Jung-Koo Chang: The best fighter you've never heard about

Kyle McLachlan
20/03/2016 5:11am

Whilst the tiniest pugilists have never gained much traction with boxing fans, there are certain names that crop up in conversations with fans who would describe themselves as slightly more than ‘casual’.

Thanks to sporadic appearances on British television and a mythical status among magazine readers of the 1980s, Thai super-flyweight titlist Khaosai Galaxy is fêted for his long unbeaten run as well as his thunderous punches.

Further south of the border, minimumweight kingpin Ricardo Lopez is often found punching above his weight in the upper echelons of all-time great lists and pound-for-pound rankings. Some pundits have pointed to his 51-0-1 record as the definitive undefeated run when Floyd Mayweather’s name is brought up. Mexican warriors are often held up as the gold standard in boxing throughout the Western world, so it is of no surprise that Lopez would have a larger profile than his frame might have given him otherwise.

The first million dollar purse for a bout below flyweight was for the light-flyweight unification between hard-punching Michael Carbajal and adored Mexican switch-hitter Humberto ‘Chiquita’ Gonzalez. Their first fight in 1993 was an action-packed classic that won numerous honours in the end of year lists and both fighters had some degree of crossover appeal. Forum dwellers today still lament the fact that neither Carbajal nor Gonzalez ever faced off with Ricardo Lopez, but it doesn’t tend to detract from their reputations among lower weight aficionados. 

It is somewhat stupefying then that the greatest fighter below flyweight was not from the American continents but the Korean peninsula.

To fans of boxing with more modern tastes, South Korea would never stand out as a pugilistic powerhouse. Lack of interest in boxing due to the rise of Mixed Martial Arts and funding in the grassroots level of the sport has seen South Korea not only on the sidelines but on another pitch entirely.

Rewind a few decades and see a different landscape. Through the 1970s and 1980s world amateur championships and Olympic Games - prior to being the host nation at the ’88 Olympics - South Korean boxers were on the podium eight times. No mean feat in the years ruled over by the American, Cuban and Soviet teams. Their success was not confined to the unpaid ranks, as in the pro game South Korean boxers won titles all the way up to super-middleweight, confounding perceptions of the stereotypically pocket-sized South East Asian boxers.

Jung-Koo Chang (38-4, 17 KOs) was not one of the many amateur standouts from the Korean school, but rather a street tough from the mean streets of Busan who took up boxing as a 12-year-old after watching a world title fight on TV and fought for his first world title before his 20th birthday.

Toting the feint-heavy left hand of many Korean stylists of the time, Chang could do it all. Known as ‘The Korean Hawk’ for his stylistic similarity to Aaron Pryor, Chang would be more accurately compared to a honey badger. He could close the distance and take the initiative and get back out of range before his opponent had time to return the favour. He could box in a languid, jazzy style. He could let off a salvo of punches in close. He could push the pace or reduce the tempo to a crawl, with swarming output reminiscent of Roberto Duran and a crafty inside game that would be recognised by admirers of Bernard Hopkins and Andre Ward. That left hand - constantly swirling, probing and threatening - and his constantly shifting feet and upper body rendered the defence of his opponents untenable and their offence impotent. The right hand that came off it was a laser-guided missile that blasted the roof off for a carpet bomb assault downstairs.

Light-flyweight will never be confused with one of boxing’s matinee divisions and, like the other sub-divisions introduced in the latter half of the 20th Century, it was a construct to bring more revenue to the sanctioning bodies. Still, a division at 108lbs was a necessary evil with the bulging flyweight roster and quickly found itself similarly swelling with talent.

Jung-Koo Chang gladly ripped through the ranks. Devastating bangers like German Torres and Amado Ursua, former and future world champions such as Alfonso Lopez, Hi-Sup Shin, Katsuo Tokashiki and Hideyuki Ohashi, virtuosic talents like Sot Chitalada and the nearly unhittable Hilario Zapata, sluggers and stylists of all shapes and sizes were dumbfounded by the constantly shifting feet and flying fists of ‘The Korean Hawk’.

Like Wilfred Benitez before him, Chang was a teenage phenom. Before he’d seen out two years as a pro he’d beaten three fighters who had held or would claim a world title. Future IBF flyweight titlist Hi-Sup Shin was first, in a battle of South Korean prospects, and classy Panamanian boxer Alfonso Lopez - a former WBA belt holder at flyweight -wilted under Chang’s non-stop pressure soon after. The aforementioned Ursua was three months removed from having the green belt around his waist when he found himself bamboozled by the Korean teenager over 10.

This run of fights saw Chang challenge the elusive and rangy Hilario Zapata for the WBC light-flyweight title previously held by Ursua. To watch the fight now and to see the master fighter force the master boxer to engage is a pure boxing delight. Zapata’s  awkward and educated upper body movement keeping him in the fight where others would falter, his jab constant and sharp, his movement and ring generalship perfectly suited to deal with fighters of Chang’s ilk. Chang feinting Zapata’s radar off-course, forcing him to fight at a higher pace than he desired, punching so often that defence was merely a mirage to give the impression that Zapata was aware of what kind of fight he was in. A perfect blend of styles, and the closest a fight fan will ever get to see the mythical match-up between Roberto Duran and Pernell Whitaker play out. At the end of 15 blistering rounds, Chang found himself on the wrong side of a split decision, but a loser he was not.

