On April 2013, a man adorned in his native crescent moon and star flag stands bloodied in front of a nine-thousand strong crowd. It’s a scene that has been played out across every major theater of combat for millennia. The look of pure jubilation with a single arm raised, signifying that on this day the gladiator has no equal – a metaphysical triumph over the demons of doubt and the whimpers of weakness. But for Bashir Ahmad, there is a slight difference. He has just heralded an entire nation to a world of possibilities.
Pakistan has arrived on the international mixed martial arts scene.
War, Fighting and Faith
Let’s rewind back a decade from his hard-fought victory over Shannon Wiratchai at Singapore Indoor Stadium.
Ahmad dons a different kind of flag. It’s one of the red, white and blue. Some regard Bashir Ahmad as a walking irony. He is a young man who has spent most of his life in the United States and at the precipice of the war in Iraq, he decides to the join the US military. It’s not an unusual path for a young man. However, Ahmad is also one of nearly 3 million Muslims that live in the US – the vast majority of which vehemently oppose the war in Iraq.
Mosul is a city in Northern Iraq that has a rich history. It’s perched along the west bank of the Tigris River and lies opposite the ancient city Nineveh, which is rumored to contain the tomb of the Prophet Jonah – the same prophet that according to the Qu’ran lived in the belly of a whale. However, in 2004, Mosul is not the cornerstone of ancient culture, it is at the epicenter of a destructive war. Coalition forces have found themselves in combat against insurgents and in the middle of it, Ahmad – now an army medic in a team that disarms explosives – is on base, reading the autobiography of Malcolm X.
“People don’t realize how a man’s whole life can be changed by one book.” ― Malcolm X
Malcolm X is present the night Cassius Clay beats Sonny Liston. A tall man commanding an air of respect. He serves as a ringside spiritual adviser of sorts for Clay. By the next morning Clay tells reporters his new title is Cassius X. Only a month later he publicly embraces Malcolm’s brand of the Islamic faith and takes the name Muhammad Ali.
Ahmad exemplifies the dichotomy of identities in Malcolm X’s autobiography. Ahmad was born in Pakistan but moved to Virginia at a very young age. While he speaks with a perfect American accent, his skin is brown, and his beard is thick. A son of the United States of America as much as he is a son of Pakistan.
However, it cannot be denied, he bears a striking resemblance to the very people the army he serves are fighting. Reading about the plight of a revered human rights activist only raises further questions about the xenophobic views that those around him may harbor.
Some among his brothers in arms speak of “killing Hajjis” and Ahmad cannot help but think, “If I was not wearing this military uniform, what would you think of me if I was wearing some Arab dress?”
“You’re not to be so blind with patriotism that you can’t face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or says it.” — Malcolm X
The ethos of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam filtered down to Ali in a time when the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing. It is perhaps Ali’s deeds outside of the ring that really earn him the title of being the “greatest of all time”. He willfully chose potential imprisonment and being anathematized after refusing to serve in a war he did not believe in. Ali’s determination resulted in one of the most powerful lines that served as a slogan for the civil rights movement:
“No Viet Cong ever called me a N*gger.” — Muhammad Ali
For Ahmad, discovering more about Malcolm X and his once-mentee Muhammad Ali, inspires him to turn to martial arts as an outlet. He finds apparatus on the base and with the simplest of motions, a fist hitting a bag, embarks on a path that would bring modern MMA to Pakistan.
However, this is a journey that has had its foundations laid centuries prior.
A Trip to the Old City
The journey to the Old City in Lahore is a complex one. One must traverse through treacherous passes along winding roads that are lined with the carcasses of abandoned buses. The Old City is a fusion of history and vibrancy. The enduring architecture is rustic but with a tacit robustness. The streets are lined with swathes of men dressed in traditional shalwaar kameez, while women have their hair elegantly covered with multi-coloured dupattas. The air is filled with the mouth-watering smells of oily parathas and exquisitely grilled Lahori chicken. If it was not for the incessant honks of rickshaws and begrimed Suzuki hatchbacks, you would believe you were an extra in a medieval television series.
The Old City or as it is also known among locals the fortified “Walled” City, has lived through centuries of different rulers from the British to the Mughal empire. Locked in an hourglass of time, away from the modernistic skyline of the new city are the remnants of a traditional society wrestling in a silent battle against the new world.
