“Thora pagal hona parta hai (you need to be a little mad),” says martial artist Shahid Javaid aka Shahid Bhai, a crooked smile curling upon his face as he displays the scars he has accumulated over the years during his mixed martial arts (MMA) fights and training. His smile is almost unsettlingly proud, hammering home the ‘madness’ he is talking about.
As MMA continues to gain popularity across the globe, the sport’s trademark ‘madness’ is spreading at an eyebrow-raising rate in Pakistan too, where the once small MMA community is booming.
Along the way, bona fide superstars such as Ahmed Mujtaba and Bashir Ahmed have emerged, further piquing the interest of the nation.
Others have been attracted by the glamour and glitz. “The rise of American promotion of Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) has helped the sport come into the mainstream,” says 27-year-old Owais Shah, owner of one of the biggest MMA gyms in the country — 3G MMA. “Others have seen recent Bollywood movies such as Sultan and have been drawn to the sport because of them.”
Mind and body
The growing popularity comes as little surprise when you consider the benefits of the sport. “Not only do MMA fighters improve their physical health and look better in the process, but studies show they improve mentally as well,” claims MMA enthusiast Saboor Haider. “It helps increase your speed of thought as you become accustomed to making split-second decisions — the well being of your bones and limbs depends on it.”
Haider takes a long puff of the cigarette in his hand. “I don’t train anymore,” he adds hastily.
Despite their plethora of advantages, combat sports are still looked down upon with suspicion in the country, often associated with ‘promoting’ and ‘celebrating’ violence. But those within the community point out that these views are unfounded.
“MMA helps you stay healthy and defend yourself if the need arises,” says Owais, an international fighter who headlined the recent Fighting Alliance 4 MMA event in Lahore.
“Parents sometimes believe combat sport training leads to aggression and violence. In fact, it’s the opposite – it calms you down. Any pent-up anger or frustration that people have is let out on the mat or on the punching bag.”
Out of breath and with his hair dripping in sweat, Owais musters a tired but friendly smile. “Look at me. I just finished a training session. Do I look agitated?”
MMA vs bodybuilding
Owais and other MMA fighters boast physiques unlike those seen in regular bodybuilding gyms. They are muscular and ripped but without the mass that defines traditional bodybuilders.
It is clear Owais’s muscles are no ivory tusks; his body athletic rather than bloated.
“Why be a show pony when you can be a stallion?” he says. “MMA fighters are athletes; our cardio and our fitness are both superior to that of an average bodybuilder.”
Like all aficionados, Shah is eager to promote the benefits of the sport. “Your stamina improves, and you learn self-discipline and respect,” he says. “You don’t get that inside a conventional gym.”
The darling of a nation
In a rundown gym on Quetta’s Kasi Road, fighter Ahmed Mujtaba hits blow after blow on a black punching bag; his breath getting more and more ragged with every punch. The bag — worn-out, torn and dirty — has been Mujtaba’s companion for several years of hardships and struggles.
When his mother stood in the way of his fighting career, he turned to this bag. When he was ruled out by everyone at the start, he turned to this bag. When his victories weren’t mentioned in the media, he turned to this very bag.
The bag, like Mujtaba, has taken a number of beatings in its time but, like Mujtaba, it refuses to give up.
From the day he watched his first martial arts movie at the tender age of 15 and decided to take up the sport, till he won his eighth consecutive fight in November 2015, Mujtaba had been belittled, ignored, taken for granted and asked to quit the sport.
After every win Mujtaba waited for the accolades to come his way. After every win, Pakistan ignored him. The frustration has taken a toll on the 23-year-old, almost turning into resentment.
“I win and I raise the Pakistani flag at a global stage, but I don’t get the adulation afforded to others,” Mujtaba complains. “I’ve sacrificed my social life, I’ve juggled my sporting career with my engineering studies, and I’ve trained full-time even while fasting.”
