With an innocently boyish face and an affable personality, South Korea’s Jang Kun Lee might come across as someone who wouldn’t hurt a fly. But put him on the kabaddi mat and he turns into a fierce competitor, oozing with relentless aggression and ready to crush the defensive walls of rival teams.
In the recently concluded Star Sports Pro Kabaddi league (PKL) Season 3 his side - the Bengal Warriors –crashed out in the semi-finals, but not before Lee made an indelible mark. Even when the Bengal franchise was struggling in the past two seasons, Lee had made quite an impression with his agility and resourcefulness.
Two things that have helped the 23-year-old become the player and the star he is today are his keen powers of observation and his ability to quickly pick up the nuances of a sport that was supposedly alien to his nation. It was only in 2012 that the Korean was first introduced to this contact sport.
He instantly found a connection with it and two years later, the industrious Lee was helping South Korea to the kabaddi bronze at the Incheon Asian Games. Lee was always fearless and resolute, and his rigid focus remained unwavering even when his family and friends tried to deter him from professionally taking up a sport hitherto unknown to them.
It was perhaps a risky gamble to put his passion first, and the decision took him to the inaugural edition of the Star Sports Pro Kabaddi League from the shores of Busan. But the move paid off right from the moment he landed in India.
His willingness to improve and bring variation to his tactics was visible from the time he began his stint in the league. He could readily read his opponents’ minds and strike the hardest blow at the most opportune moment.
So, it has not been a surprise that Lee has been one of Bengal’s most trusted players throughout the three seasons. The 40 matches that he has participated in so far have yielded a staggering 197 points, out of which he has delivered 182 through his fiery raids. That has helped him pick up loads of ‘Best Raider’ awards as well.
Having already mastered judo and taekwondo, Lee has brought elements of the martial arts to kabaddi. He is often seen outfoxing defenders with his own version of the deadly scorpion kick. The move reaped big dividends in many matches this season, especially against Dabang Delhi who looked clueless about how to tackle Lee.
The Busan native’s meteoric rise in kabaddi stems from his exposure to multiple sports right since his childhood. In addition to martial arts he also dabbled in rowing, which requires a good amount of core strength. In Korea, he spent a lot of time on weight-training which is why training for kabaddi came naturally to him.
It was his Indian coach Jaydev under whose tutelage Lee thrived. Jaydev pointed out that he needed to work on his aggression and use it to full effect to overpower opponents. Lee has listened to that advice, and how!
All of his hard work is evident from the way he manages to outmaneuver stronger defenders time and again in the PKL. His fleet-footed movement inside the rival box coupled with his swift backtracking skills make him a joy to watch. It's no wonder that Lee has soared up the popularity charts in India; he himself has admitted that he never had a taste of stardom until he landed in this country.
“I’m better known in India than I am in Korea,” Lee said in 2014.
Another outstanding quality of the Korean is how quickly he can adapt to changes. During the Patna and Jaipur legs of the recently concluded PKL season, Bengal’s star raider Nitin Tomar was missing as he was recuperating from an injury. So it was left to the Korean to play the role of the leading raider, which he did efficiently.
Lee contributed eight points in Bengal’s defeat of last season’s semi-finalists Telugu Titans in the Patna leg. Raiding with precision and determination, he was easily the side’s most inspiring player that evening. Against the defending champions U Mumba at Jaipur, he came alive even in defence, scoring two points from a super tackle.
Needless to say, Lee’s success has piqued interest in the sport back home. Seong Ryeol Kim (Dabang Delhi) is another Korean who has been honing his skills at the PKL. These two players are pioneering the growth and development of kabaddi in Korea, which has already seen an influx of youngsters over the past couple of years.
Perhaps that, more than anything else, will remain as Lee’s most satisfying achievement. To defy his well-wishers and pursue his passion took courage, but to instill that same spirit into his own countrymen can only make him even prouder of his decision.