Nothing embodies this battle quite like the slow death of the notorious Akharas (wrestling arenas). However, Bashir Ahmad realizes if he is to make MMA a cornerstone in Pakistani society, he must leverage the impressive history of wrestling. He reaches out to these areas that are the last hotbeds of traditional wrestling. Pakistan, much like the early days of MMA in the USA will have to rely on its grappling sons to produce the first crop of talent.
“I have got a pretty good relationship with a couple of Akharas in Lahore. I’ve been going to an Akhara near Shahi Qila in the Old City,” Ahmad tells Bloody Elbow.
Shahi Qila is a Lahori Fort located in the Northern part of the Old City. Nobody is quite sure who built it; however, the Mughal emperor Akbar took control of the site in 1575.
Incidentally, Akbar’s grandfather, Zahir ud-Din Muhammad – or as he as contemporarily known Babur – was a wrestler and could run for long distances whilst allegedly carrying a man under each arm. The Mughals, who were of Turko-Mongol descent, believed wrestling was a rite of passage for a man.
When the Mughals invaded the area that covers what is now India and Pakistan, they spread their culture among the natives. As such, Pehlwani (wrestling) combined with a local form of submission wrestling called Malla-Yudda, gave birth to what we know today as Kushti.
“The ecosystem and infrastructure for wrestling is so much more ingrained and vibrant in Pakistan,” Ahmad states.
The Mughal influence of wrestling in Pakistan has produced some outstanding wresters. Perhaps the most famous Indo-Pakistani wrestler of all time was ‘The Great Gama’. Born as Ghulam Mohammad Baksh Butt, Gama had a natural knack for the sport even from an early age. His training included a wrestling shark tank, squats (baithanks), push-ups (dand), and a diet that was rich in protein and fat. Gama would go on to defeat famous wrestling contemporaries such as Benjamin Roller (USA) and world champion Stanislaus Zybszko (Poland).
“Gama became a talisamanic figure – a name to conjure when I needed inspiration when I needed to imagine what was achievable as a wrestler and know that the answer was anything.” Marcus Trower, The Last Wrestlers (page 34).
The Great Gama’s discipline and training regimen was so impressive that it even influenced the man who some consider the father of modern day mixed martial arts – Bruce Lee.
In the USA, wrestling is not as financially lucrative as MMA – however in Pakistan due to the legendary feats of The Great Gama and others like him, Pakistani wrestlers are still an attraction for some. Subsequently wrestlers are able to earn a living. And thus, Ahmad finds his first challenge of trying to lure wrestlers to the world of MMA.
“Wrestlers are interested [in MMA]. However, the reason that it has not linked up the way it should have - and I think it is something that relates to India and Pakistan - is a wrestler can make some money. In Mixed Martial Arts, you don’t get paid for amateur matches and even for professional matches you don’t get paid that much,” Ahmad explains.
The Asian Development Bank estimates that approximately a quarter of the Pakistani population lives below the national poverty line (in 2015).
“A lot of them come from very poor families. So that’s something their parents can support,” Ahmad continues, “A small ten-year-old wrestler can compete in a Dangal and he gets 400 rupees, 500 rupees, maybe even 1000 rupees. And they compete regularly as well.”
Ahmad believes that things are slowly changing though and eventually there will be a paradigm shift.
“The response that I’ve gotten from the wrestling community is positive. The integration of the wrestling knowledge in MMA has progressed. I even have a wrestler teaching at Shaheen.”
Striving for More
Shaheen Academy is one of Ahmad’s many gyms in Pakistan. It is not only a place where aspiring fighters can go to learn the tricks of the trade but also a haven which provides education.
“I have plenty of kids especially at Shaheen and they [sometimes] are from very uneducated backgrounds. When you come from a situation where you haven’t received an education and maybe you can’t even read, then you are liable to believe what anyone tells you.” Ahmad preaches. “You must take care of your body, your mind and your soul. When someone is thinking about these things, they are less inclined to damage that through drugs or negative behaviors.”
“Right now I have a kid here who is actually training at Fairtex [Thailand] and he was able to get a ringside backstage experience at ONE Championship this past week. His name is Awais Raja and he comes from a very uneducated background and this entire week I spent with him, he kept saying over and over again: “I want to take this opportunity to develop myself.” He is now in a lifestyle and a philosophy where getting better one-percent a day is at the crux of the sport. Mixed Martial Arts is about the daily incremental improvements.”
