“Pretty Boy” Kwon Won Il made a thunderous impact in ONE Championship last year.
The South Korean knockout artist, who will return at ONE: FIRE & FURY, stunned fans with three quickfire stoppages to emerge as a legitimate contender in the bantamweight division.
On Friday, 31 January, the Seoul native will make his sixth appearance on the global stage when he faces Japan’s Shoko Sato in Manila, Philippines.
If Kwon can get his hand raised against the experienced Shooto Bantamweight World Champion, then he will thrust himself into World Title contention.
Ahead of his high-stakes battle at the Mall Of Asia Arena, find out how the 24-year-old discovered his passion for mixed martial arts and became one the most talented rising stars in the promotion.
Kwon was born Daejeon, South Korea’s fifth-largest city, about 150 kilometers south of the capital of Seoul.
That is where his martial arts journey began when he joined his elementary school’s taekwondo team. He showed natural talent and advanced beyond provincial competitions to participate in the national youth tournament.
However, Kwon was far from a model student. He quit the sport when he graduated from elementary school at a time when he admits he lacked any direction.
“I had grown tired of taekwondo and was at a point in my life when I couldn’t get myself to study or train,” he adds.
Worse still, he got into fights with other students. Eventually, his high school principal had enough of his misbehavior and ordered him to be transferred to another school.
After being told of his decision, Kwon’s mother cried in front of the principal, and that ultimately had a life-changing effect on the youngster.
“It was the first time I ever saw her bow her head and cry,” he says.
“That was when I realized I had to do something to dry her tears. That’s when I began to do some serious soul-searching.”
New Home, New Passion
Kwon soon found himself in a new school in Hwajeong, just north of Seoul. In a new town among new friends, the teenager was inspired to make something of himself by his peers.
“I was determined to do something with my life,” Kwon says.
“That’s when I noticed that the students in my new school were very busy. I soon learned that they had dreams and goals. That motivated me to search for what I really want to do with my life.”
“Pretty Boy” found a mixed martial arts gym, Extreme Combat, and that rekindled his passion for training.
The chance to mix up disciplines in a sport that was growing faster than any other around the world filled him with enthusiasm, and he has not looked back since.
“In retrospect, taekwondo was just a hobby for me,” Kwon offers.
“There is nothing wrong with taekwondo, but I felt there was limited room for me to grow. After I got a taste of mixed martial arts, I became hooked.
“It had the feel of taekwondo, but it was also very new to me. When I thought there were no more mountains left to climb, I discovered new peaks.”
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Making Ends Meet
He started training in mixed martial arts, but soon encountered financial problems.
“That was the most difficult obstacle. I wanted to continue training, but I needed to make money to pay for it,” he adds.
“So, I started serving tables – first at a snack stand, and then at a fried chicken joint.”
On weekdays, he took orders at a tteok-bokki (spicy, stir-fried rice cakes) establishment, before he spent his weekends at the other eatery.
That means he had to train at night, which made for long, exhausting days.
“I was really tired, both physically and mentally, when I got to the gym in the evenings after work,” he says.
“But I was determined to continue training no matter what. That was something I wasn’t going to compromise.”
His dedication paid off when he traveled to Japan to make his professional mixed martial arts debut aged 19 against Hirotaka Miyakawa – a man with 19 professional bouts. Kwon knocked him out in 36 seconds.
The Next Step
Although Kwon was successful at first, he struggled to be matched against opponents. He won his first seven contests, but he was frustrated that it took him more than four and a half years to build that record.
Luckily, his talent was noticed by ONE Championship, and so far, he has scored three first-round TKOs in the world’s largest martial arts organization.
His lightning-fast straight right neutralized Anthony “The Archangel” Engelen just 67 seconds into his promotional debut in January 2019.
Now, at the upcoming ONE: FIRE & FURY, Kwon is gunning for his fourth victory on the global stage. If the South Korean is successful, then he will take a step closer to his goal of winning the biggest prize in martial arts.
“For me, ONE Championship is a dream come true. I wanted to compete on the big stage, and there are many things I want to achieve here,” he says.
“I want to return to Korea one day wearing the World Championship belt.”