Sport: Mixed Martial Arts (MMA)
Clubs: Spartan MMA
3 Favourite Things: adrenaline rushes, food,
spending time with my people
Fun fact: Whenever I buy high heels, the first
thing I see is if I can kick with them!
mixed martial arts fighter
CYPRUS GIRLS CAN chats with Ioanna to find out all about how she got into full contact martial arts -
first Taekwondo and then Mixed Martial Arts (MMA)!
Interview by Natalie Christopher
Edited by Katherine Staniewski
Natalie: Hi Ioanna! It’s so great to speak to you today.
You’ve gotten so far in the world of martial arts already and you are just 19! Tell us, how you first got into sports.
Ioanna: I was always encouraged to do sports at home. Both of my parents were bodybuilders. My mum was a body building champion 13 or 14 years ago and she really inspires me.
I used to do gymnastics when I was younger and then I tried Karate which I liked a lot. When I was 12 years old, one of my cousins was doing Taekwondo. I went along to see what it was about and I loved it! I started training straight away.
After just a few months I had my first competition, it was the Cyprus championships.
I came 2nd. I hated it. I wanted to win.
WHAT IS TAEKWONDO?
Taekwondo is a Korean martial art, characterised by its emphasis on head-height kicks, jumping and spinning kicks and fast kicking techniques. It has been an Olympic sport since the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia.
Taekwondo was developed during the 1940s and 1950s by various martial artists who combined elements of Karate and Chinese martial arts with traditional Korean martial arts traditions such as Taekkyeon, Subak, and Gwonbeop.
To facilitate fast, turning kicks, taekwondo generally adopts stances that are narrower and taller than the broader, wide stances used by martial arts such as karate. The trade-off of decreased stability is believed to be worth the commensurate increase in agility.
Under World Taekwondo and Olympic rules, sparring is a full-contact event and takes place between two competitors matched by gender and weight division. Competitors wear a chest protector (‘hogu’), head protector, shin pads, foot socks, forearm guards, hand gloves and a mouthpiece.
The force of a kick can be measured using electronic hogus, electronic foot socks and electronic head protectors. Human judges assess and score technical (spinning) techniques and punches. 3 points are awarded for a kick to the stomach, or more if it is a spinning kick, with additional points for a kick to head. Kicks below the waist are not allowed, if you do so, 1 point is lost.
Natalie: Wow, so you were competitive from the beginning!
Ioanna: Definitely. We had Taekwondo exams every 3 months and the winner of each category would be on the Cyprus National team.
For the 7 years that I was competing in Taekwondo, I won each time.
I train hard because I want to win. I always want to win. I get stressed before every fight. I never underestimate my opponent.
Natalie: Didn’t always winning make you feel complacent, like you didn’t have to try so hard because you would win any way?
Ioanna: No, not at all. The day after a competition, I would be back at training 3-4 hours, as if I’d lost and I needed to improve. There is always work to be done.
I used to train six times a week unless I had a competition, in that case it would be four times. Sunday would be my rest day, or if I had had a fight, then I would do active recovery.
Natalie: Tell us about competitions when you represented Cyprus abroad.
Ioanna: I competed both at the European Championship and World Championship, with the Cyprus national team.
The World Taekwondo Championship is held every two years by World Taekwondo. The year I attended, in 2015, it was held in Chelyabinsk, Russia. It was a great trip. The Olympic village where we stayed had a really nice atmosphere.
Although I was 17 years old at the time, I represented the Cyprus Women’s National team, as I had beaten all the older women in Cyprus. The selection for the Championship had taken place about a month beforehand. There were around 10 girls competing to represent Cyprus; we would have 3 to 4 fights a day and whoever won would go through to the next fight. The overall winner from that weight category would go to the Championship.
That month of preparations meant training all day. Every day.
At the World Championships, I fought Gerda Gaizauskaite from Lithuania, with 3 rounds of 2 minutes each. Although I didn’t win, I didn’t mind, as I had a great experience and I had fought well.
A highlight of the trip was that I got to meet my Taekwondo idol, Jade Jones!
MY TAEKWONDO ROLE MODEL
Jade won gold at both the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Olympics, in the women's 57 kg category. When she won in 2012, it was the first time an athlete from Britain had won the taekwondo Olympic gold medal in this category.
Jade was born on 21 March 1993 in Bodelwyddan, Wales. She now lives and trains in Manchester, coached by Paul Green.
*Image from Wikipedia: Jade Louise Jones at 2016 Olympics in Rio.
Natalie: You must have progressed really quickly through many of the belts as you became so advanced in taekwondo in such a short period of time!
Ioanna: Actually, when I found myself competing in Taekwondo, I ended up skipping some belts… I did the exam for my black belt fairly quickly!
My coach Ioannis Dimitriou actually has 7 dan, he has written 2 books.