Ahmad’s string of gyms is a culmination of his hard work and continuous self-improvement. After being discharged from the army he spends time studying Muay Thai in Thailand and with multiple years of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu experience, he returns to Pakistan to teach. However, the only space he has is an apartment – a messy place that is christened: The Slaughterhouse.
Ahmad uses his savings — which he jokingly states are “not a lot” — to invest in a gym premises. The demand for MMA is beginning to grow. And in no small part due to the feats of successful Muslim athletes such as current UFC lightweight champion: Khabib Nurmagomedov.
“Mind you, this wasn’t a huge gym, so talking about some place that might be a hundred square meters. I fit a ring in there, some mats and some bags. You know I made it look nice and made it very functional.”
Nonetheless, the transition from apartment to gym results garners skeptical attention by some of the neighboring traditional martial arts gyms.
Wrestling is not the solitary martial art that is deeply entrenched in Pakistani culture. Due to the close proximity to China - silk, tea and spices were not the not the only thing traded along the historic Silk Road. Martial arts like Sanshou have made their way across the border. In fact, the Pakistani Wushu Federation, founded in 1962 has its headquarters in Lahore.
Ahmad recalls what the traditional martial artists told him when he initially set up shop. “They would come and say: ‘wow you’ve put a lot of money into this [gym]. This is very nice, but what are you doing? You’re wasting your time with mixed martial arts. This isn’t recognized by the government. This is banned.”
It’s not just the traditional martial artists that are unhappy. Some locals believe the western influence of MMA will bring nothing but trouble to the neighborhood. They believe their children will be turned to thugs, perhaps even foot soldiers in the war that rages for the soul of Pakistan in a battle against terrorism and extremism.
“The reality is that someone can start up a mixed martial arts gym and train future Taliban soldiers. That is a reality. Some impressionable young man goes in there and they’re getting martial arts training in a martial arts environment. A disciplined lifestyle. But guess what they are going towards the dark side.”
Their concerns may be warranted but Ahmad - like the White Tiger Muay Thai camp fighting fascism in Greece – believes that his brand of MMA can be used to educate impressionable youngsters and lead them down a different route.
“But if you have positive teachings then you have a very strong vehicle with which to communicate those teachings to the youth and keep them in there with a disciplined environment and pathway.”
The importance of this is brought to light, when Ahmad finds himself in the middle of another war zone.
The Battle against Extremism
On 23rd February 2017, Ahmad is near the Z-Block of the Defence Housing Authority. A fashionable area that characterizes the Asian shift away from traditional norms and towards modernism. There’s even a Toni & Guy hair salon perched among the area brimming with swanky boutiques and cafes. Ahmad, like many other Lahoris is going about his day as he leaves a hair salon.
Unbeknownst to him, a tragedy is about to unfold.
At approximately 11am a huge blast rips through the area. At least ten people are killed and many more are injured. A matter of timing but Ahmad narrowly avoids death. The official cause by the government is given as a gas explosion. But Ahmad with his experience in the US army knows a bomb blast when he sees one.
He realizes that MMA in Pakistan is more than just a sport. It’s a potential lifeline for impressionable young people who can end up going down a very different path.
The Fighting Future
One such young person is Anita Karim.
Ahmad is brimming with pride and joyful laughter when he says, “Anita is awesome.”
Standing at an average height of five feet tall and wearing a cheeky smile, at first glance she’s no different from any other Pakistani girl her age. Then you see the side of her head. It’s shaved. Karim is nicknamed the “Arm Collector” after breaking the arms of both opponents in her first grappling contest.
Karim is Pakistan’s first international female MMA fighter.
“When Anita was starting out there were a couple of other girls that trained a little bit but they did not have a long term commitment [to MMA]. I had a vested interest to see Anita succeed. I had known about her even before she made her debut. She’s just there working on the bag, coming to training and not making any noise about it. There are some signals and signs that this person is here for the passion of sport, and whether they are successful or not this is a lifestyle for them that they will continue doing.”
In a country where women are stereotypically expected to be demure, stands a strong, opinionated woman. She doesn’t give a damn about what the media or people say about her. The worldwide attention that Karim has received from publications has not dissuaded her from her goals.
