Nafia Kus: ‘The Amazon’ Strikes Gold

Nafia Kus: ‘The Amazon’ Strikes Gold

Every sport needs a pipeline of up-and-coming fighters and in this sense, taekwondo is well served.

Case in point? Turkey’s 20-year-old Nafia Kus.

The first thing that strikes you about Kus is her weapons-grade physical presence. Tall, lithe, leggy and athletic, Kus is nicknamed “The Amazon” and it is easy to see why. With her pale features bookmarked by long, black tresses, with her chiseled bone structure and her dark, hawk-like eyes, she showcases the fierce beauty of the mythical female warriors of the Black Sea.

If she were not stalking opponents on the competition mats, she could be turning heads on the runways of Paris and Milan, and indeed, when she came into the media room at the 2015 Moscow Grand Prix Series 1 for the photo session to accompany this article, male media professionals were lining up to have their photo taken alongside her.

It was her physique that even at age 10, led her to taekwondo, or  rather, that led taekwondo to her.  A coach at a dojang in her home town of Adana spotted her. “He saw that I looked tall and strong so he invited me to his club,” she said. “That was the beginning.”

At the time, Kus was a keen volleyball player, but found that she had a special talent for taekwondo. In the last six years, her competitive career has blossomed. She won silver at the 2009 European Cadet Championships, another silver at the 2010 World Juniors, bronzes at the 2011 and 2012 European Juniors, a gold at the 2013 European Under-21s, a bronze at the 2015 World Championships and a gold at the 2015 Europeans.

Her favored technique is the front-leg turning kick which, she reckons, is well catered for by the current rules and PSS. In terms of her strengths, she mused: “I know my physical advantage and my power: I am tall and I have long legs.” 

Nafia Kus (second left) competing at the WTF Grand Prix in Moscow ©Getty Images
Nafia Kus (second left) competing at the WTF Grand Prix in Moscow ©Getty Images

At Moscow’s Dinamo Krylatskoye Gymnasium in the female over 67kg division – a division that includes such daunting fighters as Serbia’s Milica Mandic, France’s Gwladys Epangue, Russia’s Olga Ivanova and Mexico’s Maria Espinoza, Kus, the world-ranked number 18, found herself facing off against current world champion Bianca Walkden in the semis.

Yet “The Amazon” was in no way awed by the world’s number two.

“All my opponents, whoever I fight, is only an opponent,” Kus said. “I cannot see the nation, I cannot see the face, I only fight to win: That is all my focus.” Fighting with poise and confidence throughout the match, she dispatched Walkden in golden point. That victory put her through to the finals against China’s Li Donghua, the world-ranked number 12.

Action got underway as soon as the bell went, with Kus drawing first blood with a front-leg turning kick to the body. Li returned fire with an arcing ax kick to the head of Kus, then, in a flurry, Li went down with Kus falling on top of her. A medic was called as Li, clearly in pain, appearing to have suffered a twisted ankle. However, after some swift manipulation, she got back on her feet.

But now “The Amazon” was looking to take swift advantage. Both athletes showed a high work rate as they fought to control the center of the ring, with Kus piling on the pressure.  By the final round, there was just a one-point difference - but Kus had now found her distance. She mercilessly extended her lead and Li’s game started to disintegrate. The match ended with a convincing 12-5 victory for the Turk.

Nafia Kus competing in Turkey in 2013 ©YouTube
Nafia Kus competing in Turkey in 2013 ©YouTube

A clearly delighted Kus was looking to the future, particularly to  the September Grand Prix which will be held on the home ground of this Black Sea warrior.  “Inshallah, I will win in Samsun!” she said in the post-match TV interview.

Like every athlete fighting in the 2015 Grand Prix Series, Kus’ longer-term sights are set on Rio. “My major target is the Olympics and I want to get golds in Samsun and Manchester to get into the top eight to qualify for the Grand Prix Final in Mexico and try to make the Olympics,” she said.

Professionally, she is well positioned to get there. The Turkish Taekwondo Federation covers all her training camp, travel and accommodation expenses; it also pays a cash bonus for medals. In her down time, Kus continues to play volleyball and is a keen salsa dancer.

She is currently a student in the Sports Department of the University of Cukurov, and in her post-competitive career plans to teach sports. However, given that she is just started her life as a senior, that career could be a long one: “The Amazon” reckons her cut-off date for Olympic competition is 2024.

Si Mohammed Ketbi: The schoolboy silver medallist

Si Mohammed Ketbi: The schoolboy silver medallist

Belgian Si Mohammed “Simo” Ketbi grabbed a silver medal at the 2015 World Taekwondo Championships in Chelyabinsk after doing battle with one of the most dominant fighters in taekwondo.

That is not bad going for a 17-year-old.