But one could argue that Mujtaba’s struggle has started to pay off. Mujtaba made a dream debut at One FC, Asia’s biggest fighting championship. Up against local hero Benedict Ang in Singapore, Mujtaba dominated from start to finish in a clash that saw two youngsters pit their unbeaten records against each other’s.
As with every other athlete, Mujtaba, too, has his share of critics. “The main reason he won his first seven matches was because of his trainer Ehtesham Karim. Karim ensured that Mujtaba’s opponents were always below-par so that he builds up an unbeaten streak,” says a member of the MMA community, requesting anonymity.
However, even those admittedly harsh criticisms have seized. “His fight against Ang though was superb,” says the same man. “He was up against a very good and similarly unbeaten fighter and he (Mujtaba) absolutely destroyed him (Ang).”
In a moment of passion, Mujtaba had said he would swap Pakistan for a country that appreciates him, but later clarified that it was more of an exclamation of pent-up frustration.
The 23-year-old finally has the adulation that he so craves. He is making appearances on TV shows while his fights have also made it into newspapers and his face is flashed on news bulletins across Pakistan. He is the sport’s first genuine superstar, and the nation’s newest darling.
There is often a vexing entitlement among the country’s sportsmen who feel it is their right as athletes to be supported by the government, not only in terms of facilities but also in terms of finances.
Pakistan’s biggest MMA superstar, Bashir Ahmed, is the refreshing exception to the rule. Widely known as ‘The Godfather of MMA in Pakistan’, Ahmed is the de facto spearhead of the country’s MMA community.
A son of Lahore but raised in Virginia, Bashir is a US Army veteran who had an epiphany while deployed in Afghanistan and decided that his true calling was in fighting an altogether different kind of fight. And so began a love affair with combat sports.
After being honourably discharged from the army in 2007, he trained in combat sports in Thailand before laying the foundations of MMA in Pakistan. From his dingy gym in the narrow streets of Lahore, which doubled as his home for the first few years, Bashir kicked off a revolution.
Ahmed’s influence has seen MMA gyms pop up across the country — from the sprawling and chaotic landscape that is the city of Karachi to the serene valleys of Gilgit-Baltistan.
But he wants neither help nor recognition from the government.
“Each and every penny in the government’s coffers is taxpayers’ money,” said Bashir. “This is a country where people are devoid of some of the basic necessities of life. MMA is important but not important enough that we go around asking for money that could be better spent on the well-being of Pakistan’s citizens.”
Sport in Pakistan is characterised by infighting and power struggles, with a pattern that sees two or more groups fighting to take over a sporting body.
Across the globe, MMA is the only mainstream sport that has no government or political involvement, and is instead run entirely by private organisations.
It is, however, not free of politics. Venture beneath its serene surface and a storm is brewing.
Lahore, the epicentre of MMA in Pakistan, is divided into two factions for the sport’s aficionados. Cage fighters in the City of Gardens either stand with the Bashir-founded Mixed Martial Arts Pakistan (Pak MMA) or are aligned with Sheikh Sultan’s Vehshi Championship League (VCL).
The nature of their conflict, in a nutshell, is akin to the ‘MMA vs pro wrestling debate’ that has been bickered over in all corners of the world.
Ahmed and his followers are martial artists through and through. They have little patience for the colours, shenanigans and controversies that sell fights and drive audiences.
In the opposing corner sits Sultan, who during his formative years worked with professional wrestling promotion Rings of Honor. Having learned from the likes of future WWE stars such as Seth Rollins, Daniel Bryan and Samoa Joe in the United States, Sultan is a showman for whom the intricacies and purities of MMA are only peripheral details towards achieving the larger goal — that of putting on a grand show.
The WWE influence is visible in everything the silver-tongued Sultan does. The emphasis on marketing and presentation, the art of pulling crowds, the ability to attract sponsorship, the embellishment of facts, championship belts made from expensive crocodile skin – showmanship at its finest, unapologetic and in your face.
