For me, Karate is my life. It is in Karate that I started to take my first steps, and I will stay in the sport until I die.Rafael Aghayev
Known as the ‘Panther of the East‘, Rafael Aghayev is one of the most successful competitors. He is a 5-time World Champion and an 11-time European Champion. Antonio Espinoza, the President of the World Karate Federation (WKF), once called him the ‘Diamond of the Karate world‘.
Rafael Aghayev was born on 4 March 1985 Sumaqayit, Azerbaijan. He was the youngest of three brothers. His father was a professional footballer for 25 years.
Aghayev’s father promoted a love of sports in his three sons. He allowed them to select the sports that they were interested in. His eldest son, Ruslan was a judoka. His second son, Rustan preferred boxing. His youngest son, Rafael loved athletics and football.
In 1992, Aghayev started playing football. He also started learning Shotokan Karate under Rafael Mammadov.
Aghayev’s family were not wealthy. It soon became apparent that the young Aghayev had a talent for Karate. His mother sold her gold ring and earrings to pay for him to travel to his first competition. They wanted to nurture his talent.
Aghayev was soon participating and winning minor tournaments. His talents were becoming recognised. After competing at his first national tournament, the Azerbaijan Karate Federation President, Yashar Bashirov, invited him to train at the Budokan 1994. The Budokan was one of Azerbaijan’s top sports clubs. He trained under Fizuli Masayev.
By 1997 Aghayev’s talent was becoming recognised in Azerbaijan. At the age of 12, he was elected to the Azerbaijan Junior National Team for the first time. He competed at the Open World Cup, held in Miskolc, Hungry. The following year he competed in the English Open and won the title.
In 2001 Aghayev was selected by Azerbaijan to compete at the Junior World Championships, held in Athens, Greece. In the individual kumite event, he finished in fifth place. He also helped Azerbaijan finish in third place in the Team Kumite event.
The following year Aghayev won his first international tournament, at the Cadet and Junior Championships, held in Germany.
In 2003 Aghayev graduated from secondary school. He enrolled at the Azerbaijan State Academy of Physical Culture and Sport (ASAPCS). He wanted to become a personal trainer.
Between 7 – 9 May 2004 Aghayev competed in his first senior European Championships. At the 39th European Championships, held in Moscow, Russia. Aghayev faced Alexandre Biamonti of France in the -65 kg kumite final. He won his first European title. This signalled a changing of the guard in European Karate.
At the 40th European Championships held between 13 – 15 May 2005, at San Cristobal de La Laguna, Spain, Aghayev changed weight classes. Fighting in the -70 kg event, he defeated Ivan Leal of Spain in the final.
Aghayev was selected to represent Azerbaijan at the European Cadets and Junior Championships held in Thessaloniki, Greece between 24 – 26 October 2005. He won first place in the Kumite Male 18-20 years -65 kg event.
2006 was another big year for Aghayev. On 6 August he defeated Yerghan Kozhayev of Kazakhstan to win the -70 kg event, at the University World Championships. The championships were held in New York.
Between 12 – 15 October 2006, Aghayev competed in his first senior World Championships. The championships were held in Tampere, Finland. In the -70 kg Kumite event, he won his first senior world title, defeating Diego Vandeschrick of Belgium in the final.
Aghayev graduated from the Azerbaijan State Academy of Physical Culture and Sport in 2007, as a specialist trainer/instructor in Karate. He started serving in the Azerbaijani Armed Forces. He was stationed in the Aghjabadi District of the country.
Between 4 – 6 May 2007, Aghayev competed in another European Championships, held in Bratislava, Slovakia. He won both the -70 kg and Open Kumite events. At the next European Championships held in Tallin, Estonia, he retained his Open title. He lost his -70 kg title Oscar Vazquez of Spain. He helped Azerbaijan to a third-place finish in the Team Kumite event.
Azerbaijan viewed Aghayev as a promising sportsman. Because of this, he was transferred to the Central Sports Club of the Ministry of Defence in 2008. Later, in November of that year, he defeated Tamar Adelraouf of Egypt to retain his -70 kg Kumite World Title. He also defeated Spyridon Margaritopoulos of Greece to win the Open Kumite title. That year’s World Championships were held at the Nippon Budokan, in Tokyo, Japan.
