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Bellator LW remembers ‘Bloodsport’ MMA beginnings: ‘I was scared sh*tless’

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Bellator lightweight fighter Saad Awad reminisced on his early MMA career, taking Bloodsport-esque tournament fights in Costa Rica.

Saad Awad
via Bellator MMA

Beginnings are one of those strange and tricky things in MMA. For a combat sport, many fighters’ early experiences with mixed martial arts seem less sport and more combat. It’s not always what’s expected for someone on their way to becoming a top pro athlete, where careers usually started in childhood (or at the latest, teens) and have been carefully manicured with regular and regulated steps up in competition. For a lot of MMA fighters, even at the highest level, their careers often started with an opportunity to prove themselves.

Saad Awad is one of those fighters. The Bellator lightweight is getting ready to fight Derek Anderson at Bellator 160, this Friday, August 26th in Los Angeles, California. But nine years ago, he found himself in a cage in Costa Rica, with almost no training, no corner, and very little chance of succeeding.

“I fought my first fight in King of the Cage,” Awad remembers. “So, I fought that fight and there was a guy there that was training out here, nearby where I live, and he was Costa Rican. He'd been in MMA for a while. We became friends and he approached me to see if I wanted to fight over there. ‘Yeah, I'm putting on a show over there, it's my first show. Do you wanna fight?’ I was like, ‘Sure,’ but it was kinda short notice and I didn't take it.”

That was how it started. Simply enough, and not even with a fight. But, what was a first opportunity missed, turned into a more timely offer that the “Assassin” didn’t want to pass up.

“I ended up training with him,” Awad continued, “he was kinda my coach. And then, ‘Hey, I'm having another fight, you want to go out there?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ So, I went out there and fought a tournament. I fought twice in one day, and it was... He told me it was at 170, but when I get there some of the guys are weighing in at 184 and 185. I'm like, ‘Dude, I thought it was at 170!?’ He's like, ‘Oh, it's 170 to 185.’ I'm like, ‘That's 185! That's not 170.’”

But changing weight classes was just the beginning. Out-sized promises, organizational mishaps, and a decidedly unsavory atmosphere all quickly added to his concerns.

“It's easy for me to explain it now,” Awad said casually, recalling the details of those early fights, “but you gotta remember I was probably 4-6 months into training. So before that I didn't know anything, I was just a wrestler that had graduated high school 4-years prior to that. Next thing you know, I'm on a plane to go fight in a tournament in Costa Rica, and they're telling me they got the best talent from South America in the tournament.

“They got, like, a world champ kickboxer from Costa Rica and a black belt in Jiu Jitsu from Panama, and then they had me representing the United States. I mean, it wasn't that big of a tournament, but that's how they were trying to pump it up to me. I was scared shitless going out there, to be honest. And then we go out there and we land and we end up fighting... They couldn't get a permit for where it was supposed to be held at, so we ended up fighting in this old, run-down gym, or coliseum. And it was literally run-down, like water running through it and they had a cage in the middle of it.”

Adding to all this was that, because Awad’s coach was the one organizing the event, he wasn’t able to corner or coach his fighter. Awad was thousands of miles from home, in a foreign land, and suddenly out on his own.

“We were warming up in the back, and there was some Americans there too that I ended up... They're from Millennia,” Awad explains, as a way of introducing his now longtime gym, “and at the time I didn't know what Millennia was. But they had a guy in the tournament too and he lost in the first round, so they came and they helped mentor me. Because my coach was running it, he couldn't help mentor me. So I was kinda in the back there by myself, about to fight these dudes.

“And they're out there killing each other and taking steroids over the counter. I know all those dudes were juiced up. It reminded me of Bloodsport, you know? Where you're just waiting in the back and you see killers over there punching the walls and doing all kinds of stuff. It was crazy, it was a crazy experience. But I was just happy I got out of there safe and I won my fights.”

Following the first tournament, Awad fought two more times down in Costa Rica, defending his title. It’s not an approach he would entirely recommend for other young fighters, but it’s not one he’d take back either.

“It definitely woke me up and it prepared me,” Awad said, when asked if he’d recommend it. “Because, after going there I was kinda like, ‘Okay, well I got thrown to the wolves in a different country with who knows what the hell was going on out there. And now I'm over here where things are sanctioned and more normal.’ So, it really opened my eyes up to all sides of MMA. Not just: you go in there with some picture perfect setup, where weigh ins are on time and everybody makes weight and everybody gets paid... Because I don't... I believe I didn't get paid for the first tournament I went to. They were like, ‘Oh, the show didn't make money. Sorry.’ But, I was like, ‘Fuck it. I got a free ticket to Costa Rica, got to sight see a little bit.’ It was cool, I'm glad I got to experience it.

“It's funny, you know,” Awad continued. “I don't put too much thought into it, but when I reminisce and think about it, it's like, ‘Man, that's pretty out there.’ Not too many guys would go and jump on a plane to fight in a third world country against guys that are supposed to beat them. Like I said, I was 4-months into training, probably. And they're like, ‘Yeah this guy's a world champ in kickboxing, this guy's a black belt in Jiu Jitsu.’ I'm like, ‘Oh, well I wrestled for four years in high school!’ And it was like, ‘I'm representing America!’ I think they kind of brought me out there to get smacked. But thank God wrestling prevailed.”

Awad will fight Derek Anderson in the co-main event of Bellator 160. You can follow him on Twitter @SAADMMA