A round kick impacts the head protector during the 2018 World Taekwondo Grand Prix Final. Photo: Denis Sekretev/Asia Times

World Taekwondo ended its 2018 fighting season with a yin-yang contrast: There was furious on-mats combat and a ritzy, Oscar-style awards dinner as the Asia-headquartered Olympic federation celebrated its 45th anniversary in boom-crash style.

WT held its elite-level Grand-Prix Final in Fujairah, UAE, on Thursday and Friday. With Tokyo 2020 less than two years away, the tournament provided a preview of likely medalists at the Summer Olympics.

Dueling foot fighters put the boot in. Photo: Denis Sekretev/Asia Times

Also in Fujairah, the Male and Female Players of the Year were named at WT’s annual Gala Awards. This year, both hailed from Asia.

Grand-Prix Final 2018: Shock upsets, crazy scores

Combat took place in eight weight categories (four male, four female). The event invited the world’s top 16-ranked fighters in each category. Up for grabs were prize money, medals and Olympic ranking points.

High-tech is center stage on the mats in Fujairah. Photo: Andrew Salmon

The gold medal matches included a shock win by an upstart against one of the game’s most dominant players and an astonishing victory by the sport’s most famed kicking machine. The two-day finals also re-asserted the dominance of perennial favorite Team Korea – which has, over the last two years, faced a challenge from up-and-coming Team Russia.

In the Men’s-80kg, Russia’s Maksim “Red Machine” Khramtcov – who has won three out of four Grand Prix events so far this year, and is also the current World Champion – did battle with Norway’s Richard Andre Ordemann. The Norwegian – who can boast a bronze at the European Championships, golds at Dutch, German and US opens and little else – was the clear underdog. On paper, Khramtcov should have walked away with gold. Events proved otherwise.

Khramtcov played his crowd-pleasing, ambidextrous and creative, multi-kick game, while the Norwegian plied a more conservative arsenal. But it was the latter who was lighting up the scoreboard with laser-like kick placement and was comfortably ahead at the end of Round 2. In the third, a textbook round kick to the face from the Norwegian stunned the Russian and drew gasps from the crowd. Khramtcov recovered and returned fire with spinning kicks and his trademark axe kick, but flamboyance was no match for icy accuracy. The bout ended with a 27-14 surprise win for Ordemann against one of the most fancied players in the game.

Khramtcov raises Ordemann’s hand after the latter’s underdog victory. Photo: Denis Sekretev/Asia Times

The evening’s other extraordinary performance came from Korea’s Lee, who is even more dominant than Khramtcov and has won virtually everything, bar Olympic gold. In the finals of the Men’s-68kg division, he faced off against teammate Seok-bae Kim.

Lee delivered a stern lesson to his junior, unleashing the kind of technique usually seen in textbooks rather than live bouts. Lee’s high and middle round kicks and jump spinning back kicks provided the crowd – alternatively gasping and cheering – with a display of taekwondo that will probably be recorded in posterity, and which Kim had little answer to. The match ended with Lee on 65 points – a score more common in basketball than taekwondo.

Overall, Korea grabbed four of eight golds on offer, asserting its superiority over Russia, which earlier in the five-tourney Grand Prix season, looked like it would take the 2018 series. The remaining golds in Fujairah went to China, Norway, Turkey, Russia.

Axe kick in action in Fujairah. Photo: Denis Sekretev/Asia Times

Supermodel, superkicker named Players of the Year

At WT’s black-tie Gala Awards Dinner on Friday evening, held at Fujairah’s National Theater, Turkey’s Irem “Gold Hunter” Yaman and Korea’s Lee were named the top players of the year, following a vote by their fellow athletes.

Taekwondo’s 2018 Players of the Year: Turkey’s Irem “Gold Hunter” Yaman and Korean superkicker Lee Dae-hoon. Photo: Denis Sekretev/Asia Times

Yaman is a key player on Team Turkey’s world-beating women’s squad who combines supermodel good looks with a physique that any supermodel would kill for. Although she did not medal in Fujairah, she is the current (2017) world champion and has won two Grand Prix titles this year, as well as the super-elite “Champion of Champions” Grand Slam, a new series inaugurated last year in China.

Korea’s Lee – as proven in the finals – is a superkicker who wields an arsenal of killer strikes fired with the rapidity of a machine gun and the accuracy of a sniper. A triple world champion, he has captured an astonishing 11 Grand Prix titles, as well as a Grand Slam.

Despite his awesome skills, the Korean is well known off the mats for his nice-guy persona and is immensely popular with his fellow athletes: He has been voted “Male Player of the Year” four times. The only hole in his resume is Olympic gold – he managed silver in Rio. That is a hole he looks likely – on current form – to fill in Tokyo.

Fujairah’s National Theater was the scene for taekwondo’s “Oscar Night” – the annual Gala Awards. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

45 Years of World Taekwondo

The federation this year celebrated the 45th year of its founding in Seoul, Korea, with a glossy, photo album and a commemorative video. Taekwondo originated after the Korean War as a martial art and first went global during the Vietnam War but since then, has morphed from martial art to combat sport.

After its debut as a demonstration sport at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, taekwondo became an established program sport at the Summer Games – only the second Asian sport, after Japan’s judo, to make the Olympic roster.

Someone summon a dentist: A superb spinning back-heel kick makes contact with an unsuspecting jaw. Photo: Denis Sekretev/Asia Times

One of the most economic and deployable sports on earth – in its basic form, it requires nothing more than the human body – taekwondo has proven a boon for developing countries. In Rio in 2016, it delivered Cote d’Ivoire its first-ever gold medal, Jordan its first-ever Olympic medal (gold), and Iran its first-ever female Olympic medal (bronze).

Cote d’Ivoire fans make some noise in Fujairah. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

In his address at Friday’s Gala Awards, Fujairah’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Hamad bin Mohammed Al Sharqi, who has sponsored six years of the Fujairah Open, as well as the Grand Prix Final, noted that the UAE has, for the last six years, been investing in taekwondo in the hopes of incubating an Olympic champ. In addition to this year’s elite-level events, Fujairah has also sponsored open championships for the last six years.

An appropriate mascot stands guard outside the entrance to the Zayed Sports Complex in Fujairah – the venue for the 2018 World Taekwondo Grand-Prix Final. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

In recent years, the federation has leveraged taekwondo’s deployability in a range of humanitarian initiatives backed by the UN that that teach taekwondo to refugees in camps in Jordan, Niger, Rwanda and Turkey. It has also reached out to the International Taekwondo Federation – which includes North Korea, while WT represents South Korea – in sports diplomacy, notably in joint demonstrations at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

WT has also adopted high technology, using a protector scoring system (PSS) of electronic sensors built into body armor and headguard to register strikes. Points wirelessly and immediately register on LED scoreboards – a system which largely obviates human error in judging, while making scores transparent to the crowd.

The only cloud on this impressive horizon is spectacle, or rather, lack thereof. Many old-time taekwondo players complain that technique has deteriorated as coaches and fighters innovate new techniques – such as the “monkey kick” – that score on the PSS, but demand little athleticism.

While WT has attempted to remedy this with tweaks to rules – such as by offering more points for the most spectacular (and difficult) kicks – there remain complaints that the game, while fairer than in days of yore, has become less impressive to watch.

Fury on the mats; friendship off them. Photo: Denis Sekretev/Asia Times

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