BY KIERAN McCARTHY
THIS is the greatest moment in Tony Stephenson’s decorated kickboxing career.
For the second time, the Bantry man is the best in the world – but this one means more than his first win in 2009.
At the senior WAKO World Kickboxing Championships last week in Sarajevo, the 28-year-old fought his way through to Friday’s final in his -69kg category.
The West Cork Kickboxing Club man was up against younger fighters but one by one, he took down all challengers until only one remained, an Italian fighter, Mattia Amatuzio.
‘I made mistakes in some of my fights but mainly I stayed in control,’ Tony recalls.
‘I fought against a Spanish fighter first, he was tricky but Ian (Kingston, coach) and myself made a plan, and we got him in the second and third rounds.
‘The second fight, I came up against the Russian world champion (Vrezh Petrosian) who has only lost one fight in the last three years. He was the one that Ian and myself were always thinking about, he is a very aggressive, forward and attacking fighter. The tactics that we had for him were spot on, we basically weathered the storm and matched his intensity, but on the way in and the way out I looked for a kick, a score. It turned into a bit of a war and I ended up winning.
‘The third fight was against the Ukraine (Artur Borysov), I dropped him in the first round with a right hand and I dropped him again in the third round with a back kick to the chest. He was tricky, but he rushed me at times he shouldn’t have.
‘The fourth fight, the semi-final (against Remo Mathieu), was the same day as the Ukrainian fight. I made a mistake not recovering properly from the first fight – I should have slept – and I felt very tired in that fight. I won but I didn’t over exert myself.’
That put him into the final against Mattia Amatuzio. Before Tony’s fight, West Cork Kickboxing Club’s Lily de la Cour was also in a world title fight. The Bantry woman won world gold in 2015, came home with silver in 2017 after controversially losing to Hungarian fighter Gabriella Busa. Again, last Friday, Lily faced off with Busa in the battle for gold in the -50kg weight category. Unfortunately, the Hungarian came out on top, but Lily still came home with silver. It’s not the colour she wanted but it’s still a magnificent effort.
Ian Kingston coaches both Lily and Tony at club and national level. He was keen for Tony to stay focussed ahead of his final.
‘I was only on half an hour after Lily fought. The first thing Ian said is not to let that affect me and that I had a job to do. He was very stern and firm with me during the fight. He knew I could win if I kept my focus,’ Tony says.
‘I don’t think I have ever been as tired but it was Ian’s voice I heard throughout, telling me to “keep moving”, “keep it simple”, “let him walk in at the start and step off with a left hook”, it was really basic tactics but we kept it simple.
‘If I started going too ragged and over complicating things I would have lost the fight. Ian kept me grounded and kept it simple. I just had to follow up and execute his tactics.’
This world title fight went into the third and final round. Amatuzio was a southpaw, was similar in style to the Russian Petrosian, he would attack very aggressively and fought at a very high tempo.
‘In the third round I was slightly up and then he started to win and was winning going into the last 30 seconds,’ Tony explains.
‘Then I stepped up my intensity again and I landed a punch and kick right at the end, and I got one score for it, and it won me the fight. Two judges has it a draw and one had me winning by one point, so I won the world title by a single point. It was very dramatic.’
For a moment, Tony thought he had lost the fight. But then he saw Ian Kingston running onto the mat and he gave Tony the tightest hug.
Tony’s first emotion was relief, but as the hours ticked by, that was replaced by joy.
This is the experienced Bantry man’s biggest win in kickboxing.
‘I was 18 when I won in 2009 but this means more – and it was a lot harder,’ he says.
‘I had more fights, I had to lose more weight, the standard has improved, everything just felt harder, but it feels better this time to win, I know I have achieved something special.
‘Everything has been justified, all the hard work, all the runs up Lough Hyne, all the early mornings, all the dieting, all the sparring, all the up and down to Dublin.
‘Despite me being older than a lot of fighters who are in their early 20s, I wanted to prove that I am still as good and as strong as ever.
‘I have won World and European medals before but this is the first time in a long time that I have won gold.’
At senior level, in 2009 he won World gold, followed it up with European gold the year after, and a few years later he took a break from kickboxing as he concentrated on earning a spot on the Great Britain taekwondo team for the 2016 Olympics.
That didn’t work out and he returned home to West Cork, and to his club and to Ian Kingston. Tony won bronze at the 2017 Worlds and at the 2018 Europeans, but now he has World gold in his grasps again, and this means more than all the others.
A third West Cork Kickboxing Club member, Greg Sheehan, fighting at his first WAKO World Seniors, bowed out in his opening fight to an incredibly strong Slovakian fighter.