Si Mohammed Kebti – “Simo” to his friends – may still be a schoolboy, but he did a man’s job at the 2015 World Taekwondo Championships in Chelyabinsk, Russia.
Having battled through the preliminaries in the male -58kg division, his semifinal fight went according to plan. Facing off against China’s Shuai Zhao – one of the lankiest fighters in the division, with the stature of a basketball player – action started off at a fast pace.
The towering Zhao drew first blood, but the boy from Brussels settled down and started to dominate from the center of the ring, using active footwork and racking up points with lead-leg kicks. Round three started with a kickathon from both fighters, but Ketbi stayed ahead, and after pulling a head shot out of the bag in the closing seconds, ended the match comfortably ahead at 14-7.
“He was not as motivated as I am, I took it with the head shot,” Ketbi said. “Me and him were both tired, but I could win.”
That tactical victory earned Ketbi a place in the finals – and a trial-by-fire, for Ketbi’s opponent was perhaps the dominant athlete fighting in taekwondo today: The “Iranian Tsunami” Farzan Ashour Zadeh Fallah.
The Iranian had undergone a punishing fight in the semis against Russia’s Ruslan Poiseev, but by the time he came out to face Ketbi, he had recovered his composure. In fact, there was no sign of nerves from either player: As the two finalists waited in the holding area, both flashed big smiles at the cameras. Then orchestral music played; the athletes entered the ring; faced off – and battle commenced.
Both fighters have similar physiques, and showcased similar styles: Most play was off the front leg, aimed at the chest protector. Ketbi raised the pace, but it was Ashour Zadeh Fallah who landed first. Action extended to more ambidextrous kicking from both players, before the round finished 3-0 to the Iranian.
Round 2 continued in a similar fashion, with Ketbi firing off punches which failed to score; at the end of the round, he was 5-1 down. In Round 3, “The Tsunami” was holding center court with the score at 7-2. With 30 seconds left on the clock, Ketbi went over to the offensive but his tactics were too conservative to rack up the necessary points. In the last second of the match, he unleashed a head kick – but too late. Final score: 8-3 to the Iranian.
“It was the third time I have fought him, I thought I could beat him but he got the advantage at the beginning,” said Ketbi. “In the third round I could see his opening, but there was no more time.” He added, “I think I lost the fight because of concentration; also my legs were very tired.”
Even so, coach Leonardo Gambluch was delighted with his student’s performance. “I am more than satisfied!” he said. “We are disappointed he did not get the gold, but his career will be long.”
Indeed, “Simo” still has a year of high school ahead of him before he graduates. Then it will be university, where he hopes to study engineering. No girlfriend yet? “No, I have to concentrate on what I am doing,” he said.
Ketbi expects some media coverage and “a lot of Facebook hits” when he returns home: His silver is the highest medal Belgium has yet won at a world taekwondo championships. However, due to a political issue within the Belgian taekwondo organization, Ketbi fought under the WTF flag.
His family were delighted when he called and told them of his achievement in Chelyabinsk. “They were very, very happy – they were crazy! – they did not know I would get a silver,” he said. “I want to say thanks to God, then my father, my family and my coaches and my friends.”
However, like many Western European athletes, he is dissatisfied with the profile of taekwondo in his country. “I am not happy with that in Belgium, it is not so popular, it has to be more like football,” he said. “For now, there is no commercial sponsorship.”
Currently, he receives support from Adeps, the Francophone sport association, and Be Gold, the Belgian Olympic sport organization; he also has access to the Physical Training University in Brussels.
The WTF’s 9th ranked player, Ketbi was the first place winner at the 2015 Swiss Open in Montreux, Switzerland and came in second at the 2015 Lotto Dutch Open Taekwondo Championships in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. His aims are set high: He hopes to be European, World and Olympic championships. Is this feasible?
His coach reckons so. “He is young, and his future will be better,” Gambluch said. “His career is long: It will be an adventure!”
But there is one obstacle standing in the way: A certain Farzan Ashour Zadeh Fallah.
Off the mats, the two competitors get along. “I like to fight with him,” Ketbi said. “It is very fair play, he is a good person.”
But can “The Tsunami” be defeated? “Every person can be beaten, they are humans with two arms and two legs,” Ketbi said. “It is possible to beat him and I hope to train to beat him one time.”
Given their ages, the Iranian and the Belgian will be clashing on the taekwondo circuit for a very long time to come. How long? Ketbi thinks for a moment, then replies.
“Until we die!” he said.