Tracing The Little-known Korean Roots Of A Thai Fighter
Even the most seasoned Muay Thai practitioners I know shoot me confused or disbelieving looks whenever I tell them that Thopadak Wanchalerm runs one of the biggest and most successful Muay Thai gyms in Phuket. However, their eyes quickly light up with recognition when I tell them that the person in question is actually Sinbi Taewoong (he prefers to be known as Sing), owner of the eponymous Sinbi Muay Thai Camp.
What Is In A Name?
“Sinbi Taewoong” is a Korean name formed from the Chinese characters 神祕泰雄, meaning the “Mysterious Thai Hero”, a namesake and identity thrust upon Sing throughout his sojourn in South Korea. Sing’s time in Korea is arguably a formative period in, or even the highlight of his career, but little is known about this mysterious past that his Korean name seems to hint at. Even Sing’s Wikipedia page is devoid of information that might explain how the foreign land of Korea came to be intricately tied to a Thai fighter from the southern Thai province of Songkhla.
A talented top-class fighter who once held first-place rankings in both the prestigious Lumpinee and Rajadamnern stadiums in his prime, Sing unfortunately was often given the shorter end of the stick in the Bangkok fight circuits because he did not have a good promoter. Without a strong promoter backing him and looking out for his interests, Sing was often unable to secure top-tier fight cards with Bangkok’s cream of the crop. Instead, he had to frequently settle for fights with either less attractive purses, or matches that came with little or none of the fanfare and prestige that his counterparts were enjoying.
In fact, Sing was once matched up against a then-reigning Lumpinee champion, and proceeded to comprehensively defeat him. The result created a buzz among local punters. Unfortunately, Sing’s weak promoter had failed to secure the fight as a championship bout. Thus, instead of winning a championship title belt and its accompanying accolades after the fight, Sing was merely moved several notches up the stadium’s rankings and that was the end of the affair.
Sing would have taken his career in such a trajectory and faded quietly out of the Muay Thai scene in Thailand had Suntaek Kong not spotted him at a less popular stadium against a little-known opponent in the early 2000s on one of his field trips to Bangkok. Recognizing that Sing was a “king without a crown” and a gem that merely needed some polishing in order to shine brilliantly, Suntaek Kong, founder of Taewoong Gym in South Korea and Head of WAKO (World Association of Kickboxing Organizations) Korea, knew that he had untapped potential on his hands.
After speaking with Sing’s promoter and gym, who were all too willing to give up on what they perceived was a lackluster fighter, Suntaek wooed Sing to fight and work under the Taewoong banner with promises of a higher salary, fame and other benefits that appealed to a Thai fighter hungry for more. Thus Sing started his four-year stint in South Korea in this manner, shuttling off on visa runs every three months to prevent immigration and legal complications from arising. When he was not training with and sharpening the skills of Taewoong Gym’s elite fighters, the likes of Chi-bin Lim and Baek Ho Jung, both K-1 fighters themselves, Sing was preparing intensively for his own KOMA (King of Martial Arts) and K-1 debuts in the Korean capital.
Thanks to Suntaek’s clout and media machine that proclaimed the birth of a new Muay Thai star, Sing quickly burst into the Muay Thai scene in Korea with much ado. His visibly foreign appearance and intriguing name aroused the curiosity of an ethnically homogenous country, and he soon earned the favor and approval of the Korean public with his strong punches and fast kicks. Sing had many notable opponents in Korea, but few were on par with this newcomer on the block. Some of his opponents have left the ring with their chins smashed or a few of their ribs broken. His streak of successes and domination in both the KOMA and K-1 events, in which he emerged champion, propelled his fame in Korea to dizzying heights.
Enthralled crowds would gather daily at Taewoong Gym to watch Sing train, and he would be met with thunderous applause whenever he exited the ring after he completed his padwork. Newspaper interviews and appearances on broadcast also became commonplace. Sing parted ways with Suntaek and Korea on amicable terms after a very successful run in Korea. Returning to his native Thailand, he worked as a trainer in Phuket before setting up his own gym in 2007 with a German investor. The gym has since expanded and become well-known internationally for its quality training and lineup of top trainers.
There are several reasons why Sing still insists on using his Korean name professionally, proclaims his love for Korea and converses in pidgin Korean whenever he can. Firstly, it is very much true that the name “Sinbi Taewoong” has evolved beyond personal spheres and boundaries, and has transformed into a well-known brand with immense value and power. Think of iconic personalities like Coco Chanel and their eponymous companies, and apply that to Sing’s brand of Muay Thai.
By keeping his Korean name, Sing is also assured of the Korean Muay Thai market and the consequential inflow of Korean students won. As in January 2007 when he first opened his gym and even up to now, Sing continues to welcome hordes of Korean students to his Phuket camp. Almost all of these students have watched and admired Sing on television when he was fighting on K-1, and they all want to train with Sing and become just like him. Most of them go to Sinbi Muay Thai Camp because they feel that they can trust Sing. After all, he has been one of them for four years. Some visit just to support Sing in his business venture because they feel a sense of affinity with him.
A great proportion of these Korean students are recommended by Suntaek and his kickboxing organization, and Sing welcomes this business from his friend and former employer with great pleasure. Sinbi Muay Thai Camp is also listed as “Taewoong Gym – Phuket Branch” on the Taewoong Gym website. By virtue of his Korean roots, Sing has also been frequently invited to conduct exclusive workshops and seminars in Korea. He continues to enjoy a high degree of acclaim and respect in Korea. Not all of it is mercenary though. Suntaek and Sing are still extremely close, and it is likely that Sing has retained his Korean name out of respect and gratitude for the opportunities he had received in Korea.
The name “Sinbi Taewoong” still looms large in the Korean Muay Thai landscape today, and Sing is revered as a legendary figure by Muay Thai practitioners here. Along with Suntaek, Sing is given much credit for helping to develop the local Muay Thai scene. His participation in K-1 and KOMA greatly raised awareness about Muay Thai in Korea, and it was widely reported that Muay Thai gyms saw spikes in sign-ups during Sing’s golden era. This in itself is remarkable in a nation that prides itself for having a national and Olympic sport, Taekwondo. Sing’s expertise as a padholder and teacher at both Taewoong Gym and his own camp helped nurture a generation of great Korean champions who possess both technical skill and artistic flair in the ring.
Some of these champions, like Chi-bin Lim, Jae Hee Cheon and Baek Ho Jung, have started their own gyms and are raising fresh, young talent. Other active champions like Okbae Moon are still competing and have their sights set on loftier goals like the UFC title and the national Muay Thai team draft. “Beautiful Fighter” Su-jeong Lim honed her skills under Sing’s tutelage in Phuket, and has gone on to win a handful of Thai and Korean titles, even ranking highly in the World Muay Thai Angels event. Virtually all of these Korean fighters still credit Sing for the headstart he has given them in Muay Thai. Most importantly, Sing has given, and is still giving young Korean Muay Thai fighters a reason to dream, exactly what Suntaek had done for him more than a decade ago.
Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? That might not be the case for Sinbi Taewoong after all.
Oral interviews with Okbae Moon, Sung Ho Choi and Young Jun Lee.
Rachel Lee first came to South Korea in 2011, intending only to visit a Korean fighter she had met at a Muay Thai gym in Thailand earlier that year. With her month-long visit sprawling into a four-year sojourn, she has since gotten engaged to the Korean fighter, and is currently running a Muay Thai gym with him in Seoul. A traveler and explorer at heart, she frequently finds herself treading precariously between ambition and reality.