s not a baby, he trusts me. He says, “Oh, thank you, sir!” I train with my fighters together, because our dream is the same. They are my future. We always train hard because our goal is the UFC championship, or making good fighters.
But most important is to be a good person. I want my guys to be smart, because after they retire from fighting, they have to have a job, they have to work. Maybe some fighters didn’t go to university after high school and that’s no good. I introduce them to universities and colleges so they can go to study. So I try to make the person, just not the fighter. It’s my focus: on the person, then the fighter. Right now we have have about 20 professional fighters. So cool.
How do you handle taking care of all of them?
We’ve got to have a good sponsor. Our biggest sponsor is SSEDA. They sponsor every Korean fighter. They pay every month, they’re really good. For about 8 years, since 2004 I think was when I met the boss, they still pay. Recently we have another important sponsor, Monsterzym.
What do you think of the state of MMA in Korea, and fighters in Korea?
It’s growing up. Some fighters who have under 15 fights, their spirit is really good. But some who are over that, they may say “Oh, I’m a fighter.” Their attitude is no good. I don’t mean all, just some. The UFC is free on two stations, and there is a lot of MMA news, so people are starting to know what MMA is. I’m a UFC commentator for FX Korea. They love me, and I love them! It’s a good relationship. I’m not on live, it’s a delay. Right now we have just one show, Road FC. Sometimes we have Gladiator, and M-1. Gladiator used to schedule often, like Road FC, but now it’s delayed one month. I hope more companies do it. So I’m trying to make a new promotion. Maybe next year, but I’m not sure.
The most important thing for Korean fighters is cross-training. Some days others come to our gym. For my team, cross-training’s not a problem because they have a lot of partners, but for other teams who have just one, two, three fighters, they don’t grow up. So I tell them, “Hey, let’s cross-train together.” Some gyms are serious or shy, but by the second or third time, it’s no problem. Most important is to train together. Korean teams are strong, different. I hope more Korean fighters will go to the UFC. PXC, ONE FC, Legend FC, I hope we can fight on every show.
How do you feel about the UFC fight in Macau this time, because there’s no time difference.
It’s good, no worries. In the States or other countries, we have jet lag, so we go about 2 weeks before, and spend a lot of money. Everything has to change. Even the training time. I’m so tired. But after one week, “Zombie! Incredible!” He’s so fit. Macau is better for us Korean fighters.
Congratulations on Lim’s signing with the UFC, and we wish your team years of continued success in MMA. Do you have any final thoughts to express?
My dream is that Lim and Zombie are both champions.