The makings of a new South Korean superstar?

Just 20 years of age and with only seven international matches to his name (at cadets and junior levels, at that), South Korea’s Lee Joonhwan went into the 2022 Tbilisi Grand Slam a complete unknown.

Not only did Lee surprise everyone by making it all the way to the final, he beat the home favorite, Tato Grigalashvili by ippon to clinch the gold.

This was a complete shock to everyone and the natural question on everybody’s mind was whether this great result was a fluke.

Well, Lee answered that question definitively at the just-concluded 2022 Ulaanbaatar Grand Slam where he won his second Grand Slam gold.

Unlike in Tbilisi where he mostly fought relative unknowns, in Ulaanbaatar, Lee had to face several big names.

He made short work of his first opponent, Mohamed Rebahi (QAT), throwing him with kosoto-gake for ippon within the first minute. Next, he threw Vladimir Zoloev twice with drop seoi-nage. The first was a cross-grip drop morote-seoi to the left which scored waza-ari. The second was a regular drop morote-seoi-nage to the right, which scored ippon.

That brought him up against Japan’s very experienced World and Olympic Champion Takanori Nagase. Against all odds, Lee defeated the Japanese champion with a drop morote-seoi-nage to the left. It was given a waza-ari but they were already in the last minute of the match and Nagase could not even the scores.

His semifinal match was also against another very tough opponent, Frank De Wit (NED). Lee survived the onslaught of fierce gripping by the Dutch player to score with kosoto-gari for waza-ari and then a tewaza push-down for waza-ari-awasete-ippon.

This took Lee into the final where he met Austria’s Shamil Borchashvili. He scored waza-ari in the first minute with a cross-grip morote-seoi-nage to the right and managed to maintain that lead all the way until the end of the match. And with that, Lee won his second gold medal in as many Grand Slams as he has taken part in.

With his ability to throw with drop morote-seoi-nage to the left and to the right with equal facility, Lee is a tough one for his opponents to figure out. He has also shown that he can do kosoto-gari to both sides as well, making him a doubly dangerous player.

It’s still early days for Lee, who is just starting out in his international senior career, but with such an impressive performance in two successive Grand Slams, it’s safe to say he has the makings of a new -81kg superstar, something South Korea hasn’t had since its Olympic and double-World Champion Kim Jae-Bum retired in 2016.