SEOUL, Korea (July 17, 2017) – Few world champions in any sport have looked as comfortable defending their crowns as Bianca “Queen Bee” Walkden of Team GB did in Muju.
At the 2015 World Championships in Chelyabinsk, Russia, in the finals of the F +73kg category, Walkden won the title – from behind – with an out-of-nowhere chopping kick delivered to the headgear of French star Gwladys Epanque just four seconds before the final bell sounded.
Fast forward to Muju 2017, and a much cooler, more professional Walkden was in evidence. In the semi-final, she won a convincing 9-3 victory over Team Korea’s Sae-bom An, taking her apart with cool, accurate kicking. Then it was the final against Team USA veteran Jackie Galloway.
Galloway is a rough and experienced fighter who had taken out Chinese 2016 Olympic gold medalist Shuyin Zheng in her previous bout using an aggressive game plan and powerhouse tactics. But Walkden had the height advantage, near-perfect tactical preparation, and speed, and scored right off the opening buzzer with a lightning kick to the body. “That was not a tactic,” Walkden said. “I just generally wanted to be out there and start the intensity.”
Both players were using lots of footwork – very active for heavyweights – but it was Walkden who was controlling the center of the battleground. “It was about keeping intent, being hard to hit – and every time I go it is 100 percent!” she said. The first ended 3-0 to Walkden. In Round 2, Galloway got more mobile but Walkden picked her shots and her laser-like accuracy extended her lead to 10-0. But the game was not over yet. “Even though I was 10 points up, anyone can bring it back in taekwondo – that is why it is such a good sport,” she said. “My coach, Paul Green said, ‘Give it the best two minutes of your life!’”
The buzzer sounded on the final round and Walkden did exactly that – surging into action, stabbing away with her jackhammer side kick. The American tried to fight forward, but Walkden danced away from Galloway’s offensive; Galloway simply could not break through into close-contact range. It ended 14-4.
It had been a masterly title defense by Queen Bee. The Liverpool lass had not only kept her world championship crown, but barely looked in danger in either the final or the semi. “I won last time [in 2015] in such a dramatic way,” she said, comparing her victory in Muju to her victory in Chelyabinsk. “It was a different feeling here, I did everything I had to do, I did not need to make it dramatic.”
Walkden is clear on her advantages. Leonine in physique and deceptively tall, she has surprising mobility and agility. “I don’t kick and move that bad for a heavyweight,” she laughed. “I can do all the kicks, but you don’t always need to do all the kicks to win.” Remarkably, she has recovered from a pair of injuries that might have killed the career of a less-driven athlete: “I am not doing badly for someone with two knee replacements!”
She is also fortunate to have the pros of the GB National Taekwondo Training Center in her corner. “Every time there is a new rule – almost every competition! – Paul and the other coaches are onto new ways to add it to the session; they change like that!” she said, snapping her fingers. “We train to be ahead!” But however much tactical preparation a player does, he or she still needs to be a warrior at heart. “Obviously there are tactics, but you have to have the fight, too!” she said. My dad said to me ‘No mercy,’ and that was my motto, going in.”
As for the new rules, she is upbeat. “I think the push game is good, I like working it,” she said. “I like the 2-point rule: People used to be hiding behind the front leg, but now you can go in and have a scrap!” In addition, she thinks – like a lot of athletes – that the rules encourage more active bootwork. “People will not stick to single-shot games,” she said. “I think you are going to see more action: lots of spins, more double kicks.”
The win in Muju helped her put her Rio performance – she won bronze after narrowly losing to Zheng, the eventual gold medalist, in overtime – behind her. “To be honest, I am still devastated,” she said. “I knew, going in, that I was going to get gold or bronze. But this World Championship helps me get over it.”
Team GB’s Olympic performance in Rio – a second gold, for Walkden’s roommate Jade Jones, a last-second silver for Lutalo Muhammad and bronze for Queen Bee helped place taekwondo more firmly on Britain’s crowded sporting map. “Yesterday, it was all over the news,” Walkden said. “Today, I rang my mom, and [as we were talking] I popped up on the TV news! So it is getting better and better.”
On the home front, she continues her romance with long-term beau and taekwondo poster athlete Aaron Cook, the ex-GB international who fights under the Moldovan flag. “You can see the love, I don’t have to say nothing, I get shocked to see how much he is there for me,” she said. “I am just luckiest girl in the world; I could not ask for a better boyfriend.”
However, Cook – despite being arguably the most crowd-pleasing fighter on the circuit – has still not got a major title under his belt. “If I could give him my gold medal, I would,” Walkden said. She thought for a moment before adding, “Obviously, the second one, though!”
(In Muju, Cook ended up with bronze, after losing an agonizing semi-final to eventual gold medalist and taekwondo phenom Milad Beigi Harchegani. The crowd went so quiet as it watched the Azeri’s precise demolition of Cook that Walkden’s urgent and increasingly aggrieved shouts of tactical advice could be clearly heard across the stadium.)
An all-round sport and martial arts fan, Walkden thinks taekwondo needs to look at the Ultimate Fighting Championships, or UFC. Its slick promotion and production values – pre-fight videos on the fighters, open workouts, fighter press conferences, ringside commentary, sound and light shows and ringside interviews – are a benchmark, she advised. “As a martial artist, I look at what they have done with UFC, and if we put taekwondo out in the right way, and with the new rules and more KOs and more points on the board, I think you could do exactly the same thing,” she said. “If you filmed the GB girls, how they trained, you would be shocked: If you did a promo video on us, that would be great!”
Taekwondo needs to tell the stories of the fighters, she continued. “You know that Cheick Salleh Cisse trained on concrete before the Olympics and won gold? My story, Jade’s story, Aaron’s story – we have got the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ story, GB and Moldova! – these are good stories,” she said. “If the crowd got to know the fighters, they would follow them.”
She is a big fan of the UFC’s prize property, the eloquent and entertaining Irishman Conor McGregor. “I like Conor because of his character,” she said. And as anyone who saw her doing her victory lap with the Union Jack will know, Walkden also likes to work the audience. “I like ‘Gladiator’ – ‘Are you not entertained?’” she said. “I love the crowd!”
Looking ahead, Walkden admits that she is enticed by the “big money” on offer at the upcoming Grand Slam super-elite series, which is set to kick off at the end of this year in China. “I am after the money – who isn’t?” she laughed. “For that kind of money, mate, I am going to train even harder – and I don’t think I can train any harder!
Even so, the Queen Bee’s end goal is not Chinese cash in 2018, but Japanese metal in 2020. ”The ultimate goal is Tokyo gold,” she said. “I have done everything else.”
Bianca Walkden at a Glance:
- Hobby? “The casino! I’m a gambler: roulette.”
- Favorite song? “Dean Martin’s ‘Volare.’ That played at my granddad’s funeral. He passed away at the last World Championships. I win for him, to keep him alive.”
- Favorite movie? “Rocky”
- Favorite food? “Bread and butter.”
- Why do you do taekwondo? “I do because it is a good sport, a great sport, an exciting sport.”
- Motto: “No mercy!”