When the two best fighters in the division met again six months later a weight-drained Zapata opted out before three rounds were up, unable and unwilling to put himself through another round of Chang’s two-fisted assaults.

Fifteen world title defences followed, as Chang blitzed everyone in his path. Some opponents fell early, befuddled and dazed by Chang’s non-stop offence. Former WBA champ Katsuo Tokashiki saw the end of eight rounds before Chang chased him across the ring and forced him down and out with a gloved blizzard, bringing an epic bout to a close in decisive fashion.

Those that went the distance were drubbed, even Mexican knockout artist German Torres who got closer than most against an off-key Chang in the second fight of their trilogy but was pasted by a refocused Chang in their rubber match.

Perhaps the crowning achievement of Chang’s reign was his 12-round unanimous decision over Thai great Sot Chitalada. With Boxrec being a one-stop shop for many looking to further their knowledge, a cursory glance at Chitalada’s record going into his first bout with Chang will make him look like a comparative novice with only four professional bouts to his name. However, like Saensak Muangsurin before him (won a world title in three fights) and Veeraphol Sahaprom after him (won a world title in four fights), a storied career in professional Muay Thai saw Chitalada geared up for the top level of the sweet science, a point proven when he won the WBC (lineal) flyweight championship just seven months later.

Chitalada had a ramrod jab as powerful as the hooks of his contemporaries and, although a fierce competitor with a multi-faceted approach - as capable of boxing as he was trading blows - he was unable to keep up with Chang, losing a decision in a bout that was competitive as the winner was clear. For much of the 1980s, The Ring lumped light-fly and flyweight together in their rankings. Chitalada ranked first in their end of year rankings more than any other flyweight. Chang was invariably second placed to a fighter he was the clear superior. It is not unreasonable to argue that Chang was the best fighter up to 112lbs in one of boxing’s strongest decades.

But Chang was not infallible. Like other champions who found success in what should have been their formative years, he found himself slipping when most fighters begin to enter their primes. Chang suffered a knockdown and got through a title defence by the skin of his teeth against future WBO flyweight titlist Isidro Perez. What was a routine battering of Hideyuki Ohashi three years into his reign became an up and down slugfest by the time they met again two years later. Chang announcing his retirement shortly afterwards was a wise choice, a fighter admitting that his body was refusing to do what he commanded it to.

Monetary woes after an expensive divorce forced Chang back into the ring a little over a year later. He found that the light-flyweight division had left him behind, with the heir apparent ‘Chiquita’ Gonzalez getting off first and winning a wide decision. Chang’s ability to get his shots off was still there, but the footspeed that had previously made him so hard to counter was failing him. He could get himself close, but couldn’t protect himself.

The four pound climb to flyweight saw Chang closer to his awe-inspiring best, perhaps removed of the shackles of boiling down to 108lbs. Reviewing footage of his second fight with old foe Chitalada - now the best flyweight of the era - it is arguable that Chang was unlucky not to win the decision and a second world title. After Chitalada was dethroned by the sandbag fists of his compatriot Muangchai Kittikasem, Chang received another shot. In a classic battle of attrition with the veteran and the youngster trading knockdowns, Chang - who even past his prime could never be accused of being gun shy - was knocked out in the final round of a fight he was likely winning.

There ended Jung-Koo Chang’s career. Sixteen successful title fights, just four losses in forty-two fights with two up for debate, and fights against his most dangerous peers.

Only one fight eluded him and it might have been the biggest in his career. It might have matched the importance of the Carbajal-Gonzalez super fight had it come off.

Like Chang, Myung-Woo Yuh held half of the light-flyweight crown for aeons. A well-schooled pressure fighter akin to Julio Cesar Chavez, Yuh was short on flair but high on consistency. Winner of 20 title fights - and avenging the lone loss in his career - it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest that Yuh was Chang’s superior.

However, towards the late 1980s, light-flyweight found itself less bustling than it had been. It was still a healthy division, but gelded by the introduction of minimumweight and stuck between great eras saw Yuh face off with a lesser standard of opposition than Chang.

Contracted to fight on rival Korean networks, a bout between the two to settle the debate was caught in the same quagmire that would later see super-fights between Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson and Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather stalled to the point of near irrelevance.

Interviewed by KBS news in 2013, Yuh was glowing in his appraisal of Chang’s ability and humble in his self-assessment regarding his chance of victory.

"He had a tough style, which I wouldn't have got over. I think he had more craft than me. If I had fought him, I'd have needed to think very carefully,” said Yuh. “He was a difficult opponent. If we fought back then, it would have been a super-fight for Korean boxing. The biggest in our history. It was a shame we couldn't arrange it. But I probably would have lost. Being truthful."

If this opinion of Chang seems fair and warranted, the names you have read through this article -Duran, Whitaker, Chavez, Hopkins - may have struck you as hyperbole. These are names that make boxing fans think of greatness and, for them to be brought up when talking about largely forgotten light-flyweights, might seem like ornamentation.

While you may fear that these words aim to deceive, your eyes won’t. Watch Jung-Koo Chang in action and be astounded by the best fighter ever at or below 108lbs.