The championship fight was just two weeks away, and the man called Dynamite had literally lost his punch. Numerous sports medicine specialists had been called in to try and cure--without success--the stabbing shoulder pain that left boxer Michael Dokes unable to stretch out his arm fully.
Near midnight Nov. 30--with Dokes' Dec. 15 title bout against World Boxing Association champion Mike Weaver fast approaching--Dokes' manager telephoned Daeshik Seo. The diminutive Korean-born physical consultant received the call as he was getting ready for bed and a good night's sleep before teaching a morning martial arts class at New Hampshire College.
In less than 24 hours "the master"--as Seo is called by grateful clients ranging from handicapped children to WBC champion Larry Holmes--was on his way to Las Vegas.
Just seven years earlier, the 43-year-old trainer had made a much longer trip: to the United States from Korea with $380, his wife and four children, five words of English and a head-spinning list of sports and academic credentials. Among them:
Grand master blackbelt taekwondo; second degree blackbelt judo; grand master blackbelt hapkido; Korean lightweight boxing champion, 1957 to 1962; Korean track and field champion in the 100 meters and high jump, 1959; gold medal in modern dance from the International Culture Association, 1974; bachelors and masters degree in physical education from Kwanju National Teachers College; training in nutrition, yoga, acupuncture, finger-pressure therapy and chiropractic.
"I do not include my studies in agriculture and psychology," says Seo of his precisely typed, four-page re'sume', "because I think, maybe, that would be too much."
In the training room at Caesar's Palace, Seo watched Dokes move his arm. "He could not make a full punching motion without pain like needles," recalls Seo, demonstrating the fighter's limited range during an interview in Manchester, N.H., which he proudly calls "my American home town."
On touching the fighter's body, Seo felt "two tendons and a nerve were twisted." Using only hot towels and his hands, Seo spent 90 minutes realigning them. He then instructed the fighter to limit, then gradually increase, his arm movements over the next few days and prescribed several stretching exercises. After four days of Seo's exercises and massages, Dokes was back to full punching power.
"Before the fight I give him a special talk," says Seo. "I tell him not to worry about getting hurt because I can fix him. I tell him he'll win in the first round."
Dokes won in the first round.
The victory was controversial: The WBA ordered a rematch by March 27 in response to critics who feel the fight was ended too soon because of the fatal beating boxer Duk Koo Kim suffered in the same ring one month earlier. No one, however, seems to dispute Seo's skill.
"Daeshik is amazing," says Dokes. "It's impossible to describe what he does and what he is in words. He taught me at least a dozen new things that really helped."
"That man has magic hands," says Dokes' manager Carl King. "What he did with Michael Dokes was incredible. I had a headache and he stopped it by grabbing me between my eyes and nose for 10 seconds, and bingo."
Seo's success is rooted in an Eastern approach to healing centered around the body's own recuperative power. His "treatments"--such as acupressure massage, stretching, nutrition, rest and moist heat--are all geared to triggering natural healing mechanisms.
He doesn't use ice on injuries, for example, for the same reason many Western doctors do: It inhibits swelling.
"The swelling," he claims, "is important for healing." Although "ice kills pain," he says it also constricts the blood flow necessary to heal injured tissue. American athletes, he contends, are too quick to reach for ice bags and chemical pain-killers, when what they should do is use gentle warmth and expert manipulation to realign damage so the injury can heal itself.
"Then you use (the injury) as a lesson. You find out what went wrong to cause the problem, and you correct it."
The major difference between the Eastern and Western approach to sports medicine, Seo says, is that "Western medicine too much relies on machines." Although "some machines, like X-ray, you need" Seo calls most physical therapy gadgets "useless" at best and "harmful" at worst. "Shooting people with B12 makes them get old too fast," he says. "When you push yourself that way you hurt the body."
