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Nick Butler: Taekwondo World Championships a great advert but the sport must continue to evolve

Nick Butler: Taekwondo World Championships a great advert but the sport must continue to evolve

It may hold the rather dubious honour of having American nu metal act Limp Bizkit and English veteran Sting as the best known musicians to have played within its walls, but the 7,500 capacity Traktor Ice Arena in Chelyabinsk has this week provided another strong advert for Russia’s reputation as an efficient host of major sporting events.

Servet Tazegül: The Legend Continues

Servet Tazegül: The Legend Continues

They said he did “old-style taekwondo”; they said the sport had moved on; they said that, plagued by injuries, the European, Olympic and world champion was past his prime.

Well, talk is cheap.

On May 15 in Cheylabinsk’s Traktor Arena, the most famed fighter in the sport delivered a bravura performance, electrified the taekwondo community and proved to the world that Servet Tazegül is most definitely back.

In the finals of the 2015 World Taekwondo Championships - a tournament in which conservative, tactical fighters wielding front-leg cut kicks and push kicks have dominated - Tazegül delivered a live technical seminar on taekwondo’s most spectacular techniques.

The 26-year-old Turk, who teaches at the Leopard Taekwondo Club in Nuremberg is nicknamed “The Cheetah” and it is easy to see why: He is as fast, as stylish and as fearless as the killer cat.

Facing Korea’s Dong-yun Shin in the first semifinal of the men’s -68kg final match, Tazegül stamped his personality on the match from the opening bell.

Most fighters start slow, probing their opponent with jabbing kicks. Not Tazegül.

The Turk lit up the scoreboard with three points courtesy of his bespoke jump spinning back kick - fired from impossibly close range - and letting rip with a war cry. Fighting from the clinch, he grabbed another point with a turning kick.

The Korean scored, then the Turk unleashed a scorching spinning heel kick to Shin’s head - drawing a cheer from the crowd - that did not register on the protector and scoring system (PSS). Another spinning head kick was unleashed from the edge of the mats.

Firing yet another jump spin kick, he was countered by the Korean in mid-flight and visited the mats. After a firefight of kick-kick-kick, the Turk scored to the midsection. By the end of Round two, it was 9-4 to Tazegül.

Round three continued in fast ‘n furious style, with kickathons, clinch work and Shin responding to the challenge, attempting to drop the ax on the shorter Turk. Tazegul raised the points to 13-7, then yet another jump spin back kick - fired yet again from crazy-close range - took the board to 7-16. 

With five seconds left, it was 11-16. The fight went right down to the bell, ending 13-16 to The Cheetah. This was the taekwondo that the crowd had come to see; the Turk received an ovation as loud as that accorded to any of the Russian fighters.

Servet Tazegul (left) kicked and spun his way to a second world title in Chelyabinsk ©WTF
Servet Tazegul (left) kicked and spun his way to a second world title in Chelyabinsk ©WTF

The final pitted "The Cheetah" against an opponent worthy of his skills. World-ranked number one Alexey Denisenko of Russia, bronze medalist in London 2012 and victor at the Grand Prix Final in Queretaro, Mexico in 2014, is another fearless, high-scoring fighter, noted for flamboyant high kicks and aerial attacks.

Denisenko strode on to the battlefield to thunderous applause, followed by Tazegül, who raised his head protector in salute.

Both fighters looked tense, perhaps sensing that there was more at stake than simply a World Championship:  The crowd was anticipating a classic match - a Hector versus Achilles, an Ali versus Frazier, a clash of titans.

They were not disappointed.

At the opening bell, Tazegül leapt into the attack, driving his opponent off the mat with serial jump spinning kicks, then opening the scoring with a one-point lead.

After this initial explosion, things slowed down, but only briefly; then Tazegül unleashed his patented spin back kick, earning three points. Denisenko returned fire, connecting with a head kick from the clinch.

