Road to Rio: Stars to Watch


Who are the top fighters in today’s taekwondo? This is how the sport sees the sport …



Milica Mandic (Athlete, Serbia):
For the men’s team, it has to be the Iranians: In the -58 and -80 categories, they have really good fighters! But for me, the best two male fighters are Servet Tazegul (Turkey) and Alexey Denisenko (Russia). Their fight at the European Championships in Baku was a classic.

Dragan Jovic (Coach, Serbia):
Among the women, I like Lucija Zaninovic (Croatia). She is a long-time, high level athlete, and she never steps back. She is a very dominant fighter: For her, every fight is a fight for life! For the men, it has to be Mahdi Khodabakhshi (Iran). When you see him fight, you have to ask, “How can he get all those points?” And they all look so easy – no stress! He can win a point from every position.

Gary Hall
(Performance Director, Great Britain):
I like Farzan Ashourzadeh Fallah (Iran). He is ultra-modern in the way he plays the game – his front leg and his tenacity on the PSS are really good. The pace he sets in the game is really strong: not many people can go with that pace! And he forces mistakes on his opposition. He is young and he is new and modern. Alexey Denisenko (Russia) is outstanding; over two years, he has not lost many times, though he lost in the final of the World Championships to Servet Tazegul (Turkey). He is a clinical deliverer of modern techniques. He can jump and get out of your way and come downward with a kick on your body pad – really clever!

Ali Sagirkaya (WTF Auditor, ETU Council Member and Turkish Taekwondo Federation International Coordinator, Turkey):
Aaron Cook (Moldova). I like his style. He uses all the techniques, all the taekwondo techniques, and he has fighting spirit: he never backs up! And he is so gentlemanly. He is one of the best athletes, but one of the humble athletes. Great personality! He always respects. That shows to the world the philosophy of taekwondo – that is very important for us. And among the women, Brigitte Yague Enrique (Spain). She has been in it for years and she is always fighting at the top level. Athletes all have a curve – they are up and down – but Brigitte is always on the upper level. If you look at her age and her fighting spirit, you see how great an athlete she is.

Mike Mckenzie
(WTF TV Commentator, Great Britain):
Mahdi Khodabakhshi (Iran). He has amazing strength, ring presence and technique. The ring presence is where you look and expect to score. He may be five or six points down but he can get it back and look comfortable in that situation. The way he dominated the World Championships, I think, is a sign of things to come. The men’s -80kg category is so strong, and for him to stand out in it, is phenomenal. In that division, any one of the athletes on any given day could win a championship or an Olympic medal. Among the women, Kimia Alizadeh Zenoorin (Iran) is one to watch out for. She is tall, very tall for the category, and very strong and very young; she has just come up from the juniors. I have seen her in open championships, she is already giving Jade Jones (GB) and Eva Calvo Gomez (Spain) good matches. She is a dark horse. I have always been a fan of Iranian taekwondo. They are all unique athletes but they have a drive and determination, they are tactically clever and adaptable and they coach well.

Luke Cook (Coach, Moldova):
From the old guard: Servet Tazegul (Turkey). He just does not give a flying monkey’s – he goes in there! He wants to make it a fight, he is exciting to watch. He has all the techniques. The spins! The double spins! He is what taekwondo should be: Come and watch this! And his CV is full; he has won European, World and Olympic championships. And I would have to go for Mahdi Khodabakhshi (Iran). He is very inventive and deceptive in his way of hiding his techniques, he has great reflexes, he is very versatile. You think you can attack down here (gestures) – then he will spin and go up to the top. He is a bit cheeky too: He has fun in the ring, he has a lot of character. And a lot of fighters need to invent a character. A lot of fighters are very simple in their techniques, there is this “parking the bus” mentality. A lot of fighters have just spoiling techniques, they try and shut people down as they don’t have skills in attack. Sport should be entertainment! That puts bums on seats and the more bums on seats, the more exposure; the more publicity, the more that can be earned from it. The fighters should be thinking more positively, more aggressively.
Aaron Cook (Athlete, Moldova):
I like Jaouad Achab (Belgium). He has got that mix of old-school and new-school taekwondo, he is strong and explosive, really good – he brings out the best in taekwondo. And among the women, Brigitte Yague Enrique (Spain). She is so technically good – the way she moves is really good to watch. She has that old -school style, but she is making it work in the new-school style.

Carlos Navarro (Athlete, Mexico):
I would have to definitely say Aaron Cook (Moldova) – he likes to fight! He also looks very baaaaad! He wants to win. That’s what I like! And probably Rafael Castillo (Cuba). He likes to fight. He has many variations, he can kick the face, he can spin and he is very aggressive.

Nafia Kus (Athlete, Turkey):
I choose Mahdi Khodabakhshi (Iran) and Aaron Cook (Moldova) because their technical level is so high and I try to learn in every fight I watch. When I watch those two, I learn new things from them.

Dmitriy Shokin (Athlete, Uzbekistan):
I like the Iranian fighters. I like Farzan Ashourzadeh Fallah (Iran). It does not matter how many times he puts up his leg, every time he gets a point! I like his tactics – he is a very strong athlete. And one more I like is Mahdi Khodabakhshi (Iran).

Kook-hyun Jung
(WTF Technical Committee Head, Korea)
Aaron Cook (Moldova). He is very stable player in his stance and when he kicks. He showed so many varied techniques, kicking, feints, steps, combination kicks. Wonderful! He is fast and powerful and his ring management is excellent. I like his style. And Carlos Navarro (Mexico). He is very aggressive, even if he did not need a point he attacked, performed techniques on the opponent. He has fitness he has game management, he has technique – his back kick is really good. And he is very young so he has great potential in international games in the future.