“She’s not in this sport for the attention or the media hype and what not. The attention and support that she has gotten – she is simply using that to get the resources to continue bettering herself and her skill sets,” Ahmad says, “She’s a great role model for Pakistani martial artists. I see her being very successful.”
It seems Ahmad’s dream of MMA in Pakistan is being realized.
Aces and Kings
Ahmad’s vision has garnered the attention of Rich Franklin.
“Getting to visit Pakistan with Rich Franklin was one of the coolest things in my entire life. I got started in mixed marital arts when Rich was a UFC champion and a superstar. Now I see Rich as a friend of mine. [We] share a lot of the same values, even more on this trip. To be able to share that experience and show him the history of Pakistani MMA and things that I did in Pakistani MMA as a friend, was very cool. Of course every once in a while, we might just be sitting there eating or just traveling down some road or place that I’ve been, and I’m just like, wait, I’m with Rich Franklin, what is going on here? What a journey it has been,” Ahmad’s voice brims with childlike jubilation.
“It was a really good experience for Rich. Rich travels a lot for the ONE Warriors series show and I definitely think that his experience in Pakistan just as a nation, as a culture was a very good one. He knows and recognizes that there is a lot of potential talent here. But he knows it will take a lot of time. Rich has seen the development of the sport in the United States. So he knows nothing happens overnight,” Ahmad says.
In 2014, Franklin became a Vice President for ONE Championship and while it may still be some time away, one could almost believe Franklin is scouting Pakistan to see if it is ready to embrace the MMA culture. Is it ready to hold it’s first international MMA event?
Ahmad believes so.
“You can expect to see ONE Championship events in new nations, in new markets going forwards. You see that already. Right now ONE Championship has her sights set on an event in India. [India is] right next door to Pakistan and we all know that you cannot separate those two countries [culturally]. Yes there’s a border and a name, but things that do well in Pakistan, do well in India [and vice versa].”
By Any Means Necessary
Ahmad has seen his brainchild grow from infancy to adolescence. MMA in Pakistan has found its feet.
“Before five years ago, holding a mixed martial arts event without my guidance or those close to me was essentially impossible. Now there are MMA events happening on a small scale everywhere. There were people that were very resistant to MMA in the beginning that are now holding MMA events. The scene has really taken on a life that does not require a leader or someone to guide. It is self-powered, it is community powered.”
However, Ahmad recognizes that MMA in Pakistan has a long way to go. It still requires nurturing but does not need to be hand-held. It is its own entity but an arduous journey lies ahead.
“I cannot predict exactly what will happen but I can say that from the ten years ago of me having a gym in an apartment, fast forward to today where we have multiple athletes competing internationally and representing Pakistan, so much so that people don’t even bat an eye. We have had major MMA promotions come to Pakistan. We had Rich Franklin, [UFC] Hall of Famer, come over to Pakistan with ONE Warrior Series and that is crazy to me. It’s crazy to me ten years ago I was sitting around watching Rich Franklin compete to now considering Rich a friend of mine.”
While Ahmad has achieved success in his career, his greatest victories like his inspiration Muhammad Ali lay outside the realms of the ring. Ahmad is not only an ambassador for ONE Championship and martial arts in Asia but is also working alongside the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
“I’ll let you in on a little secret, I have firmly believed in martial arts bettering people on an individual level. And I think right now, what’s really needed for the world and through that vehicle of martial arts: If you go to the Samurai and you look at the philosophy of taking care of our environment and our earth and being respectful of nature and having a connection with nature… I am really passionate about [environmentalism] and going forwards you might see me take more and more time in that sphere.”
Very few people manage to accomplish goals as grand as Ahmad’s and he shares his own simple philosophy regarding how he has managed to materialize his dreams.
“Right now I’m part of that journey. I’ve said this before, when I make decisions about what I want to do in my life, I think about: could I write a book about this? Could this be a story in a movie?”
What started with reading a book in a war zone led Ahmad to embark on a quest where he has shown his unflappable demeanor. He is often referred to with the moniker of being the “Godfather” of MMA in Pakistan but to many, including the kids at Shaheen Academy, he is undoubtedly the father.
Ahmad himself is well-acquainted with fatherhood. He has a young son who is poetically named, “Badr”. A name that means “moon” in Arabic. A fitting name for the son of a man who has patriotically represented the crescent moon and star flag.