For the purists, for whom the sweat, blood and tears spent inside the ring are all that matter, Sultan’s ideas and innovations are akin to heresy. They know they are part of a sport that is enjoying an almost unprecedented boom globally. Safe in that knowledge, they are willing to wait, preferring to keep the sport in its true form than taint it in search of short-term glamour and glitz.
Together, the two factions can create something truly extraordinary, but there is little indication that they will be working together any time soon. It seems that the only thing that could to be hindering MMA from truly exploding in the country is the MMA community itself.
On July 30, 2016, Pakistan’s MMA movement was put on the map on the national scene when Uloomi Karim defeated India’s Yadwinder Singh and the country’s media took notice due to the nationalities of the athletes.
However, had they been introduced to MMA roughly 18 months ago, they would not have been so ecstatic. On February 27, 2015 a Pakistani contingent, led by Sultan, was invited to compete against their Indian counterparts in Dubai as part of Super Fight League’s SFL 38.
Fourteen Indo-Pak fighters were pitted against each other, with the Indians taking the tie by a landslide. India’s septet completely annihilated Pakistan’s, claiming a 6-1 win as their sole loss came via disqualification.
A wonderful opportunity ended in humiliating defeat, and fingers for the nightmare in Dubai were pointed at Sultan. By his own admission, Sultan deserves some of the blame, but he claims a lot of his first-choice fighters were not approved by the organisers, that too without providing any convincing reason for doing so.
“I had to field the fighters I had at our disposal, and unfortunately, it did not work out,” says Sultan, sitting in the spacious gym that he had built specifically to train the athletes for that fight. Now the gym is being used to train up-and-coming MMA fighters who Sultan believes can be the next big thing.
The dark side
While Sultan says the fighters he selected were not approved, others claim some of them opted out due to more sinister reasons.
“The reason many first-choice fighters opted out was because Sultan asked them to take steroids,” claims a man involved closely with those fighters at the time.
MMA has had a long and troubled association with drug and steroid use, with several big international names such as Jone Jones and Brock Lesnar being banned for it. Even the premature deaths of 42-year-old Kimbo Slice and 44-year-old Kevin Randleman are suspected to be caused by harmful performance-enhancing substances.
MMA also houses other evils – injuries and infections are not uncommon.
“I broke a few ribs while training once, but I couldn’t tell my family because they didn’t even know I was training to become a fighter,” says Mujtaba. “Let’s just say the pain was excruciating.”
With so much body-on-body and skin-on-skin contact, infections spread easily and quickly.
Some would argue that every sportsman runs the risk of injuries, but not every sportsman comes face-to-face with an opponent whose very aim is to break your bones and disfigure your body.
Of self-defence and a life of hardships
By night, Guru Gohar Gul is a Muay Thai trainer. By day, he is also that. One of the precious few people in the country who have taken up MMA as a living, the 46-year-old is also counted among the pioneers of the sport in the country. He is a self-made man, if ever there was one.
“My parents were killed when I was very young,” he said. “I had to run away from my village.”
In search of a place to stay, Gul — not yet 10 at the time — roamed the streets; hopping from town to town, village to village.
The streets are a harsh place for a child, and Gul learned that the hard way. “I was subjected to abuse and had to fight many battles just to stay alive,” he says. Faced with a situation where only the fittest survive, Gul toughened up on the streets. “My whole life has been a test of my self-defence.”
But there are saints wherever there are demons, and Gul found one that saved him. In Islamabad, he saw a man teaching martial arts. Intrigued and filled with childish curiosity, he asked him if he could join.
When the instructor told him the fees, young Gul broke down into tears. He knew he could not afford it. “The instructor decided to take me under his wing when he saw me cry,” Gul reveals.
And so began the journey of a man who would — along with Bashir and a few others — go on to define the early steps of MMA in Pakistan.
