Boxer’s epic win lays groundwork for Korea-Panama ties

Hong Soo-hwan, right, the former WBA super bantamweight champion, poses with Hector Carrasquilla, a boxer-turned-politician of Panama, at Incheon International Airport on Nov. 26, 2017. Carrasquilla visited Korea for the event to commemorate the 40th anniversary of their duel held in Panama in 1977. Yonhap

In the 1970s, Korea was a struggling nation, still grappling with the aftermath of the Korean War that had ravaged the country from 1950 to 1953. Faced with widespread poverty, the government was fervently pursuing a strategy of “export-led economic growth” in an effort to industrialize and transform the economy.

For ordinary Koreans, opportunities to learn about the world beyond their borders were extremely limited. Foreign travel was both restricted and rare, requiring government permits for those who wished to visit other countries. Television sets, a luxury item at the time, were beyond the financial reach of most Korean families and thus not a common source of information. As a result of these constraints on their access to external information, many Koreans remained relatively unaware of small, distant countries like Panama.

During that era of information scarcity, boxing legend Hong Soo-hwan played a unique and pivotal role in introducing the Korean public to Panama and its people, providing them with a rare glimpse into the distant land they knew little about.

His dramatic victory over Panama’s rising boxer Héctor Carrasquilla in the bout for the World Boxing Association (WBA) super bantamweight title marked a milestone event that sparked a newfound awareness and interest in Panama among Koreans.

In 1977, the 27-year-old Korean boxer made a grueling journey to Panama for a match that would become one of the greatest sports moments in Korean history. The trip was an arduous and time-consuming endeavor, as there were (and still are) no direct flights between Korea and Panama.

He recounted that his journey to Panama turned into an unintended “world tour,” as he had to change flights in several global cities, including Tokyo, Hawaii, Los Angeles, New York, and Rio de Janeiro, before finally reaching his destination. The one-way trip took 10 days.

At just 17 years old, Carrasquilla was a fearless and formidable boxer, aptly nicknamed the “Devil from Hell.” With a record of 11 consecutive knockouts, he was a fierce opponent for Hong in their highly anticipated match. The first round was 한국을 relatively uneventful, but in the second round, Carrasquilla unleashed a relentless barrage of punches, knocking Hong down four times. Despite these setbacks, Hong managed to rise each time and continued to fight.

In a stunning display of resilience, Hong made a miraculous comeback in the third round, delivering a decisive knockout that left Carrasquilla unable to get up. With this victory, Hong clinched the WBA super bantamweight title, making history as the first Korean boxer to hold world championship titles in two different weight classes — the WBA and The Ring bantamweight titles in 1974 and the WBA super bantamweight title in 1977.

His relentless perseverance and dramatic victory generated a tremendous buzz. The way he rose from four knockdowns in the previous round to deliver a knockout blow in the third round was so extraordinary that many people regarded the outcome as being legendary rather than just a victory.

Hong rose to stardom, becoming a household name and receiving a rock-star welcome back home. Wearing a flower garland around his neck, he and his mother and older brother were honored with a jubilant vehicle parade from Gimpo International Airport to City Hall in the heart of Seoul.

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