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From Korea to Kabaddi: Interview with Bengal Warriors raider Jang Kun Lee

Lee also guided South Korea to Asian Games bronze last year, highlighting the country's exponential rise in Kabaddi.

Lee has been the standout performer for Bengal Warriors, since the league’s inception 

In 2014, Jang Kung Lee created history by becoming one of the first foreign players to sign for the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL). Hailing from South Korea, a country not traditionally known for prowess in the sport, Lee would highlight his potential with aggressive play as a raider for PKL franchise Bengal Warriors.

Despite two turbulent seasons, which saw the team finish second bottom in the inaugural edition, Kung has been a standout player with his fleet-footed raiding capabilities. The 23-year old has amassed 118 raid points in 26 matches, and has proven to be a match winner several times.

Bengal currently sit second on the table, having won both their encounters so far. Lee’s heroics helped them defeat Bengaluru Bulls in the previous match. He registered 11 points, to reduce Bengal’s first deficit of 13-8 to 13-12. The Tigers would go onto comfortably seal the victory 34-24.

Lee has been a PKL stalwart, having signed up for the league, during its inception. Other Koreans such as Seong Ryeol Kim (Dabang Mumbai) have also used PKL as a launching pad to professionalise the game back home.

Speaking exclusively to Sportskeeda, Lee talks about the ongoing season, origin of Kabaddi in South Korea, and how the PKL experience changed his life.

Q. Let’s begin with the current PKL season, how are we seeing a different, more aggressive Bengal Warriors?

I think we have always been playing this way, it depends whether it clicks or it doesn’t click on the day. In the last two seasons, I think there were loopholes to our current structure, which needed to be filled. Now we have strengthened that and have the discipline. We also have a good combination and what it takes to win the title this season.

Q. You have already registered 118 raid points with some match winning performances, how are you looking to improve your game this season?

Well, I have worked extensively on my fitness back home in South Korea. I do a lot of stamina and power based training to keep fit. That is mainly because in Busan, you have a handful of clubs and it isn't as aggressive. So it's very important for me to keep that level of strength and fitness up, during the off season.

Q. You spoke of Kabaddi not being very strong back home. So how were you introduced to the sport?

The place where I was born Busan has 45 different kabaddi clubs. These clubs have been competing very often over the past few years. It was back in 2012, I tried it around that time and found myself instantly hooked onto it. Over time I started honing my skills and by 2014 I was representing South Korea at the Asian Games. We have a very small but strong Kabaddi base back home. The sport came naturally to me, because I was always agile when I was young. But in South Korea itself, the sport was introduced during the 2002 Asian Games in Busan. The court remained and the students of the Busan University started playing regularly. This led to the formation of the South Korea Kabaddi Association.

Q. Did you play any another sport prior to taking up Kabaddi?

Yes, I used to play Judo and was an avid rower. In fact, I think it helped me as a kabaddi player, because the skill required in both sports were co-related to Kabadddi. Judo helped me garner agility and Rowing gave me the upper body strength. This has helped me a lot especially because I'm a raider, this position requires both agility and strength.

Q. What was the reaction of your close friends and family, when you decided to take kabaddi as a profession?

My family was really worried, because they never heard of the sport before, and at the time it was not as financially viable as well. However, if you see now I'm better known in India than back home. My friends also asked me not to take up such an unpopular sport, but one should always do what they love to do. And I'm lucky that my passion has turned out to be financially viable. It was a risk, but a risk I was willing to take.

Q. How has the PKL helped the sport in South Korea?

Well I wouldn't say that it has become a mainstream sport, that would be unfair to say. However, there is rising interest, especially in Busan. You can call it Kabaddi's capital back home. People in the city now know me as the person who has gone to India to play that 'flexibile' sport. As a fraternity, we are growing everyday as more community members are introduced. The more Koreans play in the PKL, more the country will start accepting it as a legitimate source of income, such as the case with me and Kim.

Q. The 2014 Asian Games saw Korea win bronze, how was that particular experience?

To be honest, we were actually targeting to play the final against India. Unfortunately we couldn't make it, but you could see with our performances that we were getting better every day. I think it will take us another five to ten years or so. But we will catch up with India very soon and consistently play at that level. They should be careful (laughs).

Q. If the PKL didn't establish itself as the brand it is today, would you still continue with kabaddi as a profession?

Definitely, I was destined to be in this sport. From the first time Coach Jaydev saw me in 2012, he asked me to stick to my core basics and keep working hard. Yes, the money wouldn't have been as consistent, but I'm not playing this sport for money. When I took the decision of taking this up as a profession I knew it was going to be challenging.

Q. What is the major difference in Kabaddi styles here in India and back home in South Korea?

One major difference, aggression. When I started playing, I didn't think of it as a very aggressive game, but when our Indian coach taught us the basics, we realised it was all about aggression. In Kabaddi, apart from being physically strong, you must be able to outwit your opponents and that requires a certain amount of confidence and mental toughness. That is one thing that I have learned after coming to India.

Q. So what does 2016 have in store for you?

My first priority is to win the PKL for my franchise, we have had a difficult couple of seasons, but our performances are getting better and that is very encouraging. I hope to build on this for my own growth and contribute to the national team, whenever required.  

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