Philippe Bouedo
(WTF Games Committee Head, France)
I like Aaron Cook (Moldova) and Servet Tazegul (Turkey). They are very exciting, they are totally in the spirt of the new rules. After Beijing 2008, we decided to try to make it more active. Back at that time, a lot of people tried to save time, but under the new rules, if you don’t want to fight, you are penalized. All the rules now are made to make players fight and fight and fight. For me, Cook and Tazegul are the two most active players, they have fighting spirt, they have totally crazy techniques! Even when they have a big score in advance, they fight the match from beginning to end. This is the kind of game I like – and because of these athletes, people all over the world will know taekwondo.


Jaouad Achab (Athlete, Belgium)
Aaron Cook (Moldova). He works very hard to win and always wants to be the best. He is the best in sports and in his normal life. Inside the mats and outside he works very hard and he does everything to win. He has had a lot of problems but he does not give up he continues fighting and is still doing very good. We fought on the same day at the European. That was a very big day for me and for him and we had a lot of fun after, we said, “We will try to make the same day at the Olympics!” And Jingyu Wu (China). She is so smart, she is on another level. She is very strong, very good and when I see her fight I understand what she wants to do and I learn from her.

Jin-bang Yang
(WTF Director General, Korea)
Among the males, I like Alexey Denisenko (Russia). He is a good fighter and he is not only staying with his own habits – he creates some strange style! That is his good point. For the females, Jingyu Wu (China). She is absolutely the best in fighting at this time. She shows everything – mental game, physical game style, fighting pattern – that means, the template for the fight – and strategy.

Usman Dildar
(Vice Chairman, WTF Games Committee, Great Britain)
Aaron Cook (Moldova). That guy has not got the support or training partners of a national team to prepare for the competition, but what he comes up with in every competition, training in the back of his shed to face world-class athletes – it is amazing! I know he has gone to Moldova, but there is no structure for him in terms of team support to have a dedicated coach or physio. From his fights, the problem he had was distancing and that is due to lack of sparring partners. But he is a champion and a hero of taekwondo. Once that situation is facilitated he will be one of the best in the world. And I like Lucija Zaninovic (Croatia) she is adapting and changing all the time. She is very dedicated, she has been through a lot, she is determined and committed to the sport.

Albert Gaun (Athlete, Russia)
Among the women, Milica Mandic (Serbia). She is Serbian, and Serbians and Russian are brothers all the time – or sisters! She has very good concentration and I like her emotion in the fight. For the men, Milos Gladovic (Serbia). He is a young talent, with very good stamina, very good footwork. And he has no single technique – bam! bam! bam! Very good turning kicks!

Marco Ienna
(WTF Staffer, Sport Department, Italy)
For me, Servet Tazegul (Turkey). You know from the past he has seen the changes in all kinds of PSS protectors – but he is still on the top of the athletes in his category. And he can change his skills with no problem. He is not competing just to take points, he is very active and shows all the skills of taekwondo. And for the girls, Jingyu Wu (China). I saw her at the Grand Prix Series 3 in Manchester: She won almost all the fights by point gap, she is still very strong and she can show all the skills – she is not competing with just the front leg. She is not that young: She competed in Beijing, this will be her third Olympics, but she is still competing in very good condition. She tries to be spectacular, to show all the taekwondo skills. In my opinion, she is on a level above all the other athletes.

Jingyu Wu (Athlete, China)
Steve Lopez (USA). In 2007 I started to watch his competitions. I felt that he was very good and he is always a gentleman when he talks to me. He is older than me – almost 10 years – but he always fights taekwondo for so many years, he never gives up! Spirit is very important and I like his spirit. Jade Jones (GB). I like the feeling during her competitions – her stance, her look. From Jones’ eyes, she never gives up and is never scared. She is always focused on the competition – on the fight!

Jade Jones (Athlete, GB)
Jingyu Wu (China). She has that air of confidence, she never looks fazed; she is totally focused. She is on another level. And Farzan Ashourzadeh Fallah (Iran). I like his style of fighting: Very aggressive, always putting pressure on his opponent. That’s fighting attitude!

Haby Niare (Athlete, France)
I love Hedaya Malak (Egypt). She is so nice with all the other people and she is a good fighter – she has elastic legs, I love it! Among the men, I like Farzan Ashourzadeh Fallah (Iran). When he is fighting, he gives all he has and he is so humble.

Lutalo Muhammad (Athlete, GB)
Jingyu Wu (China)! She is absolutely incredible to watch, so exiting: She does all the exciting kicks that you see in the men’s -80kg. The fact that she is a double Olympic champ and on the way to a third gold – wow! I love watching her. She is a step above all the rest. Among the men, Alexey Denisenko (Russia). He is very versatile, he pulls out a lot of head shots from unusual positions. I admire the way he kicks, he is a really good technician and he usually has high scoring matches. And he is genuinely down-to-earth person, really cool; I like that about him.

Denis Sekretev
(WTF Photographer, Russia/France)
Aaron Cook (Moldova), because he is so spectacular. I think he is the most effective athlete when it comes to KOs in championships – for me, for my job, it is a challenge to capture the moment! Jingyu Wu (China) because in the womens’ style of fighting she is spectacular, not just the cutting kick. It seems nobody can beat her.

Mehdi Bibak (Coach, Iran):
Alexey Denisenko (Russia). He is my favorite player, he is smart: You have one mistake in the match and he can kill anybody! He is a really good performer in the fight – this is my ideal player. And Jingyu Wu (China). Amazing! When I saw her training, she checks all the boxes about taekwondo players she knows what she can do in a fight – attack, counter-attack. I think she has more chances for a gold medal. This girl she can get the gold, she has so much distance from other players. I cannot say that about any other player.