By 2009 Aghayev was developing a healthy rivalry with Italian, Luigi Busa. At the 44th European Championships held in Zagreb, Croatia, they faced each other in the final of the -75 kg Kumite final. Aghayev was victorious. He also helped Azerbaijan win the European Team Kumite title.
Aghayev had now become the man to beat. He was normally the favourite in every tournament he entered. At the 45th European Championships held in Athens, Greece in 2010, he defeated Georgios Tzanos of Greece to win the -7 5 kg Kumite title.
At the 20th World Karate Championships held between 27 – 31 October 2010, in Belgrade, Serbia, Aghayev faced rival Busa, in the -75 kg Kumite final. Aghayev won another world title and helped Azerbaijan to a silver medal in the Team Kumite final against home nation, Serbia.
Surprisingly, Aghayev finished in third place at both the 46th European Championships held in Zürich, Switzerland and the 47th European Championships held in Tenerife, Spain.
In a repeat of the 20th world Championships, Aghayev faced Busa in the final of the -75 kg event. At the 21st World Championships held in Paris, France, between 21 – 25 November 2012, Busa had his second-ever victory over Aghayev. The rivals had met nine times, with Aghayev leading the series 7-2.
Aghayev’s loss to Busa was his first loss in a world individual kumite final. He found the loss hard to take, especially after Busa started dancing in front of him, to celebrate his victory.
In 2013 Aghayev return to his winning ways. At the 48 European Championships held in Budapest, Hungry, Between 9 – 12 May, he defeated Dutchman, René Smaal in the final of the -75 kg kumite event. He also competed at the 9th World Games, held in Cali, Columbia between 26 – 27 July. He defeated Noah Bitsch of Germany in the -75 kg final.
In 2014, at the 49th European Championships held in Tampere, Finland, Aghayev helped Azerbaijan defeat Turkey in the final of the Team Kumite event. However, he suffered a knee injury that caused him to miss the World Championships being held in Bremen, Germany that year.
By March 2015, Aghayev had recovered from his knee injury. He returned to his winning ways at the 50th European Championships held in Istanbul, Turkey, between 19 – 22 March. He defeated Noah Bitsch of Germany in the -75 kg kumite final.
2015 was a big year for Azerbaijan. Between 12 – 28 June, the country hosted the 1st European Games which featured participants in 30 sports. Led by Aghayev, Azerbaijan had great success in the Karate tournament held at the games. Feeling the pressure to do well in his home country, Aghayev defeated long time rival Luigi Busa in the final of the -75 kg event. Azerbaijan topped the medal table with six medals(4 gold, 2 bronze).
In 2015 Aghayev was awarded the Order of Glory, for his achievements at the 1st European Games, as well as his contributions to the development of Karate in Azerbaijan.
Personally and competitively, 2016 was a great year for Aghayev. He won another -75 kg individual kumite title at the 51st European Championships, held in Montpellier, France. On 6 June he was married. Between 25 – 30 October, he regained his -75 kg individual kumite title at the 23rd World Karate Championships, held in Linz, Austria.
On 8 – 12 May 2017, the Islamic Solidarity Games were held in Baku, Azerbaijan. He won another kumite title. He also celebrated the birth of his first son.
Even though Aghayev was in his 30s, he was still competing at a very high level. In 2018, at the 53rd European Championships, held in Novi Sad, Serbia, he won another European title, defeating Gabor Harspataki of Hungary in the final of the -75 kg kumite event. Later that year he finished in third place at the 24th World Championships, held in Madrid, Spain.
In 2019, Aghayev’s long time rival, Luigi Busa beat him in the final of the 54th European Championships held in Guadalajara, Spain.
2020 saw the Covid-19 Pandemic disrupt much of the world. The 55th European Championships were due to be held in Aghayev’s home city of Baku, Azerbaijan. However, like much of the sporting events around the world, it was cancelled due to the pandemic. If that was not bad enough, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were also postponed due to the pandemic. Karate was due to make its appearance at the Games as an Olympic sport. Many people had campaigned long and hard for Karate’s inclusion in the Olympic games.
Rafael Aghayev remains a national hero in his country of Azerbaijan. Through his exploits, he has helped put Azerbaijan on the global sporting map. He can also be considered an international hero of sport Karate. Some have described him as the ‘saviour of WKF Kumite‘. After his competitive career comes to an end, he hopes to open his own Karate school, teaching a new crop of future stars.
The following videos show the Panther of the East in action.