(September 29, 2017) – In a sport known for its nice-guy players, Mahama Cho is one of the nicest. And yet, he maintains a “hit list” of targets that he wants to “cross out” – a list that comprises some of the baddest fighters on earth.
And his current “hit list” is not his first.
His family emigrated from Cote d’Ivoire to Great Britain when Cho was eight. The youngster, with little understanding of the language or culture of his new home, found himself the victims of bullies at school. His father had been a fighter back home in the heavyweight category, and at first did not want to teach his son taekwondo for fear he would take bloody revenge.
“I am not going to lie,” Cho, now 28, revealed. “I did have a hit list that I wanted to cross out!” Still, his father relented and began coaching his son in the way of foot and fist. “As soon as my father taught me what taekwondo was about, it changed my thinking,” he said. “It taught me how to defuse situations, how to be in control.” He adds, “I don’t get bullied now!”
Indeed, it is difficult to imagine Cho – who won heavyweight gold at the Rabat Grand Prix with a spinning kick that delivered a technical knockout – being pushed around today by anyone.
After earning his early competitive spurs in the British game, he crossed the Channel and fought for two years for Team France, racking up a range of victories across Europe, but failed to get French nationality. Having accrued significant competitive experience, he returned to GB with renewed vigor and joined the home team in 2012. Now a mainstay of Team GB, the heavyweight added his victory in Rabat to a list of achievements that includes silver at the Muju 2017 World Championships and gold at the inaugural 2014 Manchester Grand Prix.
As Team GB’s top male heavyweight, he understands respect – not just how to offer it, but also how to command it. “I remember when I first came in, GB was not a team that struck fear, people were happy to fight us. Today can you say that? No!” he said. “No GB athlete is going to be easy, we are here to stamp a statement: ‘If you fight us, you’d better bring your A Game!’”
His team nickname, “It’s Cho Time!” (a word play on “It’s show time!”), is appropriate given his fighting style: In a field where many heavyweights are technically limited, he is the most active, versatile and entertaining fighter in the category. The inspiration for his style, he said, comes from his (smaller) team mates.
“With the speed and athleticism in our team – they are fast, they are agile, they take action all the time – I have to catch up with them, and I think if I can perform against them, it should be much easier against the heavyweights,” he said. “I want multiple action – I want to kick more than once. The team pushes me to do that.”
At home base in Manchester, the mecca of British taekwondo, hard training is the name of Cho’s game. Injury free – “I am a healthy baby!” he said – he reckons he trains harder than any other heavyweight. “Every day is an opportunity to build strength.”
The resultant physical conditioning is impressive. In Rabat, in the finals of the Grand Prix, he faced off against top-tier Russian Roman Kuznetsov, who had benefited from a by in the semi-final. Yet once the action got underway, Cho looked as fresh and active as his opponent once action. In fact, it was Cho’s mental, not physical conditioning, that was the key element, he revealed. “Physically my body was shattered, but mentally I was not.” He added, “Even when I have aches and pains, it is not something I show.”
And his wide technical arsenal makes up for his opponents’ height advantages. “I am not fazed by them or how tall they are, I believe in my ability because I am faster and have more weapons than them,” he said. “They look for one kick but I can catch them with more than one shot. It is not about height, it is about what you have got and who wants it more.”
The Briton’s entertaining style of play has caught the eye of top pundits. WT Technical Chairman Jin-bang Yang calls Cho “always entertaining.” WT TV commentator John Cullen has dubbed Cho’s unique switch-leg aerial kick “the jumping tiger kick.” And, in Rabat, he deployed his precision-engineered heel hook kick to TKO Kuznetsov. “It is not an easy technique to avoid and it works well,” he said of the latter kick. “I have learned to use it relatively well, it is becoming part of the style of how I fight.”
Yet despite his hyper-toned physique and bristling arsenal of well-oiled techniques, Cho is widely known by everyone in taekwondo as one of the nicest guys in the game. “Outside the ring, I am probably the softest person ever,” he said. “I tend to engage a lot with the community and with my team mates, I interact with everyone and sit down and have meals.”
But can this all-round nice guy summon up the killer instinct required to win at the highest levels of what is, after all, a combat sport? Don’t underestimate “Cho Time.” “The ring is my kingdom,” he said. “When I enter, I don’t go in to be second best!”
This brings us back to Cho’s current “hit list” – a list comprising those fighters who have beaten him, but who he has not yet beaten. His win in Rabat qualifies him for the upcoming Grand Slam Champions Series, which will offer the biggest prize money in taekwondo history. It will also offer him an opportunity for revenge. “I am excited to get an opportunity to rectify unfinished business,” he said. “To be the best, you have to beat the best.” Topping his list are Rio 2016’s gold and silver medalists: the towering duo of Azerbaijan’s Radik Isaev and Niger’s Abdoul Razak Issoufou Alfaga.
“My hit list is shortened,” Cho said. “But it’s not as short as I would like it!”
At a Glance:
- Hobby? “Watching movies on Netflix.”
- Favorite movie? “Yip Man”
- Favorite food? “Peanut butter stew.”
- Why do you do taekwondo? “When you come here and see all the athletes you can smell the adrenalin, can see the fear in the eyes, and when they go out, they give 110 percent, but when it is over you see the family, the togetherness, the sportsmanship. It is the most respectful sports out there, nothing else is close, I value it a lot. It makes you understand the value of life.”
- Motto: “Pray, train, eat, sleep, repeat.”