Taekwondo: At last! Rivals get chance to settle Olympic scrap

Before London 2012, Aaron Cook and Lutalo Muhammad became embroiled in a bitter dispute which rocked Britain's preparations for the Games

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The Independent Online

It may not be quite in the same league as Froch v Groves but when Manchester hosts its second grudge fight in three weeks the set-to will be just as ferocious and personal.

It features a couple of combative 22-year-olds seeking to settle a score dating back to London 2012 when taekwondo rivals Aaron Cook and Lutalo Muhammad became embroiled in a bitter dispute which rocked Britain's Olympic preparations.

Muhammad was controversially selected ahead of the then world No 1 Cook for the British team. A year before, Cook had quit GB Taekwondo's coaching programme to train in his Dorset garage, believing he was best off preparing outside the establishment.

GB's performance director Gary Hall had insisted there was no "witch-hunt" against Cook because of this, but that Muhammad's fighting style was felt to be more "tactically beneficial".

The British Olympic Association initially declined to ratify Muhammad's nomination with Cook claiming he was being "cheated" out of a place at the Games but after a lengthy and expensive appeals process he lost his case.

The pair have not met or spoken since but are now scheduled to clash in the under-80kg division at next weekend's inaugural World Grand Prix, an event which brings together 250 top international competitors seeking qualification points for the Rio Olympics.

Muhammad represents Team GB while Cook will compete under the Manx flag, having binned his GB vest and switched his allegiance to the Isle of Man, who he will represent in next year's Commonwealth Games under their government rule allowing athletes eligibility if they relocate to the island to help develop sport in the community.

While Cook insists he bears no animosity towards Muhammad ("It wasn't his fault, it was those working against me behind the scenes") he still feels resentful. On the day of last year's Olympic final that he had spent years working towards, Cook was a few miles away from the Excel venue feeling heartily sick.

He recalls: "It should have been me in there fighting for that gold medal. I felt my dream had been stolen from me. I was absolutely in pieces, in tears and literally sick to the stomach. I had been cheated of my Olympic dream."

Both he and Muhammad are clean-cut, articulate spokesmen for "the way of the fist and the foot". The Walthamstow-born Muhammad, a European champion at under-87kg who went on to claim a surprise bronze in London, says of Cook: "He took things too far. I think his constant appeals were nasty and unnecessary." He was also the target of hate-mail. "A lot of the stuff that I received I don't want to even repeat, it was quite hurtful."

But he adds: "This sort of rivalry makes it dramatic and exciting for the fans. I'm quite enjoying it." And he is equally bullish about the outcome. "There's going to be fireworks, but I'm ready and confident. With everything that went on between me and Mr Cook there is definitely a score to settle.

"If it is half as good as Froch and Groves, which I watched, it should be a cracking contest. I just hope the ending won't be as controversial."

Unlike Froch and Groves, both enriched by seven-figure purses, neither will get a penny for their pains. "It's simply the satisfaction of proving who is the better man," says Cook. "We've both got a point to prove but there's only going to be one winner." Muhammad smiles: "We'll see. Let's bring it on."

Tickets for the World Taekwondo Grand Prix from 14-16 December are available at www.ticketmaster.co.uk/WTGP13