KICKBOXING has given two-time world champion Tony Stephenson a lot more than medals and titles.
The sport has changed his life.
At the senior WAKO World Kickboxing Championships in Sarajevo in October, the Bantry fighter (28) won his second gold at this level, in his -69kg category.
This success came ten years after he won his first senior world gold medal, but the latest triumph means a lot more to Tony. The 2019 version of himself is more mature and wiser on and off the mat, and certainly a better kickboxer.
He’s also more content in himself. He’ll admit that after winning gold in 2009, as a Leaving Cert student, that he felt he didn’t get the recognition he deserved when he came back home to West Cork.
‘That was the child in me, I was looking for admiration from others instead of being proud in myself and what I had achieved,’ he says.
After winning gold in 2019, Tony didn’t feel the need to seek out plaudits, he knows what he has achieved and doesn’t look for the recognition that the 18-year-old Tony craved.
But it could have worked out a lot differently, if it wasn’t for the wise guidance of his father, Mike, over 15 years ago when Tony was ready to pack kickboxing in.
Mike knew this would be a mistake. He had seen his kids – Tony, Dominic and Hannah – all blossom under Ian Kingston’s guidance at West Cork Kickboxing Club.
For Tony, kickboxing changed his life. As a kid he had a stammer, but kickboxing gave him the confidence he needed.
‘I joined when I was six or seven years old and I joined to get my confidence up. I had a bit of a stammer when I was younger and I had an issue with talking properly,’ Tony says.
‘My dad brought myself, along with my brother and my sister, down to Ian. When I met Ian first, it wasn’t that he thought I was going to be a good fighter – because I wasn’t, I was the same as any other kid – but I had a stammer so the first thing I needed was a bit of confidence.
‘Within one year of doing kickboxing, my stammer went away.
‘It took a little bit longer, a few years, before I started to develop signs that I could be a kickboxer.’
Kickboxing gave Tony the confidence he needed.
‘I was working with Ian, and he is a person who, no matter who he is working with, will bring out the best in them. He has their best interests at heart,’ he explains.
‘There was loads of encouragement, loads of feedback, everything was positive. When you are working with Ian there is always a goal and I felt from very early on that the goals were always achievable. When I achieved them, I felt really good, but there was always something else.
‘Within one year I could talk properly, I wasn’t stammering anymore, it was brilliant and I knew I was on to something good and so did my parents.’
Soon, his father Mike got involved in kickboxing and has gone on to become one of the top international referees in the sport, a Class A referee.
‘I remember one day I came back from a kickboxing tournament that I had won, it was the first one I had won, and I was so excited and happy. I was a different kid. I think my dad looked at me and thought, “oh, there’s more to this, it’s not just a hobby”,’ Tony says.
‘My dad started to take a bigger interest then, and when he did I had an even bigger interest. My dad eventually stepped in too and got involved, and he is now one of the top referees in Europe and the world.’
In the van on the way to and from training, they talked kickboxing. At home, it was all kickboxing. It was a really positive environment, recalls Tony, who, even though he lost in his first fight in his first few competitions, already had a passion for the sport.
‘I stuck at it for reasons that were deeper – I’m getting confidence from this, I feel better about myself when I do this, I love hitting pads and sparring, and I love feeling that I am developing,’ he says, but then came the day when he told his dad that he wanted to quit.
‘A few of my friends had quit and I felt I was sick of doing kickboxing,’ he explains. ‘I went to my dad and said I didn’t want to do this anymore. He had already seen me take a back seat on soccer and he just turned around and just said, “No.”
‘I said my friends had quit and I was going to too. He said, “No, I know what’s best for you, you’ve had a bad week but you’ll have a better one next week, you are going to do this and you’ll thank me one day.”’
Mike was absolutely right.
‘From kickboxing, I have got fit and strong, I have represented my country, I have a job out of it teaching classes to kids which I love, I’ve even met my partner through it and we have a baby together, so my whole life has stemmed from kickboxing,’ Tony says.
‘If you go back to that moment, that was crucial in all of this, and I’m so glad I have someone in my life like my dad who knew what was best for me, and he did.’
In the years to follow, Tony came into his own and the success followed at national, European and World level, an incredible rise for a kid who started the sport to gain some confidence and who is now the best in the world.