Taekwondo: Ready, steady Cook fired up to kick boyhood idol into touch

Dorchester 17-year-old can prove he is the greatest against Muhammad Ali of the mat
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Tiny Tom may be out of synch and boxing's welter belter Billy Joe Saunders is now on hold until 2012, but there are other youthful prodigies carrying the British banner for boy power in Beijing, among them the 19-year-old gymnast Louis Smith, who today hopes to take his great leap forward on the pommel horse. But perhaps the most promising prospect of all is the kid who will have to kick his hero in the teeth if he is to win a gold medal.

Aaron Cook, the 17-year-old from Dorchester, is the world junior taekwondo champion but he could not have a more fiery Olympic baptism, for standing in his path to glory is the man he idolises, the Muhammad Ali of the mat, Steve Lopez.

The 29-year-old American from Sugar Land, Texas, is a two-times Olympic champion and four-times world champion, and is simply The Greatest. Seemingly invincible and one of sport's most flamboyant personalities, he has been voted by People Magazine as one of the "Fifty Hottest Bachelors" in the US. He also happens to have failed a drugs test two years ago, when he was banned for three months.

Lopez's parents moved to New York from Nicaragua, wherehis father, Julio, had worked for the then president Anastasio Somoza Debayle, who was overthrown in 1979 after the Sandinista revolution. They relocated to Texas and the then five-year-old learned taekwondo in their garage, taught by his father and elder brother Jean. Their mother,Ondina, would time the laundry load so the dryer was working during their 5am winter workouts to keep the garage warm.

The entire Lopez family is in Beijing because sister Diana, and another brother, Mark, comprise the US squad, which is coached by Jean Lopez. It is the firsttime since 1904 that three siblings have been in the same Olympic team.

Steve, Mark and Diana also made sports history in 2005, when all three won gold at the World Championships. A year later Steve was briefly banned when, like the British skier Alain Baxter, he tested positive for an illegal stimulant, methamphetamine, which apparently came from using an over-the-counter vapour inhaler.

Taekwondo translates from the Korean as "the way of the fist and the foot", and as Lopez says: "This is not ballet. You are going to get hurt. When my brothers and I fought we would slam each other all over the garage, which ended up with big holes in the wall."

Lopez, who "can't remember" the last time he was beaten, says of Cook: "Yeah, I know about this kid. But he is a kid. He seems real good but we'll see how good next week. He's up against the big boys now."

Cook, who flies in this weekend with team-mates Sarah Stevenson, 25, and fellow teenager Michael Harvey, 19, the last of the British Olympic contingent to leave the Macau training base, is unfazed by the prospect of facing his idol. "Steve Lopez is a fantastic athlete," he says. "He has always been my hero. But the thought of meeting him doesn't worry me. Not at all. In fact, it's something I'm really looking forward to."

Cook is the rising star of the Manchester emporium of sweat they call The Feat Factory, where they really do live for kicks. Britain has steadily been getting bigger in taekwondo, a sport which is an amalgam of karate, kung fu and kick-boxing, though it has its own distinct pattern of controlled violence.

Cook is one who has benefited from the financial infusion which followed the success of Stevenson, who was fourth in the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and subsequently became the world and European champion. Cook, until last year a Dorset schoolboy, has already won gold at senior level and won the Youth Olympics in Australia shortly after his 16th birthday.

In last year's Senior World Championships here in Beijing he fought the Iranian who was the reigning world and Olympic champion at his then weight and lost by only three points. He has now moved up to welterweight, the division dominated by Lopez.

His rise through the ranks has come as no surprise to Gary Hall, the team leader. "He is one of the most exciting 17-year-olds in the world, possibly in any sport," he says. As for Cook, who took up the sport after watching the Power Rangers on television when he was only five, he says he can't wait to try and kick Lopez into touch.

The American may be taekwondo's Ali, but it is young Cook who talks like him. "It's been my dream to fight him and now he's coming to the end of his career, he's ready to be taken," he states. "But I'm not going to get a lot of chances. It may have to be now or never."

Tuesday's draw could bring them together in an early round, but Cook hopes not. "I want to save him for the final," he says. "I've always hoped to be in an Olympic final with him and I'll do my best to get there. If he's there too, he's mine."