I used to also spend time practising forms, ‘poomsae ‘ in taekwondo, as well as in sparring. Although poomsae is non-contact, you can compete in it and in fact, I found it harder than fighting as you are judged more on your technique. Your presentation has to be immaculate, including things like your belt being the same length on either side and your hair being neat.
My taekwondo coach, Ioannis Dimitriou, is such a role model for me. He always teaches us how to respect our opponent. We don’t say bad things to them, even if we want to beat them in a competition.
GRADING SYSTEM IN TAEKWONDO
As you progress, in Taekwondo you obtain belts of different colours:
white, half yellow, yellow, half green, green, half blue, blue, half red, red, half black, black.
Then come the dans – one line on belt your belt each time, which you can customize.
There are up to 10 dans.
After 6 dan, you have to write a book.
Natalie: It must be so tricky to be thinking about your weight all the time, to make sure you are eligible for the right weight category.
Ioanna: Yes, it’s difficult.
Once in a regional competition in Greece, I had water retention from the flight. From 61kg before the flight, I ended up at 64kg at the weigh-in and so I had to fight in next weight category.
When you fight someone heavier than you, their kicks and punches have more power behind them. My opponent would have been 68kg at weigh-in, but probably closer to 70-72kg when we fought. I in the meantime, I went back down to my 61kg by the time of the fight. My legs were bruised and bleeding. But I still won.
Natalie: After so much success, in Taekwondo, what made you want to start Mixed Martial Arts (MMA)?
Ioanna: I wanted a new challenge. I have always liked contact sports; I like to be out of my comfort zone. With MMA, I thrive on the fear, it’s a big challenge.
MMA is an aggressive sport, I like the adrenaline. In an MMA fight you don’t know how to get out of that cage.
It scares me… That’s what drives me to want to do it.
There are non-contact, systematic and pre-arranged sequences of techniques in taekwondo, which are known as ‘forms’.
These are equivalent to kata in karate. There are 3 Korean terms which may be used with reference to taekwondo forms or patterns: Hyeong, Poomsae or Teul.
WEIGHT CATEGORIES IN TAEKWONDO
There are 8 divisions for World Championships, condensed down to 4 for the Olympics. These four have limits of 49kg – Flyweight, 57 kg – Featherweight, 67 kg – Welterweight, unlimited – Heavyweight.
A win can occur by points, or if one competitor is unable to continue (knockout). Several other decisions can lead to a win, including superiority, withdrawal, disqualification, or even a referee's declaration.
Each match consists of three, two-minute rounds, with one minute rest in between.
My first experience with MMA was a grappling competition, in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I fought a girl who was experienced, I had no training and no technique. I beat her.
When you’re down in jiu-jitsu you have to be calm and predict the next move. But since MMA is a mixture of martial arts, you have to then also be prepared to switch to reacting quickly.
My friends are really supportive, they come to watch me.
Amazingly I have never broken an arm or leg. Yeah, I’ve broken nose but that’s normal. I think I broke my finger, once it swelled up. I put a glove on. It was fine.
What is Mixed Martial Arts?
MMA is a full-contact combat sport that allows both striking and grappling, both standing and on the ground, using techniques from different combat sports and martial arts.
Originally promoted as a competition to find the most effective martial arts for real unarmed combat, competitors from different fighting styles were pitted against one another in contests with relatively few rules.
Later, individual fighters incorporated multiple martial arts into their style. MMA promoters were pressured to adopt additional rules to increase competitors' safety, to comply with sport regulations and to broaden mainstream acceptance of the sport.
Following these changes, the sport has seen increased popularity with a pay-per-view business that rivals boxing and professional wrestling.
Grappling: A close fighting technique used to gain a physical advantage such as improving relative position, or causing injury to the opponent. Grappling covers techniques used in many disciplines, styles and martial arts that are practiced both as combat sports and for self-defense.
Grappling most commonly does not include striking or the use of weapons. Grappling techniques include: Clinch fighting; Takedowns, Throws; Submission holds, Pinning or Controlling Techniques, Sweeps, Reversals, Turnovers and Escapes:
Throws: A technique where one grappler lifts or off-balances their opponent and manoeuvres them forcefully through the air or to the ground.
Turnovers: used to manoeuvre an opponent who is on all fours or flat on their stomach to their back, in order to score points, prepare for a pin or to gain a more dominant position.
Reversals or Sweeps: Used when a grappler who was underneath their opponent on the ground is able to manoeuvre so that they gain a top position over his opponent.
Clinching: Both competitors are on their feet and use various holds applied to the upper body of the opponent, to set up or defend against throws or takedowns.
Takedowns: Used by one grappler to manipulate their opponent from a position where both are initially standing, to a position on the ground.
