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Ramadan & MMA: A spiritual cleanse in a violent existence

Karim Zidan looks at the Holy Month of Ramadan and why many Muslim fighters prioritize its importance over their athletic endeavours.

Francois Nel/Getty Images

A handful of dates and a glass of milk can go a long way when consumed before the break of dawn.

The sugar in the dates provides much needed energy to complete routine tasks, while the dairy from the milk nourishes the body and quenches thirst in preparation for a long day of self sacrifice - just a small example of the discipline required to observe the holy month of Ramadan.

It is not uncommon for athletes to believe in higher entities than themselves - in a force that transcends their everyday existence, and guides them to glory. Muslim fighters, many of whom compete on the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) roster, take part in the holy month of Ramadan.

Ramadan, one of the five pillars of Islam, is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar where muslims fast to observe the initial revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad. During the fasting period, which typically lasts from dawn until dusk, participants are required to abstain from food, water, and sexual intercourse. It is considered a period of spiritual enlightenment, where Muslims are expected to hold themselves to the highest standards - increased prayers, alms-giving (zakat), and meals provided to the less fortunate are typical examples of the increased effort shown during Ramadan.

While the month of Ramadan promotes piety and self-reflection, it has been culturally accepted in many Arabic countries as a social month where families unite for Iftar (to break their fast). Hosting family and friends during various nights within the month is an accepted tradition. In places like Cairo, colorful lanterns (fanous) are strung up on streets and mosques and light up the city in unique hues.

While the annual religious practice can go relatively unnoticed by most Western fans because of its rare application to sports, it has occasionally influenced several key match-ups in the MMA space, thus making it more of a topic of discussion.

The UFC has a significant population of Muslim fighters on its inflated roster. Interestingly, it is not limited to an Arab contingency, instead dominated by North Caucasus fighters from the Russian republics of Chechnya and Dagestan. The list of fighters who identify as Muslim include but is not limited to Khabib Nurmagomedov, Omari Akhmedov, Islam Makhachev, Zubaira Tukhugov, Mairbek Taisumov, Rashid Magomedov, Ruslan Magomedov, and Shamil Abulrakhimov. While several of the aforementioned fighters are on impressive win streaks, none of them will make Octagon appearances during the holy month.

Nurmagomedov, who is in contention for a lightweight title shot, willingly sacrificed a potential title fight in order to complete Ramadan without any interruptions. As was clear from the decisiveness of his quote, certain aspects of his life outweigh his career ambitions.

"Sport is different but Ramadan for me is No. 1," Khabib said following an open workout session at UFC 197. "It is ok, UFC and everything, but Ramadan is a different level. This is everything for me. I cannot fight in Ramadan."

This marks the second time that Khabib has pivoted away from a potential fight in order to focus on Ramadan. In 2014, Khabib turned down a fight with Donald Cerrone, and recently opted against a match-up on the landmark UFC 200 show. His career advancements would not come at the expense of his religion.

Khabib's unwavering perspective sparked some debate among fans who questioned whether a fighter should have the right to control when he/she could compete. Some considered it an unfair advantage granted to a select few, while others didn't believe it significant enough to upset the balance of power between the promotion and the fighters.

Islamic countries, many of whom have overwhelming Muslim majority of 90% or more, created amended work schedules for Ramadan. Given the imposed shortage of food and water throughout the day, many labourers are simply incapable of completing their daily tasks efficiently and in a healthy manner. Instead, many sleep during the day and leave for work following Iftar. These amended schedules are common in the Middle East and North Africa. Some fighters attest to the reversed schedule but claim it is not enough to match their general output and productivity.

While many Muslim athletes compete during the month of Ramadan, they generally do so in unavoidable circumstances such as the Olympics or the World Cup - events that only happens once every four years. On such occasions, Muslims have the option to make up for their missed days following the completion of the holy month. According to several Islamic rulings (Fataawa), it is permissible to compensate for the missed days at any point prior to the following year's Ramadan. Therefore, it is common for Dagestani and Chechen athletes to compete during the Olympics and other major tournaments.

However, the month of Ramadan is seen as an opportunity for participants to complete a spiritual cleanse. For many fighters who already live a violent existence filled with sparring, fighting, and bloodshed, Ramadan is a welcome opportunity to divert away from the life they lead for the other 11 months of the year.

Fighting can wait.

This feature was originally posted in June 2016.

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