THEO PANAYIDES meets Cyprus’ only professional kickboxer, who is ranked No 5 in the world, and finds a gentle soul dedicated to his sport
I can think of (at least) two moments when I feel a bit taken aback during my interview with Arturos Akopian. The first comes when I ask about injuries. Has he ever been seriously injured in his bouts as a martial artist? I ask – and Chris Christodoulou, the beefy chatterbox who’s been Arturos’ coach for the past two years, shakes his head. Nothing serious, he replies; touch wood – and we both automatically tap the armrests of our wooden chairs, but Arturos doesn’t follow suit. “Better we should cross ourselves,” he says, and does so.
That’s a bit unexpected, though not surprising in the light of Arturos’ beliefs (more on this later). The other moment, however, comes earlier, soon after I walk into Uppercut Gym in Nicosia – which Chris runs, and where Arturos trains – and a small demonstration is arranged for me. The two men get in the ring, Chris holds up targets and Arturos does some basic training, showing off his kickboxing moves – and I’m stunned, though I guess I shouldn’t be, by the palpable violence of his foot as it splats against the targets. It’s not just about power, of course; speed and accuracy are even more important – yet the visceral force of his well-aimed kicks is what most impresses the layman, hinting at the secret behind the popularity of all martial arts: they speak to the dark violent part of us, the part that’s been whittled down by civilisation yet still lurks unbidden behind the façade.
How aggressive is Arturos? Not at all, when you speak to him – which is no surprise, indeed it’s become a cliché to point out that athletes in violent sports tend to be gentle and mild-mannered outside the ring (having channelled all their aggression into winning fights). Yet the question persists: how can a man do this so successfully – beating up other men and, in at least one case, sending them to hospital – if it’s not already part of him?
He’s successful, though it’s hard to put a number on it. By the time you read this, Arturos Akopian will have gone to Moscow to fight in the Final Four of the W5 World Championship, the biggest kickboxing tournament in Russia and one of the three biggest in the world, according to Chris. There’s K-1, Glory, then W5, he tells me – yet in fact there’s a profusion of different federations, each with its own ‘world champion’, as Chris acknowledges when he affirms that Arturos is the only professional kickboxer in Cyprus, “the others are basically amateurs. It’s easy to go to the papers, go into Facebook, put up 15 photos and say that [an athlete] won a belt – but which belt? The local neighbourhood belt? There’s 100,000 federations out there, which federation? You could organise something tomorrow and create a title, the Cyprus Mail Belt. And then he’d be the Cyprus Mail world champion!”
This much is (apparently) true: Arturos is ranked No. 5 in the world by WKN, the World Kickboxing Network, which Chris calls “the only professional federation”. Then again, going to the WKN website illustrates another complication when it comes to kickboxing, the many different variations within the basic template: even beyond the dozen-plus weight categories (Arturos is a super welterweight, at 69-72kg), there are world champions in simple kickboxing, ‘Oriental rules’, ‘full contact’ and ‘Muay Thai’ (then there’s MMA, or mixed martial arts, which is something else altogether). The super light heavyweight champ in Muay Thai is actually another Cypriot, one Christos Nicolaou – but presumably that doesn’t contradict Chris’ description of Arturos as the only professional kickboxer, since he’d consider Muay Thai a whole other sport.
Arturos did Muay Thai for several years, growing up in Paphos; before that, as a child, he practised taekwondo and karate. He’s been involved in martial arts since he was six years old. It wasn’t entirely his decision: his parents initially enrolled him so he’d learn to defend himself – not because of anything specific, he insists, but there was bullying at school, and besides this was post-Soviet Georgia and “life there wasn’t so easy, you know”. There was violence, robbery, even stories of kids being abducted. It may (or may not) be significant that Arturos is Armenian – hence an outsider both in Georgia, where he lived till he was eight years old (he’s now 26), and in Cyprus, where the family moved in 1996.
There was trouble at first. He and his parents (there’s also an older sister) didn’t speak the language, and Paphos was unsettled by the sudden influx of thousands of Pontians and Georgians in the mid-90s. “We had problems – let’s put it that way – with the Cypriots. We were always fighting with the neighbours, because we were foreigners”.
What kind of problems? Was there actual trouble, or just friction? He shrugs: “For me specifically, no. My parents endured all the problems, not me. Me – well, I just slept and ate and trained, that’s all I did”. Martial arts helped him in the usual ways, making him more confident and so on – but maybe it worked even more as an escape, allowing him to focus on something while his life shifted and rebuilt itself around him. And now? Does he feel Cypriot? Arturos hesitates: “I feel at home here,” he says. His friends are all here; if he went back to Georgia, he’d probably feel out of place. “But, of course, I’m never going to feel Cypriot. I was born Armenian, so I’ll stay Armenian. OK, I grew up here, I have everything here. But to say I’m Cypriot…” he smiles: “I don’t know.”
