Wuxi 2017 Grand Slam – Day 3 preview: Asian athletes favorite in F-49, M+80 open to surprises
Women’s -49 kg
In the Women’s -49kg division, 2017 was the year for Panipak Wongpattanakit.
Though the Thai only managed a bronze at the Olympics in Rio in 2016, in 2017 she took silver at the Worlds in Muju, then captured three out of a maximum of four golds – in Moscow, London and Abidjan –in the Grand Prix series. Tall and super-flexible, she attacks from radical and unexpected angles, often kicking to the back of the opponent’s head, but is equally effective with her body attacks. Given the multiple threats she represents, it is difficult to say that anyone in the category is a realistic rival.
However, three Korean athletes who will be competing in the third edition of the super-elite World Taekwondo Grand Slam series in Wuxi, eastern China will be gunning for her head: So-hui Kim, Jae-young Sim and Min-ah Ha.
Since Wongpattanakit lost to master tactician Kim – the eventual gold medalist – in Rio in 2016, she has upgraded her game under the keen eye of her coach, Yong-sok “Tiger” Choi. Wongpattankit’s right-foot body kick and rear-leg head attack are now world-class, and although the three Koreans are well aware of this arsenal and will have analyzed it, whether they can counter it is open to question. None of the three Korean girls can match the Thai’s scorching scorpion kick to the head.
In last year’s Grand Prix series, Wongpattanakit used not only her right-foot attack, but added a left-foot body attack and a punch to her collection of weapons, leading to high scores in almost all her matches. Most players lost to her with embarrassingly wide gaps, in the 20-point range. These point chasms are a telling comment on the Thai’s high skill. If she is on game form and in top physical condition, she looks set to storm through to the finals of not only the Grand Slam, but also the other major competitions of 2018.
None of the three Korean fighters managed to beat Wongpattanakit in the 2017 season, so will all be looking for revenge in 2018. Olympic Champ Kim has excellent endurance and a very tricky defensive fighting style. A master tactician, she has fast footwork and both head and body attacks, topped off with a nice spinning heel kick. However, she is half a head shorter than the Thai girl, which makes her vulnerable on the high line.
In Wuxi, Sim is on the opposite side of the match tree to Wongpattankit and Kim, so has a good chance of fighting all the way through to the finals. Her nickname is the “Ice Princess,” as she is such a cool-headed player. She can both defend and attack with the front foot, attack with an ax kick and also possesses a dangerous (and high-scoring) spinning back kick. Sim only lost to the Thai in the Grand Prix Final in Abidjan on golden point, indicating she may have the best chance among the three Koreans of beating Wongpattanakit.
The third of the three Korean musketeers in the category is Ha. At the 2015 Worlds in Chelyabinsk she astonished taekwondo pundits by defeating double Olympic gold medalist Jingyu “Superkicker” Wu of China. Ha’s big advantage is her leg control: She can machine-gun kick from body to head and back down again. In the Moscow Grand Prix, she suffered a huge point loss against Wongpattankit, but if she keeps her head and focuses on her defense, she is in with a chance.
Then there is Tijana Bogdanovic from Serbia who won silver after being very narrowly defeated by Kim in Rio in 2016. At the Worlds in Muju in June she pressured Wongpattanakit, and though she has had a disappointing season in 2017, she has superb backing – in the person of 2017’s Coach of the Year Dragan Jovic – and may recover her Rio form. Vanya Stankovic is the second up-and-coming young threat from Jovic’s stable; she won her category at the Worlds in Muju.
The dark horse is Team GB’s Charlie Maddox. After winning the Grand Prix Final in Baku, Azerbaijan in 2016, she has been out of competition for reasons unknown, but is certainly a contender for what looks like her comeback fight in Wuxi.
“It is a strong category, as we have five serious contenders with solid track records going for gold,” said Mohamed “Meedo” Shaaban, WT Games and Equipment Committee Chairman. “We hope they will give their top performance at this prestigious event.”
Nothing is certain in sport, so who banks the USD70,000 first-place prize money in Wuxi is open to question. But on past form, the Thai fighter looks like the most serious contender.
Men’s +80 kg
The male heavyweight category is a top draw in any combat sport – and so it is with taekwondo.
But in no other weight category in the game have so many top athletes lost their form since the Rio Olympics, meaning the winner of this category in the Grand Slam in Wuxi defies prediction. There has even been a generational change since the Worlds in Muju in June 2017. Previously the category was all about size, strength and physique. Now it is more about speed, technique and experience.
The top seed is 2016 Olympic Champ Radik Isaev of Azerbaijan. He is tall and strong, with a very difficult style to fight, but his form has deteriorated since his Rio triumph.
As per the match tree, Iran’s Sajjad Mardani and Korea’s Seung-hwan Lee are placed to fight him first. Mardani failed to medal in Rio, but came back to win the Grand Prix Final in Baku in 2017, but has not had a significant victory since then. However, Team Iran needs a victory, and Mardani is powerful and hungry.
Lee is an unknown quantity: He qualified not via Olympic rankings, but via the qualification tournament. Fans will hope that this dark horse can offer the same stellar level of performance as fellow Korean Hwan Namgoong, another relatively unknown fighter who entered the tourney via qualification, but who thrilled the crowd as he fought through to win a silver medal in Wuxi in the Men’s -80kg category.
The two Russians in the division are both highly professional and are definite contenders. Roman Kutnekov and Vladislav Larin. Larin is slim for this category, but appears to be as strong as his opponents, and has the advantages of speed and a mastery of machine gun kicks. Moreover, Team Russia has had an excellent year in 2017, taking the number two spot behind Korean in the year’s Grand Prix series.
On the other side of the match tree is the towering sensation from Niger, Abdoul Issofou. The 2016 Olympic silver medalist won the MVP award at the Worlds in Muju in 2017 and is a canny fighter with both height and speed. Then there is World Champion Alex Bachman of Germany, who surprised the crowd with his win in Muju, beating Larin in the finals. And Great Britain’s Mahama “It’s Cho Time!” Cho, one of the most entertaining fighters among the heavyweights. Cho boasts a wide technical arsenal, and is backed by first-class coaching. Finally, Kyo-don “The Bear” In – who recently won a battle with cancer – has been working his way back to the highest level of the game.
Issofou is especially visible, and not just due to his height. He has ambidextrous turning kicks and sound tactics. He waits until his opponent is in range before unleashing a front foot-back foot attack. His speed also defies his height – he is very fast – and can surprise with his head kicks.
But this category could well be decided by physical preparation. Unlike regular taekwondo matches, the Grand Slam features five, two-minute rounds for the medal matches, rather than the normal three, two-minute rounds. Athletes with technique will have an advantage other those who are simply big. In this sense, In and Cho and look good: Each of them is both big and technical.
“Despite the fluctuation in the players’ performance, the truth remains: This category has three world champions, one Olympic champion and a series of players with strong track records,” said Mohamed “Meedo” Shaaban, WT Games and Equipment Committee Chairman. “They should all make this an exciting category to watch in Wuxi.”