Former European and world kickboxing champ Tony Stephenson feels he has another chapter to write in taekwondo, as he told Kieran McCarthy
TONY Stephenson has unfinished business with taekwondo.
It’s an itch he hasn’t fully scratched.
These times, kickboxing takes centre stage with the opening round of the nationals held last weekend, as he plots his course back to the world championships – and another world title – but deep down, Tony knows that he wants to tango with taekwondo again.
In November 2012, the then 21-year-old and his coach, Ian Kingston from West Cork Kickboxing Club, were interviewed at Southern Star HQ, just weeks after Tony won another European title.
The Colomane, Bantry kickboxer spoke of his target in 2013 being the world championships – but fate had decided that he needed to embark on a different path.
Born in Manchester and holding a UK passport, various stars aligned and the door opened for Tony to join the elite taekwondo set-up in the UK.
Suddenly, the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio were his target.
Training professionally and living in Manchester, he spent three years chasing the dream – but came up short. Now he’s back home, in familiar surrounds and a lot happier.
‘It was definitely an experience,’ the 25-year-old said.
‘For me, because I was so structured in kickboxing, I found it very difficult to transfer my skills over to taekwondo. I did do well but not as well as I was expecting to do so I was a bit deflated after everything. Still, I’m really glad I gave it a go and I learned so much from it.’
Tony ate, breathed and slept taekwondo every day. It was full on. He lived the life of a professional athlete. But he admits he was never fully settled back in Manchester.
His grandparents live there, so do some of his cousins, but it still wasn’t home; that had an effect on him.
‘You need all the plates spinning properly around you for it to work and they weren’t for me, I wasn’t seeing enough of my family and girlfriend and that played on my performance,’ he admitted.
‘I wasn’t happy over there. I loved the training and being there every day but I didn’t make it to Rio and I was a bit deflated after that.
‘The thought of spending another four years in Manchester away from my family and my girlfriend for only the possibility of going to the next Olympics was a bit worrying. I’d be coming home at 28 then and whatever would happen I’d have to start all over again here in West Cork, teaching and getting back to work.
‘It was a big decision to go over there and it was a huge decision to come back.’
Tony knew in early 2016 that he wouldn’t make the cut on Team GB for the Olympics, and by October last year he was back on home soil, and back with West Cork Kickboxing Club.
It’s like he has never been away, immersing himself with the club again, both training and teaching.
‘I thought the best thing for me was to get straight back into something and not to feel sorry for myself,’ he said.
‘To keep myself sane, I needed to keep fighting.
‘I came back to West Cork, Ian set me up with a few classes. I also got back into fighting straightaway, back kickboxing since October and it’s been going well.
‘I’ve taken a lot of the good things I learned in taekwondo into kickboxing, and that helped me win the Irish Open earlier this year, as well as Ian’s help.’
A former multiple world and European kickboxing champ, Tony’s aiming to get to the worlds later this year – they’re being held in Budapest, Hungary – and at the nationals last weekend, he won gold in the low kick and silver in the continuous kick. The next leg of the nationals is on the June bank holiday weekend where if he wins gold again in the low kick, he will qualify for the worlds, while a gold in the continuous kick will force a fight-off.
It’s all about kickboxing these days and securing some sponsorship – but he’s keeping the door open for taekwondo. Earlier this year he won gold at the Irish national taekwondo championships.
‘Hopefully I’ll get to Hungary for the world kickboxing championships with the Irish team and if I do well there, then I will rethink what I want to do with fighting over the next few years, whether it will be with taekwondo, MMA or whatever,’ he said.
‘I’d like to keep that door open, to fight for Ireland in taekwondo in the future. If the opportunity was there to fight for Ireland at the 2020 Olympics I would definitely take it.’
Tony also has an interest in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and recently started a bit of training and Brazilian jujitsu, so that’s another option – but he’s veering towards taekwondo.
‘If I was 31, 32, I think I’d be closing that chapter (taekwondo) in my life and moving on. But I’m 25, in my prime, fitter than I have even been before, I don’t get injured, I need to use these years as much as I can. I enjoy fighting and if I can represent Ireland a few more times I’ll be very proud,’ he said,
‘Let’s say everything goes really well for me this year, I qualify for the Irish team, I go to the worlds and pull a medal or a win, I’ll ask myself then if there is anything more I can do in kickboxing. If there’s not, I can go back and try taekwondo with Ireland. I’d be in a better place to do that.
‘I’d be around my family, train with Ian regularly and I know I won’t be as funded as I was in the UK, but I will be happier. I’d love to see what results I could get by just being happier, having a better wellbeing and life here in West Cork,’ he added, but qualifying to represent Ireland in taekwondo in the 2020 Olympics is not as easy as it seems. Tony knows that.
‘Ireland doesn’t have the resources that Great Britain does so it would be a lot, lot harder to qualify here,’ he admitted.
Still, he showed enough in his three years in the UK that he can pack a punch in the taekwondo world – he won bronze at the Commonwealth Games, a gold in the Greek Open and a bronze in the Luxembourg Open.
More and more, it seems that Tony wants this challenge. He’s achieved all he can in kickboxing, winning world and European titles, and for a sports man who wants to fight and be the best, taekwondo seems an enticing option.
‘I won a world senior kickboxing title before when I was 17. If I won it at a later age maybe I would have appreciated it a bit more. Because I won it so early I feel I have won everything I can in this sport; why do I need to stay in it?’ he asks himself.
‘Let’s say I do well this year and win everything that I want to win in kickboxing, then I will need to think about what else I can do – but it probably will be taekwondo.
‘I’ll only do it if I had Ian’s support, though. It’s something we will sit down at the end of the year and chat about.’
You see, Tony still has unfinished business. A decision must be made later in the year, but, for now, kickboxing takes priority.