He speaks softly, unhurriedly. His gaze is steady, alert, not especially expressive. The sound of hip-hop wafts from the gym downstairs (I recognise Kid Cudi’s ‘Pursuit of Happiness’), hip-hop being apparently what kickboxers like to hear while lashing out at punching bags. We sit around a table, an evening breeze cooling the back of my neck from the open door; a curious cat scratches at my bag, having obviously familiarised itself with the two bedraggled-looking sofas. The ambience is friendly, even homely. It’s hard to believe I’m sitting with the world’s No. 5 kickboxer – in one of myriad categories, but still – who’s about to punch and kick other fighters (or get beaten himself) in a Moscow arena.
“We’re not going there as the poor relation,” says Chris hotly. He works as a cop when he’s not training fighters, and his bonhomie comes enveloped in a cop’s natural bossiness. “We’re going primed for battle. If he’s going to lose, he’s going to lose fair and square – but he’ll play the game, he’s going to hurt the other guy”. The other fighter (a Belorussian) is the favourite, indeed he’s tipped to win the entire Championship – but Arturos’ own record isn’t too shabby, counting 25 wins and only two defeats.
What is it that makes him so successful? “He has a good character,” says Chris. “And he hasn’t put on airs, he’s down-to-earth”. Much has apparently changed in the past couple of years, after Arturos became amateur kickboxing champion of Europe and decided to turn pro. Since he moved from Paphos to Nicosia (to train at Uppercut), says Chris, “he’s become a man, his character has changed”; not that he ever caused trouble, he adds quickly – “but he wasn’t a man, he was a little boy”. Now Arturos lives alone, cooks for himself and takes training seriously, from sparring (he sports a bruise below his right eye, the result of a recent session gone wrong) to back-breaking runs up in the mountains. His life isn’t much like a typical 26-year-old’s: he’s usually in bed by 10.30, though occasionally pushes the boat past midnight when he goes to Paphos on the weekends. Does he have a girlfriend, given his unusual lifestyle? He smiles rather shyly: “There’s a girl that I talk to, let’s say. It’s heading that way, yes.”
He and Chris are undoubtedly close. He refers to the older man as “my teacher” – but Chris is also a promoter, and may be slightly flummoxed by the more peculiar habits of his prize pupil. “Fishing!” says Chris at once when I ask about hobbies – and it’s true, Arturos loves to go fishing with friends on a Sunday, but there’s also another, more surprising hobby: “I like to read books.”
Really? What kind of books?
The teachings of the Elder Paisios are on his bookshelf, ditto several Lives of the Saints. This was also part of his recent transformation, it seems, the coming-of-age of the past couple of years, the shift from boy to man. “In the past two years, God called me,” says Arturos simply, “and drew me into His church. It’s not that something happened in my life [to cause this], I was just looking for something – something, something good, something to change my life generally, and so God heard me and brought me closer to Him.”
How does he think of God? As a kind of inner strength?
“Look, this subject for me is… it’s a big subject, let’s put it that way. And I’d like to save it for myself,” he replies earnestly. “I’d like to talk more about this subject – but I really don’t want to say very much. I’m saving it for me, for myself.”
He does go to church, he confirms (and of course he’ll cross himself rather than indulge in superstitions like touching wood), but the spiritual strength is also, I suspect, inextricable from the rest of his life – especially his passion, the kickboxing. It’s something to draw on when things look hopeless, and something to fall back on when things get too much. One of his greatest joys, he tells me, is to visit monasteries (his favourite in Cyprus is Timios Prodromos of Mesa Potamos, up near Troodos; he’s also been to Mt Athos), talk to the monks and just get in touch with his inner self. “Look,” he explains, “up there – how can I put it, you get nothing but love up there. You go there and it calms you down. Especially when I’m training so hard, living such a life, all the time pressure, pressure – you just need a place where your soul can unwind.”
Spoken like a poet – yet Arturos Akopian isn’t a poet, he’s a bruiser, a man of violence. Controlled violence, yes, even poetic violence, but violence nonetheless; you can feel it in the splat of his foot against those targets. It’s been part of his life for 20 years. Even with his gentle demeanour, he admits that the week before a bout he’ll get edgier, tetchier, more (verbally) aggressive. After all, he says, “you’re going there to fight – not to dance, or to hug someone. You’re going there to hit.”
How to explain the paradox? Maybe there isn’t one. Kickboxing is a job, which he does with the same dedication other 26-year-olds bring to a big internship, or a PhD (speaking of which, he doesn’t seem to mind missing out on university – his parents would’ve been wasting their money, he quips – though he doesn’t rule out possible studies in the future, after he’s too old to fight). “Hard-working” is the word Chris offers when I ask Arturos to describe himself in a single adjective; “He works quietly, like a bee,” adds the trainer memorably. ‘Winners Train, Losers Complain’ reads a recent entry on Arturos’ Facebook page.
What’s his goal? How far does he want to go? “As for where I’d like to end up, I couldn’t really say,” says this soulful quasi-Cypriot. “Wherever the journey takes me. We’ll find out in time. As for me, I’ll give everything I have to give. After that, only God knows”. First stop, Moscow.
Kosta Anaxagora 21, Nicosia