Three points flashed up on the board - but were deducted: The hit had been on the break, taking the score back to 4-0 in the Turk’s favor. Both athletes recommenced, kicking with killer intent and Denisenko connected to the head. The scoreboard was flashing like a pinball machine: Round one ended 5-4 to Tazegül

Early in Round two Denisenko leveled it to 5-5. The crowd was in lunatic mode, as the two perfectly matched fighters unloaded taekwondo’s full arsenal on one another.

The Turk fired a spin kick, the Russian shot back with a head kick, the Turk ducked under it. In blink-and-you-miss-it action, the board flashed to 6-6, then 7-7. In Round three Tazegül punched and Denisenko responded with a left-right kick barrage. Tazegul’s wicked spinning back kick struck again, taking his score to 10 points. Denisenko tried to drop the ax, but slipped. In the dying seconds, the Russian appeared to land a head kick but to no avail: the round ended; the smoke cleared; and The Cheetah was world champion with a score of 10-7.

It was not just a convincing performance, but a relief, for the Turkish legend has been impacted by a series of events that have cracked his focus, damaged his body and kept him off the mats.

Servet Tazegul poses with the Turkish flag after winning the Olympic gold medal at London 2012 ©Getty Images
Servet Tazegül poses with the Turkish flag after winning the Olympic gold medal at London 2012 ©Getty Images

Just before the 2012 Olympics, his mother - to whom he was very close - passed away. After winning gold in London, he suffered a series of injuries: Torn foot muscles, knee problems, a broken hand, a broken toe.  More happily, he has also bought a house, got married and has a child on the way.

“There have been a lot of things, I have not been in the arenas,” he said. “But real champions are the ones who go down, then climb up to the top again. That motivates me a lot - I want to show that I am a real champion.”

He had not expected to take gold in Chelyabinsk. “Coming here I was targeting medals, any medals, not the gold,” he said. “I did not know myself how I was going to make it: Each round, the first preliminary, the second preliminary, each fight motivated me more and more, and in the semi-finals, I told myself, ‘Don’t think about my opponent - they have to think about me!’”

And there was a deeper motivation for the day of the finals was a very personal one for Tazegül. “As soon as I saw the timetable, I knew that was her birthday,” he said. “I wanted to get that medal for my mum.”

Speaking the day after his victory, Tazegül was critical of the current generation.

Calling the dominant front-leg, tactical game uninteresting to watch, he said: “The reason I started taekwondo was because of of Jackie Chan movies with spinning kicks. [In the current style] you have to make a strong front leg, but in my style you have to be really strong on both legs, to be in really good conditions. This is real taekwondo - the taekwondo that I love!”

Remarkably Tazegül says his clash against Denisenko was not his optimum game. “It was not really my old form,” he said. “There were many targets I aimed for but could not make. The old Servet would have hit those targets.”

But his kind of high-impact, high-level taekwondo is also high risk: While he scores a lot of points, Tazegül's offensive style also makes him easier to score against than cagier fighters. “They call me crazy, nobody can guess what I am going to do,” he said. “But  win or lose, I am happy. I see all taekwondo as a big family and if, among this family, someone gets the prize instead of me, that is okay.”

Everybody in Chelyabinsk - athletes, coaches, fans, officials - has been talking about his match; his return to competition is great news for the sport.

“We saw tactics and strategy, but we also saw the kind of dynamic action we want in taekwondo competition,” said Mike McKenzie, the WTF’s TV commentator of the Tazegul-Denisenko epic. “This is what makes taekwondo exciting.”

For the next 15 months, Tazegul will be competing in every competition available to earn ranking points for the Olympics. But watch him while you can. After Rio, “The Cheetah” expects to retire from the mats. 

Masoud Hajizavarah: The joyful Iranian warrior

Masoud Hajizavarah: The joyful Iranian warrior

It was not difficult to conclude that Masoud Hajizavareh was a happy man.

At the award ceremony to collect his gold medal in the male under 74kg division at the 2015 World Taekwondo Championships in Chelyabinsk's Traktor Arena, he did not just step up onto the winner’s rostrum, he leapt onto it with a huge grin lighting up his face.

And that is not an unusual state of mind, for the 26-year-old enjoys what he does.