Beneath his exquisite politeness in explaining his philosophy is an irritation at two "tight-headed" Western ideas he considers central causes of ill health: the focus on cure, rather than prevention, and the notion that the mind and body are two somehow separate entities. Health--and athletic prowess--is achieved, he says, through "balance of the spiritual, mental and physical. If one is not in balance, nothing works right."
The key to achieving this delicate balance is "conditioning"--Seo's all-encompassing word for fitness of body and soul. And the best way to achieve top condition, he maintains, is stretching.
But what Seo means by stretching is far different from the jerky, jumpy toe touches and knee bends Westerners perform to prepare their bodies for a sport. Seo's daily 90-minute stretching session is almost a sport in itself: starting with special breathing, moving to gentle warm-up stretches, then vigorous stretches for every muscle in the body and finishing with cool-down stretches that have a lush, meditative quality. Stretching Seo-style requires intense concentration. The result can be flexibilty, strength, coordination and--to some degree--an aerobic workout.
Most Westerners--including professional athletes--"stretch very, very wrong" in Seo's view. The biggest mistake, he says, is confusing the two basic kinds of stretches: ballistic and static. Ballistic stretches are quick and bouncy, requiring rapid contraction and release of muscles. Static stretches are slow, fluid movements that ease the muscle gently to its limit, then relax it.
Westerners, with their focus on "the gain of pain," often begin with ballistic stretching on a "cold" body, which puts great stress on joints and muscles and can result in injury. The effect, he says, is like twisting a dry sponge. Breathing and static stretching, however, bring oxygen and blood into the "sponge" of muscle, readying it for ballistic movement.
Stretching is just one of the four basic health improvements Seo claims would make Americans more physically and mentally fit, listed in order of importance:
1. Sleep. "The body needs sleep time to come back to its natural state. Not enough sleep gives you great stress." He recommends nine to 10 hours for teen-agers and athletes, 8 1/2 for those under 40 and 8 for those over 40. "American beds are too soft," says Seo, who sleeps on a 6-inch thick mattress on the floor. "They give you backache." The best position for sleep is "on the back with a small pillow just under the neck, leaving the head on the mattress." Second choice, "on your left side" to promote proper digestion.
2. Exercise Right. "Learn from a good exercise teacher with proper training, who has a body that looks like you want to look."
3. Relaxation. "At least three times a day you need to relax for 20 to 30 minutes with any kind of enjoyment--listen to music, talk to people, read, watch TV, write a love letter."
4. Nutrition. Since "in America it's hard to find natural food," he suggests exploring oriental markets and health-food stores. His diet consists of fish, some meat--including the Korean delicacy of deer bones--rice and vegetables. Avoid eating the same foods day after day, he says, to maximize the different kinds of vitamins and minerals consumed.
These concepts should be taught in schools, contends Seo, so "health would become a part of life." Physical education curriculums "need to have more than just sport. It's very important to teach the psychology and nutrition, too."
Seo's own training in taekwondo--the national martial art of Korea--came at age 11 from his uncle, a captain in the Korean special police force. Despite brick-bashing stereotypes, taekwondo is "a nonviolent form of exercise," he says, "that is 100 percent defense." Seo does, however, claim to be one of three people in the world who know the martial art's 147 "killing spots"--which he will not reveal.
Since coming to the United States at the urging of a sister who married an American, Seo has attracted many physical therapy clients--mostly amateur and professional athletes and people with physical handicaps--largely through word of mouth and through his work, teaching and coaching, at several New England colleges.
Although Seo says adjustment to American life was "a little difficult," he and his family "are very happy now." His eldest daughter, 18-year-old Yeonok, stopped the show with her "kung-fu jazz" dance, and won the title at the recent New Hampshire Junior Miss pageant. His three other children also are involved in dance, soccer and martial arts. "They want to be astronauts," he says, "and doctors."
Seo's own dream is to write a book about his sports medicine techniques, get his Ph.D., work with the United States Olympic athletes and open a conditioning center.
"I like to keep busy," he says. "The best way I know to do this is to help people."