Seeping into households
But for MMA enthusiasts, even more heartening than Gul’s rags-to-riches story is that inside his TCR Fitness Centre lineup, not only can one find fit young men, but also middle-aged and out of shape housewives, along with several kids who could count their ages on their fingers.
“Does this really help lose weight?” enquires a mother deliberating whether to sign up for an MMA class. Ten minutes later, after watching a few of the exercises Gul makes his disciples go through, she is signing the registration form.
Add to being fit and looking good, the extra benefit of self-defence in what is considered by many to be the world’s most dangerous city, and MMA’s fanbase is starting to include the entire nuclear household.
From every walk of life
Combat gyms across the country boast some of the most diverse crowds. “We have doctors, engineers, bankers, journalists, politicians — all kinds of people come to our chain of gyms, not just fitness freaks,” says Javaid, who works at 3G MMA alongside Owais.
Javaid feels what keeps this ecosystem harmonious is the rule of leaving your ego behind when stepping onto the mat. “Everyone’s equal that way,” he explains.
“I head the business controls division of a large bank by day and train MMA fighters by night,” he says. “The 3G MMA team is full of people like that. Our founder Nadeem has a doctorate, while Owais Shah has an MBA.”
Academia shouldn’t be the criteria, or at least not the sole criteria, to ascertain the calibre of MMA experts, but Javaid claims it has played a major part in his camp’s success. “Everything has a science behind it and we try and understand that science. We don’t blindly follow workout routines and diet plans without first understanding what does what.”
MMA — as old as it is new
According to many, martial arts are one of the oldest, if not the oldest, sport in human history. Codified combat practices featuring a combination of striking and grappling techniques date back thousands of years, and cross discipline fights were staged as early as the mid-19th century.
The concept was even promoted in the 1960s by actor and visionary Bruce Lee. “The best fighter is not a boxer, karate or judo man,” he said. “The best fighter is someone who can adapt to any style — to be formless — to adopt an individual’s own style and not follow the system of styles.”
A fight in 1976, between boxing heavyweight world champion Muhammad Ali and legendary Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki, disappointed many at the time but is now considered a precursor to MMA; the first step of the journey.
It wasn’t until 1993 though that MMA got a regular home, as well as its name. Following Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner Royce Gracie’s victory at the Ultimate Fighting Championship 1 against an ensemble of wrestlers, karatekas and boxers, TV critic Howard Rosenberg coined the term ‘Mixed Martial Arts’.
The sport has had to fight off numerous lows but in just 23 years, it has blossomed to the point that it now produces A-list athletes, is a blockbuster at the box office and is arguably the fastest growing sport in the world.
Here to stay
MMA is the kind of sport that will always be looked down upon by certain sections of society. To many, the violence in the ring may seem alien, despicable even. Others will never get the allure of such senseless risk; men and women pitting themselves against each other and pushing themselves to the brink, sometimes beating each other to pulp.
The sweat and the tears; the gore and the blood; the drugs and the controversies; the injuries and the deaths; the difference in opinions and the politics; the risks and the sacrifices — there are enough reasons to put many off MMA.
But for the remaining few, these modern-day gladiators — willing to risk everything they have every single time they step into that ring — will always hold a special romance. For them, time itself stops during those exhilarating few minutes that humanity’s fittest beasts clash in all their glory.
For them, MMA is not a hobby but a way of life; it is more than a game. For them, the violence answers a carnal call and scratches a primitive itch. For them, nothing is more satisfying than the sickening crunch of an uppercut dislocating the opponent’s jaw, nothing more exhilarating than a potentially fatal choke-hold that forces an opponent to tap out, nothing more fascinating than seeing someone grind down an opponent both physically and mentally.
Neither the critics of MMA, nor the practitioners will ever be able to convince the other, and the debate about the sport’s validity will continue to rage on. But with every single day, MMA grows in popularity. It is here to stay.