Hyunjin “The Lion” Lee is one of the most promising up-and-coming martial artists in Asia.
The 31-year-old from Tongyeong, South Korea is part of the new crop of athletes trying to burst onto the ONE Championship roster with eye-catching performances in the organization’s developmental league.
Lee was one of the most outstanding performers in Rich Franklin’s ONE Warrior Series (OWS) this year, which has set him up for a huge 2019.
With six more OWS events set for the next 12 months, “The Lion” has the chance to build on his first two wins as a professional and secure a contract to compete with the world’s best martial artists on the main ONE roster.
This is how he has reached the brink of superstardom.
From Troubled Juvenile To Martial Artist
Lee is the middle child of three boys raised by hard-working parents in the southern province of Kyungnam.
His adolescent years were spent causing trouble in the streets, which led to his first taste of martial arts. His mother dragged him to a local taekwondo dojo at the age of 7 because he was always fighting with older boys.
As Lee grew in age, he sank deeper into street life and became the ‘muscle’ in a local gang, but he soon changed his ways and turned his back on life on the edge of society.
“After experiencing scum who were dirty and without a sense of honor, I left the group. I felt a lot of remorse for the mistakes I made,” Lee says.
Instead, he started to dabble in mixed martial arts.
A New Calling
At first, Lee practiced a variety of combat disciplines to prove to himself how tough and strong he was, but this quickly turned into a kind of therapy.
“As I trained more and more, I felt a sense of peace and humility,” Lee says.
“I wasted a lot of time through the wrong choices I made. After experiencing mixed martial arts, I’ve become modest and was able to put my past behind me.”
This led him to expand his horizons by learning boxing from Kim Chang Sik of Gu-Buk Pro Boxing Gym, and Muay Thai at Young-Mu Dojo.
He also learned grappling – his wrestling base was established by Shin Dong Hun, a former member of the national team, and Kim Sung-Su helped hone Lee’s jiu-jitsu skills. He is now a purple belt.
After training for a few years, Lee participated in many BJJ tournaments, collected several medals, and then started to combine his disciplines in amateur mixed martial arts.
Motivated In Memory Of A Friend
When Lee steps up to compete, he is driven to succeed by the memory of someone who was close to him.
One of his old friends, who he had known since the third grade, was always a close confidant – someone “The Lion” could rely on to help him through tough times.
However, he became sick when he was 24, and after he went through some tests at the hospital, doctors discovered he had leukemia.
Less than a year later, Lee’s friend died.
“I spread his ashes at his favorite surfing spot since that was his most beloved activity,” Lee says.
“He was always there for me when I had difficult times and raised my spirits.”
To honor his memory, and remind himself he is not alone in battle, Lee wears a patch of his friend’s family’s oyster business on the back of his shorts.
“I do not wear this patch to attract sympathy from others. I do it for myself and the love for my friend,” he explains.
Breaking Out On ONE Warrior Series
Lee’s undefeated record in the amateur ranks landed him in front of ONE Vice President Rich Franklin and his team at the OWS tryouts in Seoul earlier this year.
“He threw some fast hands, good combinations, and looked quick on his feet. He Looked really well-rounded on the ground – I liked the way that he flowed,” Franklin said.
That earned him a shot against Shafkat Khodshkulov at OWS 1 in March – his professional debut.
“I was nervous in the ring. I heard that my opponent was a Russian sambo champion and a former kickboxing champion, so I kept my distance during the competition,” Lee admits.
“I managed to get the finish in the first round.”
“The Lion” dominated the contest and got the stoppage at 3:49 of round one thanks to a slick triangle choke.
In November, he built on his success with a second-round TKO of the highly touted – and previously-unbeaten – Michael Walker at OWS 3.
With a perfect record in his back pocket, Lee is confident he can continue to deliver good performances, earn a coveted contract to join the main ONE roster, and compete at one of its flagship live events.
Ahead of the world’s largest martial arts organization’s venture into his homeland for ONE: HOME OF HEROES in Seoul in December, Lee believes he can be the man to lead the charge.
“I believe a qualified person must become the individual to introduce the promotion to the nation and set a milestone to gain popularity – and I am that someone,” he says.