Having battled through the preliminaries in the under 58kg division, where he was competing as an independent athlete after the Belgian National Taekwondo Union was suspended by the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) in January. his semi-final fight went according to plan.

Facing off against China’s Shuai Zhao - one of the lankiest fighters in the division, with the stature of a basketball player - action started off at a fast pace.

The towering Zhao drew first blood, but the boy from Brussels settled down and started to dominate from the center of the ring, using active footwork and racking up points with lead-leg kicks.

Round three started with a kickathon from both fighters, but Ketbi stayed ahead, and after pulling a head shot out of the bag in the closing seconds, ended the match comfortably ahead at 14-7.

“He was not as motivated as I am, I took it with the head shot,” Ketbi told the WTF afterwards.

“Me and him were both tired, but I could win.”

That tactical victory earned Ketbi a place in the finals - and a trial-by-fire, for Ketbi’s opponent was perhaps the dominant athlete fighting in taekwondo today: The “Iranian Tsunami” Farzan Ashour Zadeh Fallah.

The Iranian had undergone a punishing fight in the semis against Russia’s Ruslan Poiseev, but by the time he came out to face Ketbi, he had recovered his composure.

Si Mohammed Ketbi in action en route to his silver medal at the World Taekwondo Championships in Chelyabinsk ©WTF
Si Mohammed Ketbi in action en route to his silver medal at the World Taekwondo Championships in Chelyabinsk ©WTF

In fact, there was no sign of nerves from either player: As the two finalists waited in the holding area, both flashed big smiles at the cameras.

Then orchestral music played; the athletes entered the ring; faced off - and battle commenced.

Both fighters have similar physiques, and showcased similar styles, with most play taking place off the front leg, aimed at the chest protector. 

Ketbi raised the pace, but it was Ashour Zadeh Fallah who landed first. 

 Action extended to more ambidextrous kicking from both players, before the round finished 3-0 to the Iranian.

Round two continued in a similar fashion, with Ketbi firing off punches which failed to score; at the end of the round, he was 5-1 down.

In Round three, “The Tsunami” was holding center court with the score at 7-2, and with 30 seconds left on the clock, Ketbi went over to the offensive but his tactics were too conservative to rack up the necessary points.

In the last second of the match, he unleashed a head kick - but too late; final score: 8-3 to the Iranian.

“It was the third time I have fought him, I thought I could beat him but he got the advantage at the beginning,” said Ketbi.

“In the third round I could see his opening, but there was no more time.

“I think I lost the fight because of concentration; also my legs were very tired.”

Even so,  coach Leonardo Gambluch was delighted with his student’s performance.

“I am more than satisfied!” he said, adding: “We are disappointed he did not get the gold, but his career will be long.”

Indeed, “Simo” still has a year of high school ahead of him before he graduates.

Then it will be university, where he hopes to study engineering.  

No girlfriend yet? “No, I have to concentrate on what I am doing,” he said.

Ketbi expects some media coverage and “a lot of Facebook hits” when he returns home: 

His family were delighted when he called and told them of his achievement in Chelyabinsk.

“They were very, very happy - they were crazy! -  they did not know I would get a silver,” he said.

“I want to say thanks to God, then my father, my family and my coaches and my friends.”

However, like many Western European athletes, he is dissatisfied with the profile of taekwondo in his country.

“I am not happy with that in Belgium, it is not so popular, it has to be more like football,” he said.

“For now, there is no commercial sponsorship.”

Si Mohamed Ketbi pictured on the top of the podium after winning the gold medal at the Swiss Open in 2015 ©Instagram
Si Mohamed Ketbi pictured on the top of the podium after winning the gold medal at the Swiss Open in 2015 ©Instagram

Currently, he receives support from Adeps, the Francophone sport association, and Be Gold, the Belgian Olympic sport organization; he also has access to the Physical Training University in Brussels.

The WTF’s ninth ranked player, Ketbi was the first place winner at the 2015 Swiss Open in Montreux, Switzerland and came in second at the 2015 Lotto Dutch Open Taekwondo Championships in Eindhoven, The Netherlands.

His aims are set high: He hopes to be European, World and Olympic champion.

Is this feasible?

His coach reckons so. “He is young, and his future will be better,” Gambluch said.

“His career is long: It will be an adventure!”

But there is one obstacle standing in the way: A certain Farzan Ashour Zadeh Fallah.

Off the mats, the two competitors get along.

“I like to fight with him,” Ketbi said, adding: “It is very fair play, he is a good person.”

But can “The Tsunami” be defeated?

“Every person can be beaten, they are humans with two arms and two legs,” he insisted.

“It is possible to beat him and I hope to train to beat him one time.”

Given their ages, the Iranian and the Belgian will be clashing on the taekwondo circuit for a very long time to come.

How long?

Ketbi thinks for a moment, then replies.

“Until we die!” he said.