How much do Taekwondo athletes make?

Money in Combat

I have won 33 medals, over 100 matches and I have represented Australia on multiple occasions, yet I have made no money fighting in Taekwondo; why is that?

On my journey to professional combat sports I have been interested in making money from competing more and more. Taekwondo is an amateur sport, going in to competitions, you know that, we as a Taekwondo community accept it. The prize money offered by Governments and Olympic Committees in other countries mostly come from rumors and National Team member information which could change at any moment. It isn’t reliable information.

Winning the World Taekwondo Grand Prix which is happening in Manchester this weekend will earn you a $5000 prize. A silver medal will earn you $3000 and third place will earn you $1000. This is a great incentive for athletes to earn some money at the highest level. But in comparison to other non-Olympic sports, with less athletes, less global media attention and less infrastructure it is not enough. Taekwondo generates hundreds of millions of dollars a year worldwide. The World Taekwondo Federation has 206 Member National Associations (MNA’s) who all run multiple competitions a year. The MNA’s themselves generate a lot of money and in most countries that money is returned to the athletes on the National Teams on some level. In Australia we run roughly 15 competitions a year domestically. Now, obviously expenses go into running these competitions so not all money is profit.

In Australia we have $335,000 of High Performance Funding from the Australian Sports Commission, that is for National Teams and Coaches travel etc. I am going to use the National Championships as a lone example. It is $130 to enter the single elimination event, meaning that cost might only get you one match. Interstate travel cost is cast aside, because it is your choice, it isn’t necessary for you to enter this competition, so you can’t really make a good argument for your own travel cost.

The National Championships had more than 700 competitors, that means STA brought in $91,000 dollars in revenue from entry fees, this is not including the sale of merchandise and spectator entry on the day. For winning this event in the Senior Black Belt category, the highest level, I received a very thin Gold Medal and no prize money.

I am very grateful for the opportunity to become Australian Champion. I am not the only one who loves Taekwondo and I am certainly not the only one to try and turn Taekwondo into a professional sport. But when you compare that event to the Grappling Industries Melbourne Sub-Only event which I competed at in August, which had less competitors, a huge venue (MSAC) and actual quality medals gave out $3000 in prize money across 8 Adult divisions, as well as every competitor receiving $55 in Product vouchers. Why isn’t this possible in Taekwondo?

We can’t claim that the money is going to the National Team like other countries do. The National Team are handled by the Australian Sports Commission and the AIS. So where is the money going? The sad fact of Taekwondo in Australia is that we don’t really know.

It is a cultural issue with the athletes too, we don’t ask for money because no one has. It’s like Gaelic football in Ireland, even with 80,000 people buying tickets to games the players aren’t paid because its for the ‘love of the game’ and the ‘pride in wearing the jumper’. The NCAA in the US are perhaps the worst, they generate billions but the college players whose games are broadcast on ESPN worldwide are not paid because they are being given the opportunity to be drafted to the NFL after 4 years of extortion play; even though only 3% of players are drafted.

I am proud to be National Champion, I am proud to represent my country, I am proud to be a member of this vibrant and bright community. I just want to do it professionally.

You have to learn to adjust

When I first started Taekwondo the governing body at the time gave out ‘National Champion’ patches for the sleeves of your uniform. You had to win Nationals to win one, ever since I saw a black belt with those patches all the way down his arm I wanted one. I have wanted to be National Champion for so long that I had to hold back tears last week when I won the Australian Heavyweight Title.

I called my girlfriend afterwards, she was so proud of me that I cried a little. It has been an emotional journey to the top. Before I go into what I want to talk about in this post I need to take some time to thank some people. The first people are my parents Tina and Wayne, they have been by my side on this journey since the beginning. My Dad would miss shifts at work, reject overtime and give up his precious weekends to drive me to comps, watch me fight, drive me to the other side of the city for training and various other ins and outs that being the best required. I am forever in debt to them.

I would also like to thank my first coaches, Zoran, Jerry, Leanne and Ross at Halls in Sunshine, they brought me from nothing to Black Belt in 2 and a half years. They have all had enormous impacts on my fighting style, my attitude towards competing and my work ethic in Taekwondo and in life.

The next person I would like to thank is Carlo. He taught me what it meant to be a professional athlete, he treated me, even in my developmental, early black belt years like a professional athlete and I don’t think I would have grown as much as I have without his influence. He scheduled his personal time to meet with me and discuss training, goals, my strengths and weaknesses and embedded in me the idea that I need to enjoy the journey. Because of his guidance I have achieved one of the big goals I set myself 8 years ago and I couldn’t be more grateful. Of course, Carlo’s directed program was delivered by two excellent coaches, Katrina and Abed who both pushed me past what I thought was possible.

