Kevin Chung somehow seemed destined to fall into the world combat sports. A passionate fan of MMA from an early age, he grew up watching the golden era of PRIDE, UFC, DREAM and Sengoku. Even from his early days in high school, fighting was always a consistent theme in his life.
In June this year the 24-year-old signed an exclusive multi-fight deal with ONE Championship and made his debut at ONE: Light of a Nation in the Burmese capita of Yangon.
Chung will soon make his second appearance inside the ONE cage when he heads to Manila for what might be the biggest challenge of his career so far. Last month ROUGH spoke to Chung about growing up in Northern Virginia, dealing with bullying and his exploring his Korean heritage.
Thanks for taking the time to speak to ROUGH, can you tell us a bit about your family background?
My parents moved to the States after finishing their higher education in Korea. My father has been a real estate broker for over 20 years and seeing his hard work ethic as a child made me want to pursue my own passions in that manner as well.
What was life like growing up for you?
Childhood through my teen years was anything but spectacular. I had a lot of behavioral issues that led to trouble at home and school. I was constantly down, depressed until no end, and felt like I had little to no reason to live. My social anxiety led me to be a victim of bullying for many years. There were also some traumatic events during my preteen years that I still need to come to terms with and accept. However, I’m extremely fortunate. I am lucky to have grown up in a middle class family to hard working immigrant parents and relatives. I will always appreciate their efforts in trying to lead me down the best possible paths in life.
THERE WERE SOME TRAUMATIC EVENTS DURING MY PRE-TEEN YEARS THAT I STILL NEED TO COME TO TERMS WITH AND ACCEPT.
What about school life, were you a good student?
School was a dark time for me, and was absolutely dreadful up until my collegiate years. School is a privilege and the golden years of life; it should be a place to learn, grow, and grasp elementary tools to use for the later years. Instead, I found myself in a constant battle with authority and my classmates. Not a week went by without a referral or write-up that would land me in the principal’s office. Being bullied, troubles at home, led my social anxiety and depression to grow and it would be a vicious never-ending cycle. Coincidentally, this came to a screeching halt upon starting college, where I was not particularly forced to meddle or be controlled by authority and have been doing fine ever since.
Have you always kept a strong sense of your heritage?
I was always appreciative and interested in my heritage, so much so that I decided to pack my bags and live in Korea back in 2012 to further study the language and culture. I did learn a lot, unfortunately the hard way, about the realities of our society. Growing up, I never saw colour. In such a diverse area, I always viewed all my peers as equal Americans regardless of ethnic background. However, we see Asian and Asian Americans seen as weak, forgiving, perhaps unassertive or feeble; easy targets for those who want a quick ego-boost. Under the current Trump administration we see these hateful tendencies of our neighbours now more than ever. I continue to occasionally experience unfair treatment but want to say to those who will seldom experience this that just because it isn’t happening to you, doesn’t mean it’s not happening.
Was that an easy thing to do growing up in America?
To the average white American, I and many others like myself are seen as foreign. In Korea or in Korean culture, I’m seen as a “gyopo”, an overseas Korean; I show little or no respect for culture or tradition and may only represent or use Korea or Korea’s culture when I see fit. When in fact, I have a high interest and continually study Korean culture, language, its history and tradition.The problem here is that many people are in a situation like myself, and this is just not limited to Korean/ KorAms. I want to reach out and say to anyone who has experienced similar to understand that life is short and we can only continue to learn and educate.
Was sports always a big part of growing up?
Yes. Although I’ve been around globe for combat sports, Northern Virginia has been home for me for 25 years now. I’ve always been open minded and keen about learning, which led me to try my hand at tennis, football, basketball, swimming, and golf at an elementary age.
How did you fall into the world of MMA?
I first started watching MMA during the prime days of PRIDE. I didn’t know it then, but I would be watching what would be the golden days of mixed martial arts. My interest in the sport grew as I continued to watch MMA throughout school, namely the UFC, DREAM, Sengoku, Shooto, and Elite XC. During my sophomore year of high school, I ran into Scott Salb, a teacher at my school I had never met but who would visit the wrestling room on occasion. He took me under his wing as a father-figure, taking me to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu training under another role model in Leo Dalla. I continued learn, grow, and compete in the sport before trying my hand in amateur MMA. These two individuals are the reason I was able to learn such a great sport, but also learn more about myself.
When did you know that being a professional fighter could be a career option for you?
My fights as an amateur were mostly out of curiosity. I also realised that becoming a world champion at Mundials or Pan Ams takes more than rolling into class 4 times a week. It takes a dedication and a high-level of training that I was not interested in or able to access at the time. I competed and placed in local tournaments as well as IBJJF’s, Pans, Worlds, but realised that I wanted to test and learn the other arts. However, my training for every amateur fight was simply some wrestling and gi Jiu-Jitsu because I did not have the right training and coaching for MMA. After building good chemistry with my kickboxing coach David Chun, I took training much more seriously which led to my pro debut.
How was the reaction from your family?
Negative. I don’t know many parents who would solely encourage MMA or combat sports as a career path, unless they knew the struggles of the fight life. There are always options, but in a sport with such a tight window to make things happen, I’m choosing to pursue my goals and work to become ONE Bantamweight Champion.
Is MMA now a full time pursuit for you?
I am training as a full-time fighter, athlete, and coach at Crazy 88 a few times a week. But like many others, still work on the side. I am also still taking class at George Mason University, and am expected to graduate in the Fall of 2047.
How did the opportunity with ONE Championship come about?
Signing with ONE Championship was a great opportunity and I plan on working to earn a bantamweight title. That said, I want to thank VP Matt Hume again for seeing my drive and potential. In my experience, ONE is professional as a show and business can get, but also are doing great things for MMA, such as the addition of hydration tests during fight week. I’ve been to many shows around the country, and have yet to been to one as electrifying as ONE Championship. Until the signing, I was fighting regionally, which was only great because my friends and family could watch me fight in person. Now I have the chance to fight and represent my friends and team on a world stage.
You recently moved across to Crazy 88 happen? How has that been so far?
I first visited Crazy 88 as a teen, back around 2010. I was only competing and training in Jiu-Jitsu at the time. I currently train and also teach some of the beginner and advanced Muay Thai classes. One thing about Crazy 88 and Team Lloyd Irvin is that you continually see results. IBJJF World medalists at every belt level are not just luck or coincidence. The coaches instil a no-ego, no-excuse mentality that only stresses hard work. Taking time to also pay attention to detail and being technically sound are why the athletes here continually produce results. As a new team member and coach, I just hope to learn from people with new styles and backgrounds while offering any help I can.
What do the next few years hold for you? Is a move back to Asia on the cards?
We’ll have to see and find out. I do plan to relocate to Incheon or Seoul sometime in the future.