The Girl Who Beat Mackenzie Dern – Interview With Elvira Karppinen

Picture by Jarno Juutinen

 

“I was prepared to give everything I had.”

Elvira did what most people thought she couldn’t: defeating Mackenzie Dern – the former ADCC World Champion – in the very first round of the ADCC World Championship. What’s even more incredible: she has been training for only four years! Meet Elvira “Ellu” Karppinen. 

Where are you from, and how did you start jiu jitsu?

My name is Elvira Karppinen, and I am 28 years old. I live in Finland in a pretty small city called Tampere. I am a brown belt and train at 10th Planet Tampere / MMA Team 300.

Before I started jiu jitsu I was a full-time dancer. I did showdance, contemporarydance, jazz, ballet and streetdance. At some point in my life, I wanted something new. My husband, Lauri Karppinen, had already been trying to convince me to start jiu jitsu. He knew that I would love it. And he was right.

What do you do in daily life? 

I’m still dancing: studying to become a dance teacher and at the same time I teach dancing classes. The rest of my time, I teach and train jiu jitsu, hang out with jiu jitsu friends, travel to train jiu jitsu around the world and talk about jiu jitsu!

Elvira Karppinen training her favourite submission. Picture by VillanaJJ.

It sounds like there is a lot of jiu jitsu in your life! What got you hooked on jiu jitsu?

Jiu jitsu was the perfect way to channel my competitiveness into – I liked it more than dancing! Besides that, I felt like I connected better with the people who trained jiu jitsu, than the people who did dancing.

Who do you train under? 

Well, my personal coach is my husband Lauri Karppinen. Besides him, Magnus Hansson from 10th Planet Stockholm is Lauri’s coach and he helps me a lot too. My brown belt was given to me by Eddie Bravo. So in a way, I have three coaches haha.

Do you prefer gi or no-gi?

I train most of the time no-gi. Lately, I have started to train a bit more with gi. When it comes to competition, I love all of it, but I prefer a no-gi, or submission wrestling or submission-only format.

You got invited to the ADCC World Championship! Was that like a dream coming true? 

Yes, definetely! When I started to compete as a white belt, I always thought: “One day, I want to be as good as the women who compete at ADCC Worlds.”

Did you compete in any of the ADCC trials?

Yes, I competed twice at the ADCC Europeans trials. I won the first trials in Germany, October 2016. But at those trials, only the winners of the male divisions received an invitation to the ADCC World Championship. So I decided to compete in the next ADCC European trials in Poland, May 2017. There, I unfortunately lost in the quarter finals.

Looking back on the ADCC World Championship, you had three very exciting matches. Your first fight was against the former ADCC Champion and jiu jitsu legend Mackenzie Dern! What did you think when you saw the bracket?

When I saw the brackets I was very happy and excited. It has been one of my dreams to compete against ADCC World Champions and legends of the art.

What were your expectations of the fight against Mackenzie Dern – seeing all her experience and titles?

My expectations for the match against Dern, were that I was going to have the hardest match of my jiu jitsu career so far. I felt like it was going to be the perfect test for my current skill set and it would help me find out hidden weaknesses in my style.

“Fighting Mackenzie Dern was one of the most exciting matches of my jiu jitsu career.”

Elvira Karppinen versus Mackenzie Dern, quarterfinals of the ADCC World Championship 2017. Picture by Jarno Juutinen.

Preparing for the match against Mackenzie Dern was easy, in some sort of way. I only needed to remind myself that I had nothing to lose. I was prepared to give everything I had, and some extra, in order to make the match entertaining and to challenge Dern.

What was it like to fight Mackenzie Dern?

Fighting Mackenzie Dern was really exciting! She felt sharp and technical from the very beginning. She is very good and the whole match felt like a battle. I think that was one of the most entertaining and exciting matches in my jiu jitsu career.

You beat Mackenzie Dern 4 to 2. Was this according to your game plan?

My game plan worked even better than I thought it would! She wasn’t able to pass my guard and I didn’t give her any easy points. It made me happy to feel the progress in the tactics that we have been working on with Lauri for the ADCC rule set competitions.

What kind of tactics did you work on in preparation for the ADCC rule set?

My game plan and tactics for the ADCC Worlds were designed for the specific rule set of ADCC. Under ADCC rules, wrestling is emphasized over everything – which makes it harder for guard specialists to win matches. But it’s still all about strategy, tactics and game planning: it’s possible to win by having specific plans for regulation before points, regulation with points, over time, finals before points, finals with points, and so on.

The clock turned 0:00 and you won! How did that feel?

How I felt after that match was absolutely incredible. It almost felt like I was dreaming. All my friends were there cheering for me and I could see how happy and proud my coach Lauri Karppinen and my sensei Eddie Bravo were for my success.

Elvira Karppinen, right after she won her fight against Mackenzie Dern. Picture by FloGrappling.

Your second fight was the semi-final against Bianca Basílio. What were your thoughts before going into that fight?

I was determined to give everything I had to take the win. I still didn’t feel any pressure though.

Bianca is an accomplished black belt, and also has a good stand-up game. How did you plan on fighting her? 