I would also like to thank Allan because the short time I spent with him was focused and hard. I still remember him yelling at me in my first session with him “WE ARE GOING TO TURN THOSE LEGS INTO WEAPONS”. He takes Taekwondo very seriously and he showed me the volume and technical prowess that would be necessary to achieve what I want in combat sport.

I also want to thank my coach Warren at Professional Taekwondo as well as Song who also runs the sparring classes. Warren and I go back a long way, he coached me in my first nationals which I won a Silver at. I’m glad that all these years later I was able to redeem that experience with a Gold. Warren is a very ‘what you see is what you get’ kind of person, he is very direct and very caring. Song is a hard Korean coach, he gives me no slack when I am struggling and has improved my technique and explosiveness by miles in only a few short months.

In combat sport I have learned to adjust my goals as time goes on. I have always believed in being realistic with my expectations. I started Taekwondo very late in comparison to others but because I have always aimed higher than I should have I have achieved more than people think I would have. When I first started Taekwondo I wanted to go down as the greatest Taekwondo athlete Australia has ever produced. To do that I would have to win an Olympic Gold medal, fight at 3 Olympics and win a World Championship. Fast forward 7 years later and I’m the National Champion for the first time. I will not go down as the greatest, that dream will not be achieved. But that’s okay. To all the athletes out there who have not gotten what they wanted, this is the real world, results matter, performances matter and dreams don’t always come true, I am here to tell you that it’s okay.

I have adjusted, my goal is to fight at an Olympics and a World Championships. I may only achieve one of those, maybe I will get neither of them, only time and effort will determine that. When goal setting I have learned to aim higher than you think you can achieve, by aiming for the Olympics I have trained like I am already going, by training like I am getting ready for the Olympics I have become the best heavyweight in Australia. The results speak for themselves. I have learned that not every bridge I burn will be adjusted, that’s something that I have to live with. Not every person I meet will like me. On this monumental high though I will offer this quote.

“I went from most hated to that Champion god flow, I guess that’s a feeling only me and LeBron know” – Kanye West

Mixing My Martial Arts

In the last 5 weeks I have competed in three different events, my first Kickboxing fight, my second BJJ Tournament and the Australian International Taekwondo Open. The three disciplines I have been training in all year.

The kickboxing fight went as well as it could have. I fought an inexperienced Muay Thai striker and dominated from start to finish with body kicks. My theory that kickboxers wouldn’t react well to Taekwondo style kicks was proven right. You can’t stand and cover kicks at that speed. As soon as the fight started I nailed him with a hard leg kick followed by a body kick a few seconds later. He winced in pain and I knew from that point that I would control the match.

Over the course of the three rounds I moved around the ring, never standing still at speeds he didn’t seem used to. Sometimes to take a rest I would let him throw a couple of punches and I would cover them. After the rest was over I would go right back to work smashing him with body and head kicks. I threw some punch combos too just to have the full experience. In the second round I curled him over with a body kick and followed up with a hard right hand. He received a standing eight count and afterwards I belted him a bit more until the end of the round. My mistake was that I went too hard after the eight count and didn’t have much energy left for the third round. The third round was essentially me doing just enough to win.

In the end I won by Unanimous decision. 30-27 on all cards.

The Northern MMA BJJ Tournament was a really fun event, a lot of my AET family were there to support the affiliate event and overall the comp was run really well. I had four fights, winning two and losing two. I lost the first two by arm bar which I have since worked on. My arm bar defence is now pretty good. I won my third fight via Guillotine choke after my opponent tried to take me down. The fourth was a withdrawal so I didn’t get anything out of that. In the round robin format I came out with a Silver Medal, my first medal in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

The Australian Open was essentially a non-event. I fought World Number 15 Kai Chang from Chinese Taipei in the first round and was kicked in the eye. I couldn’t open it and the ref stopped the fight. Those are the rules in Taekwondo so I can’t really complain. I picked up some World Ranking Points. Now I’m Number 158 in the World in -87. Not really an impressive ranking.

Looking at these events you could make the argument that Taekwondo should be put by the wayside for now. However I am in a unique position in the Taekwondo landscape. I am heavy enough to compete in 87+, a relatively non-competitive division in Australia. Don’t get me wrong; to win the National Championships will still require a lot of work. Not many people get the chance to be a Black Belt National Champion. Even with all my National and International achievements the title of National Champion still eludes me.

Halfway through the year I have had 15 fights, halfway through my goal of 30 fights.

