World Boxing Association women's featherweight champion Choi Hyun-mi is to swap physical for intellectual combat when she starts university in March in the next stage of an arduous journey. After defending her title for the second time on Nov. 21 against Japan's Denku Tsubasa in a unanimous decision, Choi (19) is recovering from an appendectomy three weeks ago.
"I'm already excited about going to lectures at university," she says. Korea's own "Million-Dollar Baby" has made worldwide headlines due to her background as a refugee from North Korea.
Born in Pyongyang, Choi showed early talent in sports. She joined the boxing team at the prestigious Kim Chul-joo Educational University in Pyongyang in 2003 at the age of 13. The team had been formed in anticipation of women's boxing becoming an official event in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
But her life was to change completely in February 2004, when her father, who worked for an international trade company, arranged a family trip to China. They never went back. Choi's father was the first to arrive in South Korea through Thailand and Cambodia, and five months later, Choi followed with her mother and elder brother. "Adapting to South Korea was a quick process," she says. "Once I became familiar with life here, my boxing gloves naturally came out of the box again."
She soon dominated the amateur boxing circuit in the South, but necessity -- the prize money for the winner of an amateur competition is a mere W50,000 (US$1=W1,171) -- forced her to go professional in her second year of high school in 2007. Then her manager, whom she had trusted, forced her into a 12-year "slave contract," which meant that even when she became WBA world champion in October 2008, she nearly had to miss the defense bout because she did not have enough money.
Help came in June from Yoon Seung-ho, a professor of sports science at Sungkyunkwan University, who heard Choi's story and volunteered to become her promoter. He officially registered as a promoter with the Korean boxing federation in August and prepared her second fight to defend the title. He also chose the opponent and the venue, all with his own money.
Yoon also alerted the producers of the popular MBC show "The Unlimited Challenge," which will air an episode next month looking back at Choi's three-month struggle to prepare for the fight. It was also Yoon who helped Choi get a place at university.
Although Choi wants to make the most of her four years at university, boxing is still the top priority. "Although training is so hard that I sometimes feel I want to die, learning about the world of boxing is such fun," she says. "My first goal is to defend my title 10 times."
She admits she is disappointed when people are more interested in North Korean background rather than her boxing skills but has learned to live with it. "It's my fate," she says. "When I miss my hometown, I run along the Han River, which looks a bit like the Daedong River in Pyongyang."