Ruth Gbagbi: Weaponized Creativity

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SOFIA, Bulgaria (22 Oct. 2019) – A new kick has been added to the arsenal of taekwondo: Let’s call it the “Ruth Gbagbi” kick.

It was invented in mid-combat, in the finals of the Women’s -67kg at the Sofia Grand Prix. The Cote d’Ivorian fighter was engaged in torrid battle against the most ferocious fighter in the female division: Great Britain’s Lauren Williams.

In Round 1, Williams bulldozed forward with round kick-punch combinations. Driving the Ivorean back, she landed a flying punch for the first point, added two more with a body kick, overpowered Gbagbi who fell in mid-spin, and raised her score to 5-0.

Then it happened. Gbagbi, forced back to the edge of the mats, dived for cover and unleashed a jump reverse turning kick. Both feet were off the mats, and her kicking leg was higher than her head as her heel connected to Williams’ head protector.

It was an extraordinary feat of athleticism – and doubly extraordinary for being fired, while under massive pressure, in the midst of battle.  The scoreboard rang up 5-5.

And Gbagbi was just getting started.

In a ferocious flurry, Gbagbi let fly with a back kick-reverse turning kick to the head combination. Both landed. Suddenly the African fighter was 13 -6 up.

In Round 2, Williams charged, head hunting and driving Gbagbi backward. Yet Gbagbi remained cool. Williams’ punch was doing sterling work, as she forced Gbagbi to backpedal. An IVR was called by Gbagbi’s coach, giving both fighters a break.

Action resumed. Feet, fists and points flew fast and furious as yet more brilliant technique was displayed by Gbagbi – consecutive jump turning kicks, fired defensively from the edge of the mats. As awesome pace was being set by Williams, but Round 2 ended 18-16 to Gbagbi.

The third was anyone’s game. Williams stabbed forward. Gbagbi shot back. 22-19. Gbagbi attacked; the Brit tried to drop her ax on the Ivorian’s head. A punch by Williams reverberated around the arena, but the board stayed in Gbagbi’s favor as she kinked, swerved and danced while still, somehow, landing kicks. In the last 20 seconds, Williams finally slowed.

The epic battle – some at ringside were calling it the best female fight they had ever seen –  ended 25-20, with the gold going to Cote d’Ivoire.

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A Homeric Bout

It had been a brilliant display of athleticism, instinctive fighting and cool-headedness by Gbagbi – amply overcoming the aggression, intensity and pace of Williams.

“She is very powerful and very creative,” said Philippe Bouedo, a hugely experienced taekwondo fighter, coach and official, and WT’s technical delegate to Tokyo 2020 of Gbagbi. “She has a full palette of techniques.”

Looking back on her battle the following day, the 25-year-old from Abidjan admitted that she did not realize how awesome her fight had been: In the heat of combat Gbagbi, like most fighters, experienced tunnel vision.

As for her spectacular boot-work, she seemed to consider it all in a day’s work.

“It was instinctive! I did not have a plan about that,” Gbagbi said of her super kicks. “When the action came, I reacted in that way. I did not really practice it…”

Killer Kicker, Quiet Voice

Still, she has been practicing taekwondo for 16 years. She first pulled on a dobok in 2003, following a cousin who was practicing taekwondo.

The rest is history: She has been surging through the competition in what is arguably the most competitive category in the women’s division. She won an Olympic bronze in Rio in 2016, and has one World Championship title from Muju in 2017, two Grand Prix titles from Moscow 2017 and Sofia 2019, and one Grand Slam from Wuxi in 2017 under her belt.

“I am a fighter!” she said. “The more difficult it is, the more I like it!”

Assessing her own style, she cites cardio as a key strength. Technically, she likes double kicks, but admits she is an instinctive fighter rather than a tactician: “I don’t care about the opponent, I focus on myself, not the other.”

Regarding the fearsome Williams, she said: “I was not intimidated, as I know her style. I knew what she would do straight away.”

Among the male fighters in the game at present, she likes Team Russia’s Alexey Denisenko. “I like the way he fights, he is very clever, and he also likes the double kick.” Among the female fighters she cites Rio gold medalist So-hui Kim of Team Korea. “She is small for that category, she works the distance very well and she is very clever,” Gbagbi said.

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Gbagbi is currently ranked number eight in her division soy is not so much focused on Tokyo 2020 as on qualifying for Tokyo 2020: The means a grueling end-of-season schedule:  She will be fighting at the Grand Prix Final in Moscow and at the Grand Slam in Wuxi as 2019 winds down.

Only after that is done will the Tokyo work-up begin. “Once I know I am qualified, then my coach will prepare a special program,” she said.

Despite her athletic talents, and her formidable fighting focus, Gbagbi is surprisingly soft spoken. Pundits and colleagues, however, are more than willing to sing her praises.

“She is amazing! She is the reason we all love taekwondo: To see amazing players pull off amazing displays of athleticism,” said Team USA fighter Stephen Lambdin. “When you watch her kick it is like she is swinging a baseball bat! I absolutely would not want to fight her.”

“She is the perfect aspect of taekwondo – we want to show people how exciting the game is!” added Bouedo. “In championships, some players minimize risk, but not Gbagbi. She has no limits.”

 

Ruth Gbagbi: At a Glance

Hobby? “FIFA Football on Playstation.”

Favorite song? “Any songs by DJ Arafat”

Favorite movie? “Any comedy films.”

Favorite food? “Foufou – it’s an African dish.”

Why do you do taekwondo?  “I love it. It’s my passion.”

Motto: “In God I trust. It is God who grants the victory.”