Double Grand Prix victor is part of Team Korea’s post-Tokyo generation of hungry fighters
Taiyuan, China (October 12, 2023) - When Ho-jun Jin of Team Korea stalked onto the mats of the Taiyuan Grand Prix for the final of the M-68kg, he was facing a man he knew nothing about: Souleyman Alaphilippe of France.
“I had never seen him before!” Jin said. “Just before the finals I checked his videos.”
Jin was fresh from his bronze medal win at the Hangzhou 2023 Asian Games; his trophy cabinet also holds gold from the Manchester 2022 GP and silver from the Baku 2023 Worlds.
Alaphilippe, conversely, is a dark horse, having yet to impact elite-level competition.
But while some fighters prepare a specific game for every different opponent, that is not Jin’s plan.
“I just train myself - not for each opponent,” he said.
Combat commenced with both men going for the body. Jin drew ahead with accurate and highly consistent kicks to take Round 1.
In the second, the Frenchman adopted more flamboyant technique and briefly won a lead, but the Korean regained it and won the round – and the gold – with a cool-headed defensive performance in the final seconds.
“For the first round, the points were getting higher, it was easy to get the points so I felt really comfortable,” Jin recalled. “In the second round, I was working to evade his movements, and I was fighting as quickly as possible. So - that was the gold!”
Jin is proving to be a winning tonic for Team Korea which, like all others, is in the final stage of its transition before 2024.
Jin and other young guns will face their Olympic baptism of fire in Paris.
"That first Manchester GP gold was a really good one, I was happy,” he said. “The second gold is more connected to Paris 2024 as this will put me through to the fifth-place ranking, so it is meaningful.”
Top-ranked players are eased into the Olympics without having to fight through qualifications. Which is why, as Jin puts, the Taiyuan gold, is “a precious medal.”
Even so, he will fight at the GP Finals in Manchester this year, and reckons he needs to fight in at least one Open in early 2024, “to keep my edge.”
With a fourth-dan black belt around his waist, Jin, 21, may be new to Taekwondo’s elite-level international competition, but is no stranger to the sport.
Like so many Korean children, he started at a tender age – first-grade of elementary school – at a neighborhood dojang. As his talent emerged, he began competing.
In the land where Taekwondo was born, the infrastructure is broad and deep. Eyes were watching. By the time he was in third grade, he had been scouted.
Naturally, he cut his teeth on the local circuit before stepping up to the global game.
“In my opinion, the domestic game is [technically] clearer, but the international game is more physical, the strength and height of the players is really different,” he said. “In Korea there are not really tall players, I am kind of tall - but here, I am really small!”
Young and durable, he has fought his way through the top-level circuit with minimal damage so far. “I have lots of little injuries but no big injury,” he said. “My motto is, “Pain is temporary".”
But his real game is more mental than physical. “Taekwondo is kicking and hitting, but even if that is really simple, you need a lot of strategies: it’s a smart sport,” he said.
That defines Jin’s approach.
“I have a lot of strategies that depend on the situation,” he said. “I fight smart style.”
Indeed, his head game starts before combat commences. “I see my opponent in my head, and I pre-play my strategies while walking onto the mats,” he said.
An ambidextrous kicker with excellent footwork, he prefers to fight at short distance – a sensible strategy against taller opponents.
He also specializes in looking north, striking south.
"It’s about faking,” he explained. “I take aim at the head, but hit to the body.”
With Korea a constant Top 3 team, Jin knows he is always going to be in the eyes of the global audience.
He also knows that the retirement of the popular Dae-hoon Lee – who won more peer-voted “Man of the Year” awards than any other Taekwondo fighter – leaves a big hole.
So: Is there a new Dae-hoon Lee on the horizon?
“It could be me!” Jin said. “I want to be a rising star in Team Korea. Cheer me on!”