Sprawling: A defensive technique, usually done when the opponent attempts a takedown, by shifting the legs backwards and spread out in one fast motion. If done correctly one will land on their opponent's back and gain control.
Submission holds: There are generally two types- those that could strangle or suffocate an opponent (chokes) and those that could cause injury to a joint or other body part (locks). A competitor can submit either verbally or by tapping the opponent, to admit defeat when they are caught in a submission hold that they cannot escape from.
Securing or Controlling Techniques: A pin involves holding an opponent on their back in a position where they are unable to attack.
Escapes: manoeuvring out of danger or from an inferior position e.g. when a grappler is able to manoeuvre out of a submission attempt and back to a position where he is no longer in immediate danger of being submitted.
Natalie: While watching your weight, how do you make sure you are getting your nutrition right?
I: I have tried many nutritionists, including most in Larnaca. But the best by far for me has been Anninia Hadjiloizou in Limassol.
She has helped me obtain my desired weight before a fight, without feeling like I am lacking energy or power. She really understands what I need to achieve and how to help me reach my goal. I thank her a lot.
My MMA training will depend on if I’m injured and/or if I’m trying to lose weight.
Natalie: What is your relationship with your MMA coach like?
Ioanna: My MMA coach is Mark Buchanan, from Spartan MMA gym. Mark is an excellent coach, he has helped me a lot. He trains with me. I’ve been training with him for 2 years now, he really inspires and motivates me.
I go to College in the morning, I study Business administration and marketing. I work in afternoon and then I go training. I train for MMA from 6-8.30pm MMA 6 times a week.
Mark had tried to arrange fights for me in the past, but he could not find any girls who wanted to fight. There are a few in Cyprus who do train for MMA, but they don’t compete.
My first and so far only MMA fight was in December 2017.
This MMA fight helped me become mentally stronger.
Because I didn’t have a choice.
Natalie: What is your opinion of the scantily clad women who walk around the cage holding up signs to announce the rounds in MMA?
Ioanna: In my opinion, the women in tight leather clothes and excessive make up are humiliating for women. I think is completely unnecessary.
To be honest, I’m not used to it, as this doesn’t happen in Taekwondo. Rather than walking around trying to be sexy, they should be doing the sport and fighting themselves.
Natalie: How do men react when they find out you train for MMA?
Ioanna: I actually mainly train with men for MMA. Once though, a new guy came to our gym. Our coach told him to come and fight kickboxing with me. He said he didn’t want to, because I am a girl and I am weak. I broke his nose.
Other reactions that I’ve had from men is that they do not believe I can fight MMA properly.
Before the CFC MMA fight for example...
The organisers completely underestimated both myself and my opponent.
I can excuse them to a certain extent, as they hadn’t seen women in Cyprus fighting MMA before.
When we went in for the weigh-in, they seemed shocked we were so well trained and ready to fight properly.
Despite this, I’m glad we had the fight at the CFC competition, as it was good promotion for MMA in Cyprus.
Where are the women?
Despite fighting in the CFC Championships, the women did not appear on the promotional poster.
My MMA Role Model
Amanda started training in karate at age four and pursued training in boxing at the age of sixteen. She first competed in Brazilian jiu-jitsu after being invited to a dojo by her sister, who also trained in the sport. Nunes made her mixed martial arts debut on March 8, 2008, at Prime MMA Championship 2, where she faced Ana Maria.
Natalie: Why do you think there so few women taking part in MMA, say in comparison to Taekwondo, if they are both contact sports?
Ioanna: In Cyprus and in general, Taekwondo is very popular with girls, there are always lots of girls in each weight category. Being an Olympic sport, there are strict rules and regulations in taekwondo. This is completely unlike MMA, where pretty much anything goes. People tend to shy away from the unknown.
Taekwondo has a lot of structure, with exams and gradings. This planning definitely helped me when I was younger. Now I do MMA and there is no structure, but it suits me now, I like it. I have the experience.
You can plan a little bit of your MMA fight, but the rest is instinct and reactions, which comes from training and experience.
Natalie: Do people tend to provoke you?
Ioanna: Once a college student tried to punch me. I reacted automatically and kicked him in the stomach. Nobody bothered me again after that.
On a night out some guys were bothering my friends and I. I am usually a very calm person. But in the end they pushed my buttons and I defended us. I don’t like to start fights.
Natalie: What advice to you have to a woman to women who want start but don’t know how to?
Ioanna: Go out and try it! You don’t have to be a specific strength to start. You will become strong through training. MMA is a good sport as it combines everything, muay thai, jiu jitsu, lots of martial arts.
My other advice is to try meditation. I meditate alot. My parents did and it helps me also visualise. When I’m studying I can’t focus for more than 30 minutes, but when I’m training or competing I’m really focussed and calm. I visualise before I fight.
Thank you so much for talking to us today Ioanna!
We wish you all the best in your future career!