Vietnamese boxers don't challenge themselves: South Korean manager

By Quang Huy   September 30, 2023 | 08:31 pm PT
Kim Sang-bum, known for his success managing Vietnam's first world boxing champion Nguyen Thi Thu Nhi, said the sport is not professionalized here because local athletes do not push themselves enough.

At Ho Chi Minh City's Cocky Buffalo Boxing Club, which Kim founded and currently runs, he has trained two South Korean, three Uzbek, one Russian and many Vietnamese boxers. These talented boxers brought him nine championship belts (some Asian, some inter-continental), but then they each left him one by one.

"Vietnamese boxers have top qualities to become champions, such as agility, reflexes and winning mentality. However, what they lack in their career are patience, practice and focus. I've told them so many times that they have reached 80% of their potential and could go higher, but they've all ended up discouraged and chosen another path," Kim told VnExpress.

Boxing manager and promoter Kim Sang-bum. Photo by VnExpress/Danh Nguyen

Boxing manager and promoter Kim Sang-bum. Photo by VnExpress/Danh Nguyen

Kim, born in 1971, came to Vietnam in 2000 when he was 29 seeking business opportunities. Kim has never boxed professionally, but he had practiced the sport for six years. This experience brought him many connections in the boxing world, not only in South Korea but also around the globe.

In 2013, Kim and a compatriot opened a boxing gym in Tan Binh District, Ho Chi Minh City. The business did not go well and then Kim’s friend deceived him, took the money and returned to South Korea.

Two years later, Kim opened the Cocky Buffalo Boxing Club in District 7. He dreamed of becoming Asia's leading boxing promoter, and he thought Vietnam could be his launching pad.

In October 2021, Kim made a splash when his female boxer Nguyen Thi Thu Nhi beat Japanese opponent Etsuko Tada 96-94 to win the WBO world mini-flyweight title. It was not only Vietnam’s first WBO world title, but also the country’s first-ever professional world boxing title. The WBO (World Boxing Organization) is one of the four largest professional boxing organizations in the world, alongside the WBA, WBC and IBF.

In April 2022, Dinh Hong Quan, another boxer that Kim trained, also achieved glory when he defeated Philippine opponent Delmar Pellio by points after ten rounds to become the first person in Vietnamese boxing history to win the IBF Asia belt.

However, nowadays, the only legacy left by Nhi is the outfit she wore the day she won the world title, which is still displayed at the Cocky Buffalo, while Quan also left.

"In Vietnam, there is a paradox when professional boxers return to semi-pro boxing," Kim said. "A semi-pro boxing match is only three rounds long, while pro boxing has a maximum of 12 rounds. It's like comparing a short run to a marathon. I believe that pro boxing tests the endurance and mentality of athletes.

"Vietnamese boxers chose semi-pro boxing because it's less challenging. They can be rewarded for each win and can participate in regional tournaments like the SEA Games. For professional boxing, the important thing is your attitude after winning. The more times you defend your championship belt, the more famous you get."

Nguyen Thi Thu Nhi won the WBO world title with Kim Sang-bum as her manager in 2021. Photo by VnExpress

Nguyen Thi Thu Nhi won the WBO world title with Kim Sang-bum as her manager in 2021. Photo by VnExpress

Professional boxing has produced legends such as Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson, or more recently Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. Due to its massive advertising appeal and big television revenues, the boxing industry has turned boxers into millionaires. Famous boxers often make the list of the world's highest-paid athletes.

Meanwhile, semi-pro boxing is a foundation for boxers to accumulate experience and improve their abilities before going pro. Each match only lasts three rounds, and boxers are required to wear headgear. Semi-pro boxers are managed by federations representing their countries and the International Boxing Association (AIBA). International sporting events such as the Olympics and the SEA Games use this format for semi-pro boxers.

Semi-pro boxing does not have a high commercial value. These boxers don’t get money from the organizers for their wins.

The value of a pro boxing match relies on organization and promotion. In particular, the promoter is the person who connects the organizers, invites boxers to compete and negotiates advertising and television rights.

According to Kim, a big problem with Vietnamese boxing is the lack of role models for boxers to follow.

"As a coach, I think that Vietnamese boxers have more potential than Filipinos. But the Philippines has the legendary Manny Pacquiao, who has won 12 major world championship belts across eight weight classes. Having such a monumental figure helps young boxers plenty put more trust in the process. In Vietnam, it was not until 2015 that they had their first professional boxer Tran Van Thao," Kim said.

Kim hopes that Vietnamese boxing will be unchained from the management of government authorities so that private firms can organize events easier. The South Korean manager worries that despite being ahead, boxing faces more difficulties than MMA in Vietnam due to different management mechanisms. He believes Vietnam needs to separate pro and semi-pro boxing. Only then will the sport be able to take off, Kim said.

"Currently, quite a lot of young people in Vietnam have the desire to box. If favorable conditions are created, Vietnam can absolutely produce pro boxing world champions. For boxers, I hope one day they will understand this path is worth taking," the South Korean manager said.

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