“The most important thing is I really enjoy competing,” he said, adding: “I kind of like to fight.”

Hajizavareh’s game is on the up.

The world-ranked number eight, he won bronze at the 2014 Grand Prix in Manchester, and a gold at the Asian Games in Incheon, the same year.

But to add a World Championship to his growing list of titles in the World Championships in Chelyabinsk he had to face, after cleaving his way through the preliminaries, hometown favorite Albert Gaun of Russia.

Their semi-final match opened with a war of nerves as both men sparred for distance at the center of the mat.

It was the Iranian who landed first, taking the round, 1-0, before Gaun came out stronger in the second, pulling the score up after an appeal by the Iranian coach was nixed.

The round ended 4-4, leaving everything to play for in the third with the crowd roaring for Gaun.

Masoud Hajizavareh celebrates winning the gold medal at the Incheon 2014 Asian Games ©AFP/Getty Images
Masoud Hajizavareh celebrates winning the gold medal at the Incheon 2014 Asian Games ©AFP/Getty Images

Late in the final round, the Iranian landed a punch, taking a one-point lead - then Gaun himself connected with his fist in the very last second.

That took the match to golden point and, as both athletes came out fighting. Gaun fired off a head kick, but the Iranian countered with an ax kick that landed on the body protector - taking both point and match.

“He was the most difficult opponent, and in the previous World Championships I had lost to Gaun, so I had planned and studied how to fight him,” he said.

“But though he was the most difficult opponent, in all my previous matches the athletes were the best - they were all difficult.”  

In the finals, Hajizavareh faced world third-ranked Nikita Rafalovic of Uzbekistan.

From the start, neither man gave an inch, dueling in center court.

Hajizavareh caught the Uzbek by surprise with a high kick, winning three points, following up with a punch, for a 4-0 lead.

Trusting to his reflexes and distancing, Hajizavareh dropped down into low, open stances, taunting his opponent. Rafalovich was game, but the Iranian’s accuracy proved superior: another out-of-the-blue ax kick rattled Rafalovich.

Round two ended 2-8.

Masoud Hajizavareh brilliantly lands a head-kick to take what proved to be a winning lead in his final ©WTF
Masoud Hajizavareh brilliantly lands a head-kick to take what proved to be a winning lead in his final ©WTF

As the seconds counted down, the Uzbek went all out, but Hajizavareh kept his cool and took the title 9-7.

The key technique the Iranian uses is crowd-pleasing and point-winning: The Iranian is an ax man.

“The ax kick - this is my main skill,” he said.

"But what about that business of dropping back into low stances and taunting his opponent?

“When I compete I want to do everything to make people enjoy it more,” he said, adding: “Just a little!”

A native of Kermanshah, Hajizavareh is a full-time athlete.

Working out at the House of Taekwondo in Tehran, he undergoes two training sessions a day, one in the morning - conditioning - and one in the evening - techniques and tactics.

“I believe that the Iran National Team is enjoying the best coaches in the world ever,” he said.

“They are very up to date, and the athletes follow all the guidelines of the coaches.” 

Iran’s taekwondo assets include not just state support but even a dedicated taekwondo TV channel.

To reach his current elite status on the national squad, he previously spent eight years in training camps, eating, drinking and breathing taekwondo, a skill has practiced for 20 years.

That conditioning has rubbed off. 

The man is totally absorbed by the sport: During this interview, in the venue media center, his attention kept wandering up to the screen broadcasting the matches.

“I have no plans for life now, I am so focused on the Olympics!” he said.

“I have been married for five years, but no children yet.”

 Asked if this kind of laser-like focus is necessary to be a champion, his response is immediate.

“Yes!” he said, adding: “To be successful, you have to dedicate your life to it.”

He has no hobbies beyond taekwondo, and, as for his post-competitive career, the answer is predictable: “I will continue as a coach.”

However, unlike team mate Farzan “The Tsunami” Ashour Zadeh Falleh he does not have a nickname. If he did, what might it be?

Hajizavareh thinks for a moment, before claiming: “If I had a nickname, it would be ‘warrior.’”