Secret to winning taekwondo? Try not to get kicked

By Maria Cheng
The Associated Press

MANCHESTER, England (AP) — For the Iranian competitors, simplicity rules. Whereas for the Taiwanese, it’s grace and accuracy. But for the Europeans, it’s strength and speed.

At last weekend’s British Open in Manchester, regional interpretations of Korea’s oldest martial art are clashing in one of the key taekwondo competitions before the London 2012 Olympics.

The Iranian team boasts three world champions and has top fighters in nearly every category. On Saturday, Oct. 1, Iranians won two golds and three silvers. Their sparring success was based largely on taekwondo basics — sharp and quick roundhouse kicks delivered with devastating power.

Unlike many taekwondo teams — who have focused on spinning or turning kicks to the head that score more points — the Iranian squad often concentrates on the sport’s most basic kick, worth only one point.

Iranian fighters spend much of their matches avoiding getting kicked by swaying out of range, but once they move in to counterattack, they often score a solid hit.

“The point is to win the match,” said Yousef Karami, a former world champion and winner of the bronze medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Karami, who is coaching his compatriots in Manchester, said the high spinning kicks that score four points are often too risky and hard to disguise, since fighters are immediately vulnerable to a counterattack if they don’t land the kick.

“This is not a demonstration,” he said. “When you kick, you want to make sure you score a point.”

The low-risk but reliable roundhouse kicks aimed at the body are a much better bet, Karami said.

The Taiwanese team, however, is known for their great flexibility and fluid movements. Many Asian fighters spend considerable time stretching.

That clearly comes with major sparring benefits for their fighters, who often launch attacks with a swooping ax kick that must be accurate enough to land on the opponent’s face to score.

In Europe, players work predominantly on their strength and speed.

“We focus on our fighters firing off a lot of combination kicks,” said Joseph Salim, one of the British national team coaches. “So if they attack with five or six kicks, hopefully a few of them will land and score points.”

Hasanein Khafaji, a fighter on the Iraq national team, said he has noticed regional variations among taekwondo competitors from around the world and that he adapts his fight strategy in the ring accordingly.

“With the Chinese fighters, you know they’re flexible enough to kick high, even when they’re very close,” he said. “But with the Iranians, they’re not going to raise their legs until there’s a 99 percent chance of scoring a point.”

In Manchester, however, unorthodox strategies also proved successful. In the men’s 58 kilogram division, Germany’s Levent Tuncat employed a flashy style of near-continuous spinning and jumping kicks that occasionally drew gasps from the spectators on Saturday.

“I love to fight crazy,” Tuncat said. “The spin kicks are nice for people to see, and it also makes (your opponent) nervous. They don’t know what to do.”

That seemed to be the case in his final against Iran’s Mostean Hadi, who focused on single kicks to the body.

Hadi later switched to spinning kicks, but it was too late — the match was stopped in the third and final round with Tuncat leading 18-6. Under taekwondo rules, matches are stopped if a player gains a 12-point lead, since the gap is considered too big to close.

But British coach Salim conceded that winning taekwondo fights is essentially straightforward and that no country has a monopoly on the best strategy.

“Try not to get kicked,” he said. “And then kick fast and kick hard.” (end)

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