My gameplan was the same as in my first match. I was trying to avoid the overtime and make the fight exciting. ADCC rules make the overtimes a bit tricky when going against good wrestlers. I didn’t want to pull guard and get a minus point.

Both of you were fighting so hard in this match, it looked like a tough battle! There were takedowns, submission attempts, you girls kept going! How did it feel for you? 

Bianca and I had an all-out war. I was trying to get some sweep points going on in regulation and avoid going to the over-time where wrestling is more important. She did a good job of preventing me from scoring any points.
In the over-time I managed to stop her from getting takedown points which I was happy about. One of the heel hooks in the over-time was really close and I could see her thinking about tapping.

You had Bianca in some very serious submissions, including a nasty heelhook! But Bianca didn’t tap. What happened?

It was very tight inside heelhook and I heard some popping from the knee. But the mechanics weren’t perfect, and I couldn’t make the necessary adjustments in the heat of the moment.

“Bianca and I had an all-out war.”

Bianca Basílio almost tapping to Elvira Karppinen’s inside heelhook in the semi-finals. Picture by Jarno Juutinen.

How did you feel about the end of the fight?

After that escape of hers, I was trying to secure my sweep points and ended up having to wrestle with her again. In the end she won the referee decision without either one of us scoring any points. She was closer to earning points in the match than me and I was closer to submitting in the match than her, so it was a nice close match.

I did feel disappointed. Not disappointed by the referee decision, but because of the small tactical errors and mistakes I made, that prevented me from scoring the necessary points or submitting her. Ofcourse I was very sad that I lost the match by referee decision. That is the hardest way to lose a match for me. But now I am happy that it was another exciting match and the decision could have gone either way.

Bianca Basílio wins the semi-finals against Elvira Karppinen by referee decision. Picture by Jarno Juutinen.

Your last fight was for the bronze medal against another legend: Michelle Nicolini! How was your mindset at that point in the tournament?

To be honest, it was a bit hard to get my competition mindset back together. I was still sad after losing the semi-finals. Also, I was very tired because I had been cutting weight for some time to get under 60kg.

You had the crowd cheering for you when you locked up a submission – a triangle? – around Michelle Nicolini. Everyone went crazy – what were you thinking?

Actually, that wasn’t a triangle. It was dead orchard from rubber guard which is one my strongest submissions. I was thinking: “Now is my time to get the submission.”

“You can’t make mistakes with one of the best female grapplers in the world and expect to win.”

Elvira Karppinen going for the submission against Michelle Nicolini. Picture by Jarno Juutinen.

How do you feel about the rest of the fight?

In my match with Michelle, I was still feeling the effects of out war with Bianca. The match started really well and I had her in deep trouble with my favorite attacks from rubber guard. She defended extremely smart and stayed safe from giving any sweep opportunities. Towards the end of the match, I started feeling tired and started to make mistakes with my guard retention. You can’t make mistakes with one of the best female grapplers in the world and expect to win. She scored three points for a back take after failed guard recovery and even though I managed to escape the back, it was already too late. Yet I can’t be too disappointed about this match. I gave everything I had, and left it on the mats.

You’ve only been training for 4 years, and already battled at the world’s highest level of grappling there is. How have you reached these heights in such a short period of time?

I have always done a lot of different sports. I played basketball for 15 years. I have been dancing almost all my life. When I was younger, I also did circus acrobatics. I guess that all these sports have prepared me to get good physical skills for jiu jitsu. Balance, coordination, flexibility, body control and explosiveness are crucial attributes in competitive jiu jitsu. I also believe that rhythm is important, because timing is everything.

When I started to train jiu jitsu, Lauri started coaching me privately from the very beginning. He helped me to create game plans and find my own style of jiu jitsu. When I train, I am determined to keep trying for as long as I have to, to make a technique work.

What is your favourite submission?

No doubt: Dead Orchard from rubber guard.

Do you have role models? 

It sounds like a cliche, but my husband is my role model. I appreciate his attitude in many ways. He wants to share all his knowledge with the people around him and help them as much as possible. Another one of my rolemodels is also Päivi Aittamaa. She is a Finnish blackbelt, and one of the most humble and nicest people around.

Women’s training at MMA Team 300 in Tampere. Picture from Elvira’s Instagram.

What are your future plans for jiu jitsu?

My plan is to compete as much as I can. My next bigger competition will be No-Gi Mundials. My goal is to win gold there and get my first World title. I’m definetely going to try my best to win the ADCC Worlds 2019, as I see them like the Olympic Games of grappling sports. Also, it would be awesome to get more superfights and fight at submission-only competitions. Besides that, I also would like to see that some day the girls who I teach at our gym will become best in the world.

Thank you for your time Elvira! More interviews with female ADCC fighters? Check out our previous talk with Amanda “Tubby” Alequin: The Girl Who Fought Gabi Garcia

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Rose el Sharouni

Rose is a brown belt at Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Academy Amsterdam (Checkmat). Besides being one of the co-founders of Ladies Only BJJ, she is a full-time medicine student and holds a MsC degree in Sports Sciences.

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