Lutalo Muhammad determined to turn near misses into…

Lutalo Muhammad could be forgiven for feeling his sport’s fates have developed a habit of conspiring against him as he targets his first World Taekwondo title in Manchester later this week.

The 27-year-old’s top-level career has been beset by selection controversy, last-second agony and serious injury, and he now faces the prospect of having to emulate some of his boxing idols in order to claim the Olympic gold he craves.

Muhammad was on the verge of being crowned Olympic champion in Rio when he led Cheick Sallah Cisse of the Ivory Coast by two points with one second left in the final, only for Cisse to unleash a three-point spinning kick which wrested the gold.

Muhammad’s subsequent, emotional television interview captured hearts but from the kind of experience that could destroy a career, the Londoner maintains he has emerged stronger and much more resolute.

Muhammad told Press Association Sport: “People think the fight in Rio bothered me more than it actually did.

“I’m old enough and experienced enough to know that things don’t always go the way you plan. It’s just for me it happened in the last second of an Olympic Games.

“Ironically, if I’d gone on to secure the gold medal I would have been just another success story. It would have been the headline for that evening then the next day another gold medal would have happened and I would have been forgotten.

“The fact that I lost so dramatically and my interview resonated with so many people has made my profile bigger than it would have been if I’d been Olympic champion. It sounds bizarre and crazy but I know it to be the truth.”

The increased attention was nothing new to Muhammad, who had been at the centre of a controversy before the London 2012 Olympics – where he went on to win a bronze medal – after being favoured over his then GB team-mate Aaron Cook.

Post-Rio, Muhammad has faced a significant issue regarding weight categories. No longer able to make the -80kg limit he contested in Rio, he will move up to -87kg when he pursues his first world title in Manchester.

With -87kg not an Olympic category, however, Muhammad has no option but to move up and challenge his close friend and team mate Mahama Cho for the heavyweight berth if he is to qualify for his third consecutive Olympics in Tokyo next year.

Far from being daunted by such a less-than-ideal prospect, Muhammad, a keen scholar of the history of fighting sports, is determined to take inspiration from his idol Sugar Ray Leonard and other boxers who have defied weight divisions to succeed.

Muhammad added: “I like to look at Sugar Ray Leonard moving up to fight Marvin Hagler, Roy Jones winning titles all the way up to heavyweight, Sugar Ray Robinson going up to middleweight.

“Moving up through the divisions is consistent with all the great fighters throughout history and I believe if you truly believe you’re the best fighter in the world – like I do – then weight divisions are not a restriction.

“Besides, the last three Olympic (taekwondo) champions have been middleweights who moved up to heavyweight. So I’m in very good company. I believe I am faster than them and the speed will work in my favour.”

A ripped adductor muscle during a training session late last year provided another setback for Muhammad, affording him a rare period away from the taekwondo spotlight as attention shifts to GB team-mates like Jade Jones and Bianca Walkden.

Even in his darkest moments, Muhammad has never doubted his ability to emulate their respective major title successes. And for him, his sport’s first UK-based World Championships represents the ideal opportunity to put himself back on the map.

“It’s no secret about my injury struggles before and after Rio, but I’m in a very good place,” added Muhammad. “I’m at the stage where I’m still recovering, but I feel like the momentum is with me.

“The fact I haven’t won a world title yet and I’ve got this opportunity in Manchester, which I consider my second home because my mum was born here and I’ve lived here for seven years – it feels like destiny in a way.”


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