World's Fastest Kicker

By Terry Wilson,
BLACK BELT, APRIL 2001

“Faster than a speeding bullet.”

The phrase was coined to describe a certain superhero from the planet Krypton, but it can also be used to describe a Korean taekwondo master from Pittsburgh. Young Bo Kong may not be Superman, but being dubbed the fastest kicker alive gives him and the Man of Steel something in common.

Kong’s lightening-fast kicks have amazed spectators for decades. At 47, the Korean master moves so quickly that his techniques are almost a blur to the naked eye. To give you an idea of just how fast his kicks are, consider this: I tried to photograph him in action, but his kick had already landed by the time my shutter had released. To improve my odds of success, I asked him to kick on the count of three. When I reached two, I activated the shutter. I had to be one full count ahead of his kick to capture the motion on film. That’s what I call fast.

Kong insists there is no supernatural power propelling his feet at supersonic speeds. “I just trained very hard, often doing up to 4,000 kicks a day,” he says.

If you wish to become that proficient at attacking with your legs, you must dedicate your body and mind to the task, says Kong, who - together with his brothers, Young Il Kong and Young Joon Kong - operates more than 45 taekwondo schools in the United States. You probably won’t have to endure grueling thousand-kick workouts, but when you’re done you may feel like you did.

The Need for Speed

Between the ages of 18 to 22, Kong trained from six to seven hours a day to perfect his kicking skill. His hard work paid off when he won the middleweight grand championship at the 1973 Pan American Games. The following year, he placed first in a grand championship in Canada, and in 1975 he earned another world title in the middleweight division at a North American event.

Kicking High and Kicking Low

If you are forced to defend yourself on the street, says eighth-degree black belt Young Bo Kong, never try to use techniques that are beyond your martial arts abilities. “When it comes to self-defense, do something from the waist down because people are stronger (when they attack there), he says. “Novices are not good enough to do high kicking.”

He also advises you to consider the limitations imposed by your clothing. High kicks and jumping techniques are generally impractical to execute when you’re wearing restrictive clothing such as jeans, a skirt or a long coat, he says.

“But even if you’re wearing tight jeans, you’ll be able to kick below the belt,” Kong says. The assailant’s knees, shins and thighs are also effective self-defense targets, he adds.

Despite these caveats, Kong insists that all taekwondo techniques can be practical on the street. If you’re really an expert, none of the above-mentioned factors should affect your kicking because you will find ways to work around them, he says.

-Sara Fogan

Unlike many Korean fighters of the era who competed mostly in sanctioned taekwondo events, Kong fought in more than 200 open tournaments, pitting his skills against all styles and stylists. “I have been told my kicks were so fast that they were just like a blur,” he recalls.

“My kicks were two, sometimes three times faster than my opponent’s. That allowed me to score quickly, oftentimes while my opponent was still in midair.” and so his reputation for fast kicks was established.

Feel the Power

Whenever an opponent launched a roundhouse at Kong’s head, he would time his response so he could spin out-side the attack and counter with a back kick. However, the champ soon realized that a fast kick that lacks power is nothing more than a push that has little effect on the opponent.

That’s when he recognized the need to develop power to accompany speed. He then set about adding the second essential component of killer kicks, and the heavy bag proved to be a valuable tool.

“Many people kick the bag merely to get it to swing high into the air,” Kong says. “But there is no power there. It is merely a lot of pushing. When you have a fast snap and the bag does not move, but rather it bends or caves in, then you know you are developing your power. If you just push an attacker, you cannot deliver a critical injury to his body. But when you snap a kick so hard and with such speed that it lands properly, it will break right through his bones. When you practice, your goal should be to kick so fast and hard that the bag caves in.”

Because all kicking power emanates from the hips, Kong says, you need to develop fast hip action. “Rotating your hips is very important because there is no other way to get power,” he says. “So you must practice rotating your hips with your kicks thousands of times a day.”

Ultimate Test

The only real way to gauge the growing power of your legs is through the art of breaking, Kong says. “To unleash such a blow on the human body would surely result in that person’s death or serious injury, so we use boards instead of bodies,” he says. The taekwondo expert claims that the most difficult break is when several boards are handheld together.

3 Keys to Better Kicks

“I punch like a boxer, using straight jabs and uppercuts,” he continues. “I use punches to set up a leg attack, and I use my legs to set up my hands. For example, if I (throw an) uppercut to the ribs and he drops his guard to block it, I can then kick him in the head. And if I fake a kick and he tries to block it, that opens him up for a hand attack to the face or body.”

When he finds himself in a real fight, Kong uses his hands and feet to strike the most vulnerable targets. “I like to use a low kick in a situation like that, especially if the attacker has a knife,” he says. “When your life is on the line, you must draw upon all your martial arts skills to survive. It doesn’t matter if it’s a taekwondo kick, a judo throw or a kickboxing punch — if it works on the street, use it.” Better kicks come from stronger hips, says Pittsburgh’s resident taekwondo expert, Young Bo Kong. He credits much of his phenomenal kicking skill to his flexibility and strength.

“The more kicks you do, the more stretching you have to do,” Kong says. Stretching is important to make sure you don’t pull any muscles when you kick. Therefore, you should break up your kicking regimen with frequent stretching exercises.

The second key to better kicking is strength training. Exercise such as leg raises, squats and actual repetitions of various kicks can work wonders to build your muscles and improve the power of your leg strikes, Kong says.

Perhaps the most important key of all is to get the basics down pat, Kong claims. Only when you have mastered the front kick, side kick and snap kick can you progress to more advanced techniques and drills, he says.

“It is important to learn from your instructor the right way to throw the techniques,” he says. “Sometimes you will get bored, but that’s how you build your strength.”

-Sara Fogan

“Many masters can break large stacks of boards and bricks when they are supported by a brace or by a large number of people,” he says. “But not many can break eight 1-inch boards that are being held by two people. The boards are so thick that there is no way for the average person to get a good grip on them. They are basically dangling midair. If they aren’t hit with speed, which generates power, they will merely fly unbroken from the holders’ hands. But if you kick very fast with a strong snap and focus, the boards will break in half — just like the heavy bag caves in when you kick it properly.”

Hand Power

Like many taekwondo stylists, Kong depended on his kicking skills to put him in the winner’s circle during his days on the circuit. However, he concluded that he was neglecting two very important weapons: his hands.

“In the early ’70s, my hands were just like any other Korean fighter’s hands,” he says. “I did not have very good punching skills, but eventually I realized that my hands were just as important as my feet. So I looked for ways to improve my hand skills.”

To accomplish his task, Kong began training with a kickboxer in Korea. “He taught me how to box and how to use my hands effectively,” Kong says.

He also trained with his older brother. “He was excellent with his hands and one of the first Koreans to emphasize Western punching techniques in addition to our Korean art form,” Kong adds.

All that cross-training in kickboxing and boxing produced a taekwondo fighter with exceptional power and speed in all his limbs. “Eventually I started using my hands as much as my legs,” Kong says. “As I’ve gotten older, my hands have become a very important weapon for me. In fact, today I use my hands about 60 percent and my legs 40 percent of the time.