How I got here: The last part

At the end of 2013 I was one of the highest ranked players in the Taekwondo Australia Rankings. I wasn’t able to go to Nationals due to a meniscus injury I sustained during the TA International where I fought world class USA player Philip Yun. Nevertheless I was psyched for 2014 and felt like I was about to make my break onto the world scene. The first step was winning a spot on the National Team.

The Oceania selections were at the end of April so to make sure I was prepared I booked a trip to South Korea. One of my friends Sol is Korean and she organised a few high schools for me to train at. Everyone I spoke to about training at Korean High Schools warned me of the intensity I would be training at. They were not wrong. For two weeks I was battered by the Koreans. On the first day I partnered with a heavyweight boy who kicked me so hard I had to stop training because I couldn’t breathe. It felt like I was under water. The Koreans train with a kind of ferocity I haven’t seen in Australia.

As the training camp came to a close I was becoming used to the way they train, the way they embrace pain as a means of motivation. Although at times the trip was very unpleasant I learned a lot about myself and I feel that I genuinely came back as a better person. I said my goodbyes and made my way home. I had three days after training finished for me to enjoy Seoul and to rest my body in preparation for the Oceania Selections. When I arrived in Melbourne on the Tuesday I had a few recovery sessions and a light kick around before I left on the Friday for the competition.

I was fighting in the Middleweight Division which is an 87kg limit. I weighed in about 85.5kg with my clothes on. I was very comfortable in my weight and due to my success when not dieting hard and dehydrating the year before I continued the trend. I saw my opponent Ben the day after and we had a nice and polite chat in the chairs in marshaling. I didn’t mention that I hadn’t cut any weight, but he did mention he was about 93kg at the time. I was at a weight disadvantage.

Weight aside I do not excuse myself from what happened. I had the best preparation of my life. I couldn’t have asked for better training leading in. I was pulling off a lot of really good stuff in the fight, I felt like I was really close 4 or 5 times to hitting Ben in the head. the scores however told a different story. I was down a significant amount. In the third round Ben started landing double roundhouse kicks on me so hard that I was actually hurt. Fighting hurts, but sometimes when people score on you, you don’t really take notice of the impact your body took. This was something I hadn’t experienced before. He was really, really hurting me. I lost the match by about 7 points. A pretty big gap in Taekwondo. I was really torn up about it.

I started really doubting myself after that. How could I have gone to South Korea, spent all that money to train and prepare for this comp and then be battered in the first round? It made no sense to me. To get over it I entered the upcoming Victorian Championships, a competition I have won more than 10 times. I thought getting a few wins would make me feel better. In my first fight I took control straight away, landing a clean head kick within 10 seconds. However, thirty seconds after that I broke my toe when my foot clashed with his shin. I couldn’t kick with my left foot for the rest of the fight, he realized it and began to thoroughly smash me on the side I couldn’t defend for the remaining 2 and a half rounds. I was wearing an Australian Team uniform, I was in front of my old coaches, usually my Mum is too scared of me getting hurt to watch me fight but this time she came. And I got wrecked. I have never been more embarrassed in my life.

I couldn’t walk properly or train for 6 weeks. So I stewed on it. I came into the next Victorian Championships raring to prove that I was still a force to be reckoned with. I fought the Team AUS Heavyweight Dylan in the first fight, he kicked me in the head but I felt like I was gaining momentum in the last round. I was popping him underneath his arm in the clinch and was catching up. Then I blocked another head kick attempt and when I looked down my ring finger was pointing the wrong way. Two fights in a row I had broken a bone.

Only elite athletes can understand truly what it feels like to be losing like this, to sacrifice years of your life for no reward. I felt that I had spent 6 years of my life for nothing. I felt like I was getting no where. My finger required surgery and I spent 12 weeks unable to train, unable to get my heart rate up without it throbbing. One night I was in a really bad mood so I started watching a movie and I laughed so hard my heart rate rose and my fingers started hurting. I couldn’t sleep with the metal and elastic warping my finger back into position. If it was hot in the room my finger would throb and wake me up. The pins would cut up my other fingers and stab the side of my body in my sleep. In all honesty some nights I would wake up in pain and just cry.

I decided that I couldn’t live like that. It was October and I had spent 5 months out of 10 in pain. My pins came out and I started Physiotherapy, trying to regain the ability to use my left hand. To this day, I am unable to make a complete fist. In October I rejoined a BJJ club I had trained at in 2013 as a means of cross training. In 2013 I was training at Westside MMA in Caroline Springs, a truly elite training facility. They had an affiliation at the time with the Australian Elite Team so when I wanted to start up again I went straight back to the AET. Over the next few months I made myself a promise.

If I couldn’t make the National Team in time for Rio I would make the complete transfer to MMA and try and make the UFC. I am competing for that National Team spot in exactly one month.