We had the chance to sit down (virtually) with one of Karate Combat’s top prospects, Christina Kavakopoulou.
“Panthera” is a highly accomplished karateka who began her training at the age of six. Throughout her career, Christina has competed at the highest levels in the world and ultimately earned a spot on the Greek National Karate team. She was ranked among the top 10 fighters in the World Karate Federation’s -50 kg division, and through her spectacular sparring performances, she was noticed by Karate Combat in 2018.
Since joining the promotion, Christina has made a statement for herself in the pit with a 2-0 undefeated streak. So, what’s next for the fiercest female strawweight in Karate Combat? We decided to find out.
On Dance, Kata, Point-Sparring, and Full-Contact
Karate Combat: In your “Fighter Origins” promotional video, it’s noted that you were a dancer prior to your martial arts career. Can you tell us a little bit about how you transitioned from dance to karate, and has your experience in dance enhanced your karate at all?
Christina Kavakopoulou: I’ve always been a martial artist along with being a dancer. I started karate in 1997 so I’ve mostly done karate (more) than dance. I started dance when I was younger, and it helped me a lot with flexibility, coordination, and rhythm. However, it’s something that many people may not fully understand if they have not trained both.
KC: Can you tell us about your time on the Greek National Karate team?
Christina: I was a kata [forms] and kumite [sparring] champion in Greece until 2015. I also competed in Team Kata. By 2018, I had two medals in K-1, a fifth place in the European Championships in -50 kilograms in kumite, [and] I also had a 5th place in team kata in 2010. I could never just do one thing in my life! Maybe that’s a bit of a curse. I think actually that kata has helped me a lot in transitioning to Karate Combat.
KC: Really?! That’s interesting. In what ways do you think practicing forms has helped you in Karate Combat?
Christina: It has helped me now that I am training a lot of boxing. The footwork, the movement, and the stability you have every time you punch is similar to the kime (focus) used in kata. The ability you have while punching or kicking in kata is the same stability you need in full contact karate. The techniques may change, but the meaning is the same.
KC: Do you think that the same logic applies to sport karate and point fighting? Or only full contact?
Christina: I think the big problem with sport karate is that it has become like fencing, you know? It’s not “real” combat. I’ve come to a point that kata is more real to me than kumite, at the moment. If you know good applications for kata and have good basics, you can punch much harder and with more purpose than a kumite fighter. I remember on the national team, when the kata guy or kata girl went in to fight, everyone was afraid of them! They always rip punches in and stick them, as well as kicks. The kumite guys and girls were only working on footwork and fast movements and I think that’s a problem.
KC: Do you have a favorite kata?
Christina: Yeah, I do! Nijushiho and Unsu.
Switching to Full-Contact - Training & Prep
KC: Coming from a point sparring background, what was the mental and physical preparation like to transition out of the point sparring mentality and into full contact karate?
Christina: I will tell you; it’s funny and a bit hardcore! The first thing that my coach at the time made me do was make me spar with male kickboxers.
Christina: No, it was not nice! (Laughs) They took good care of me. But every time I threw a combination, I was eating an uppercut, cross, or hook afterwards. After enough times of this happening, you start to move differently! I learned the hard way.
KC: Your hard work has paid off! You’ve moved to 2-0 in the organization. Does this put you in contention for a championship bout? There’s yet to be a champion crowned in your division…
Christina: I cannot say a lot about that, you know! [I am hoping for a title fight.] ...You never know. The universe hears the words we say, so I just stay humble and work, work, work! Whatever happens, bring it on.
KC: We can't wait. You're certainly deserving of being in that golden belt conversation. Especially after your second performance in the Pit. What do you think happened with your opponent midway through the third round? Was it fatigue or was she badly hurt? Can you walk us through what you remember from that fight?
Christina: I remember that she was always afraid to come forward. She was afraid to fight me. That was pretty obvious. I don't think she was ready to fight me. I'm not sure how the thought crossed her mind to fight in Karate Combat, but I don't feel she was ready. She got a few good punches in but every time I was going in, she would fall down and try to protect her head. It was very frustrating because I couldn't fight the fight I wanted to. I want to get dirty in fights! Exchange punches, kicks, but I didn't have that because she was afraid. She took a lot of damage to her face so at the point when she was down on the mat, the referee spoke to her two times to get up, but she didn't reply.
KC: That makes sense. The ruleset has changed slightly since that last fight. With the inclusion of knees moving forward at events, has your preparation changed at all? Is there anything you've added into this training camp that is unique?
Christina: The only thing that has changed is that I can use them more often and I have learned more about blocking them, which is most important as I see it. I don't know, I feel that I am a different fighter since the last time I fought. I had a knee surgery last summer after the KC fight which took me a long time to recover, so many things have changed since then. I have focused a lot on my boxing, sweeps, blocking low kicks to protect my leg, and reactions. Many, many things, so I don't know what to pick that is unique.
KC: KC36 is on the cusp of Halloween. Is there anything particular your opponent should be afraid of when she steps into the pit with you?
Christina: It's a surprise. I never underestimate anyone, so I hope it's a good one because I also have my birthday that day.
KC: Your nickname translates to “Panther” and we’re curious how that came to be. What’s the origin of your nickname?
Christina: It’s funny you should ask. I can show you, actually. A picture is worth 1000 words.
(Christina steps out of frame and returns with the cutest, fattest, black cat in all of Greece)
Christina: This is the original Panthera! A big, fat cat.
Christina (continued): I never liked “tough” nicknames, so I decided to make fun of it. I love my black cat. He’s like a black panther so I thought that it’s not so tough. Although it could sound a bit tough if you don’t know the history of the name. I may seem tough on the outside, but I’m not so much when you get to know me.
KC: Have you noticed any major growth in your ability to influence on social media since transitioning from niche organizations like WKF or JKA to a more mainstream organization like Karate Combat?
Christina: Of course, it’s much, much different. New doors opened. I’m known generally in Greece for martial arts, but there is a new level of respect since joining Karate Combat. With sport karate, other martial artists don’t respect it. There’s very little contact, so the fighting spirit is lower and lower. That was always my problem. My fighting spirit was very high, but in other organizations I felt like I was in a box and couldn’t fully extend my talents. My talent is my spirit. It’s why I pressure. Get dirty. Fight. I love it! Prior organizations were not suitable for me. So I am thankful to make more people from martial arts appreciate karate. Through me, they are starting to change the way they see karate. I hope that someday karate gets to be at a place it truly deserves to be.
KC: We are thankful to have you as a pioneer for that movement. Thank you for taking the time to speak with us!
Christina: Thank you for having me.
Be sure to catch Christina Kavakopoulou’s next fight LIVE (and wish her a happy birthday) on October 29th!