CAMP HUMPHREYS, Republic of Korea -- Since the beginning of the Korean War, in 1950, Americans have been guests in South Korea for various reasons. The presence of U.S. Soldiers during the war has altered the peninsula, and that impact was felt by many Koreans, including a professional boxer.
Hong Soo Hwan, a South Korean, and the two-time World Boxing Association (WBA) bantamweight title holder, started his professional boxing career after he won his first fight, with an American Soldier.
"As a boxer, and as a Korean, I am thankful for the Americans," Hong said. "They saved our country. Without America, I couldn't be a world champion."
Hong's boxing career started after he met Army Sgt. 1st Class Tom Casey, in 1969, a year after Casey was stationed at the Shae Fieldhouse [gym] in Bupyeong [near Incheon]. Casey was in charge of the sports recreation at the center.
"Tom Casey was like my father or my uncle," Hong said. "My father passed away when I was very young and our household had tough times economically, so my mother and I moved near Incheon, where I met Tom. Since then, he took care of me -- he thought I was a smart boy and a good boxer."
Hong met Casey through his mother, who was a contractor, running the snack bar for Korean Augmentations to the United States Army [KATSUA] soldiers on post and a friend of Casey's secretary.
"She knew who I was," Casey said. "She asked me if I could get him in the ring. Bupyeong was like Camp Humphreys now. I ran the gym and asked Hong if he wanted to fight in our gym and he said he would love to. That was 50 years ago."
This was the start of Hong's boxing career. Beyond training, Casey made sure Hong looked the part of a pro-fighter.
"He gave me the best equipment, gloves, trunks, and a mouthpiece," Hong said. "I enjoyed boxing. At that time, we were still very poor and hungry, but I looked like a very healthy professional boxer, thanks to him."
HONG'S BOXING CAREER
Hong was at the gym regularly. While training, he competed against many Korean counterparts and won most matches.
With that, Casey thought of a different challenge. He told Hong if he was going to be a professional fighter that he would have to compete with everyone, in all nationalities. He told him all his opponents won't be Koreans.
"Koreans would be afraid to fight the American Soldiers, because of the size and power difference," Hong said. "He [Casey] made the Koreans fight against the American Soldiers; he put me in."
Hong used his experience and training against the American Soldiers.
"I was a professional boxer, and they were amateur fighters," said Hong. "I easily handled them, but their spirit was tough. They were really good. Some of these Soldiers had good jabs, and good moves, but I also knew how to use the Americans style when I boxed. The Americans taught me to throw a jab."
Not only did he use the orthodox stance and jabs when he fought, but also demonstrated the "tough" Soldier spirit in both of his title wins.
In 1974, while completing his Korean military service obligation, he won the Lineal and WBA bantamweight title, by defeating Arnold Taylor. Hong won by decision after being knocked down in the first, fifth and 14th rounds.
He then pursued a different challenge, in 1977. He moved up a weight class to defeat Hector Carrasquilla, by knockout. Hong won the fight in the third round, despite being knocked down four times in previous rounds. [This is the most memorable fight noted by the Koreans and they refer to it as an example of "never give up."]
Although Hong was a world champion, he never forgot the bonds of friendship. Hong made his way home to see his old friend, Tom.
"When Hong won the title in '74, I was still here [in Korea]," Casey said. "It was at night when I heard a knock on my door. It was Hong. I joked with him and told him, he couldn't go anywhere these days because he was so famous.
"We sat together for a little while, until he handed me a brown sack. I looked in the bag and it was a whole lot of money. He was trying to pay me back for our times together. But, I told him he didn't owe me anything and that we were friends," he said.
That friendship has lasted more than 50 years and is still going strong today.
Currently, Casey resides in Pyeongtaek [near Camp Humphreys] with his wife, who works at the 121st Combat Support Hospital. Even though, he is retired from the military, Casey is actively involved with his property investments.
Hong lives near Suwon [an hour from Seoul] and travels the world as a motivational speaker. When he is in town, he manages his own gymnasium in Seoul, and serve as Chairman of the Korean Boxing Commission.
Earlier this month, Casey gave Hong a special tour of Camp Humphreys, including the Super Gym. Hong was impressed and expressed his sincere gratitude for their relationship and the American Soldiers.
"When Korean fighters meet American fighters, they are so shy," Hong said. "They can't express their power. But, I was on a military base. I was fighting the Americans, so when I fought abroad, I had no intimidation. I'm really thankful for the American Soldiers and my friend, Tom Casey. Thank you for my career and my life. I am so grateful."