This Fighting Life 3: Bashir Ahmad and MMA in Pakistan

Thursday, August 23, 2012

This is the second piece by Underground Blogger DeLeon DeMicoli, whose column is insipred by NPR’s “This American Life ” and covers in long essay form (that would be a FRAT on the UG 🙂 fighters and those that train.

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DeLeon DeMicoli writes and trains in San Francisco, CA.  He is currently writing a novel on Mixed Martial Arts.

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On April 14th 2012 Bashir Ahmad stepped inside the “Paktagon” for his first professional MMA bout against Mohammad Arshad. The fight was held inside the 10,000-seat Punjab stadium in Lahore, under the Pak Fight Club promotion (the one and only MMA promotion in Pakistan).

Before the bout got underway both fighters met in the middle of the cage to go over the referee’s instructions. Since no governing body upholds rules and regulations for MMA bouts in Pakistan, Pak Fight Club took it upon themselves to set their own rules, which mirrored most regulated bouts across the globe.

“I wanted to prove the first time we met was a fluke,” said Bashir who’s fought in Thailand and competed in jiu-jitsu competitions in Asia.

The two had met prior at a sport jiu-jitsu tournament where bouts are fought with a combination of judo and kickboxing, with or without the gi.

“I don’t know how I lost (in their first fight). It was the most bizarre thing ever. I was taking him down and when I looked up at the scoreboards he was up on points. I was like what the hell is going on? I felt like I was dominating that tournament. I ended up taking home silver.”

Once the referee yelled, “Let’s fight!” the tall and burly chested Mohammad began the action with a flying roundhouse kick. Bashir stepped away and immediately pressed forward with a right hook that landed square on Mohammad’s jaw. He worked his clinch game and got the takedown, then jumped to mount with ease. Mohammad turned to his side and failed to cover up, allowing Bashir to land hard blows to his face. After securing his back, Bashir hit Mohammad with a few more power shots to the side of the head and secured a rear-naked choke. Mohammad tapped out twenty-five seconds into the first round.

“It was a little unsatisfying at the end because you fight for a reason. It’s not to beat the crap out of someone. It’s to find out what your level is at that moment and how you can get better.”

Mohammad was clearly out-classed. But there was a reason Bashir took the fight. Since bringing the sport of MMA to Pakistan in 2007 finding fights in his home country has been difficult.

“Everyone that trains in the country looks up to me as a mentor or a role model. I have a big brother relationship with everyone that trains MMA in the community. Nobody wants to fight me because they’re either students of mine or I’ve done seminars with them.”

Luckily for Bashir, his debut fight was against a man that was outside the MMA community in Pakistan.

After the fight ended friends and students that train at his school, Synergy MMA, hoisted the featherweight on their shoulders, while the death metal band “Takatak” played in the background.

Bashir was born in Pakistan, but grew up in Virginia. He discovered martial arts as a young boy while reading hand-to-hand fighting manuals and books on how to kill a man with a single blow – reading material most young men discovered inside the pages of comic books like Count Dante’s “World’s Deadliest Fighting Secrets.”

As Bashir matured into a man so did his reading material, focusing on books on martial arts as a philosophy and a lifestyle. When he was ready to put his knowledge into action he joined a Haganah gym, a self-defense fighting system that means “Defense” in Hebrew. Haganah started as a non-state sanctioned militia in the 1920s with the primary purpose to expel foreign authority from Jewish communities. The militia disbanded in 1948. But the self-defense techniques (similar to Krav Maga) lived on and turned into a self-defense system that could be taught to the masses.

Bashir was hooked after attending his first class. Not in the sense of focusing on one martial arts style, but being open minded and pursuing other styles and philosophies that he could combine. The second school he trained at was a traditional Japanese jiu-jitsu school at a YMCA in Reston, VA run by Sensei Bruce Jones.

“He was a true American hero type of guy. He was in the Special Forces. He was a bodyguard for three presidents and Pope John Paul II. He was a hardcore guy that seemed right out of a comic book.”

Once Bashir entered college at George Mason University in Washington D.C he had the opportunity to attend an introductory to Brazilian jiu-jitsu seminar right on campus. The two purple belts that taught the course informed participants that if students were interested in pursuing their training they should visit their school and sign up.

Bashir spent six-months training gi at One Spirit Martial Arts under Toni Passos, a black belt under Ricardo De La Riva. Once Passos left One Spirit to start his own school, Bashir followed and competed at local tournaments held in the city.

He returned to Pakistan in 2007 to attend his sister’s wedding. While visiting his family’s hometown outside Faislabad, he taught jiu-jitsu to the local children as a means to remain active while away from the gym. That planted the seed to his future endeavors, but he wasn’t ready to commit just yet. When he returned to the states he graduated college with a degree in Global Affairs and decided to celebrate by travelling to Thailand to train and fight Muay Thai. That trip lasted eighteen months. During his extended vacation he was invited by Daniel Isaac, COO of Super Fight League (India’s first professional MMA organization) to visit India’s tough-as-nails Tiger’s gym.

“This is a guy who’s just like me. He has this crazy idea and he stuck with it (bringing MMA to India), and taking it this far. Why can’t I do that?”

Bashir returned to Pakistan in 2008 and established his first martial arts studio.

“I rented this small place above a restaurant. It was a nasty, filthy restaurant. There was grease all over the floors. It was disgusting. I got it for fifty dollars a month and nicknamed the place ‘The Slaughterhouse’ because it was so filthy.”

Inside the makeshift gym were mats made out of tarp and carpet pads. His students were the same children he trained when he visited Pakistan in 2007. Others from the martial arts community took notice when he started showing Pride and UFC fights explaining MMA was the evolution of combat sports.

By the time he returned to the states he realized he no longer fit into suburban culture.

“When I returned there was no way I was getting a regular job. I had a hard time adjusting to manicured lawns and strip malls.”

Bashir, the oldest of five siblings and considered the black sheep of the family, had grown accustomed to the bohemian lifestyle. As soon as he saved enough money he made Pakistan his permanent home, with the idea of spreading the sport of mixed martial arts across the country. It began in 2009 with a new school, Synergy MMA, in Lahore, the capital of the Pakistani province Punjab (considered the main cultural hub of the country).  That led to smoker tournaments held alongside two other MMA schools. One in Islambad, the other in Karach1.

Then California native, Zainulabedin Shah, created Pak Fight Club, Pakistan’s first and only MMA promotion. Pak Fights have held two events since its inception and was also featured on an episode of “MMA Live.”

Recently, Bashir signed with Asia’s One Fighting Championship, but has yet to fight for the organization. Busy building MMA in his home country and training his fight team (that consists of eight up-and-coming athletes) has halted his own development as a pro athlete, but well worth the sacrifice.

“I’m going to Thailand for three months to train. After that I’ll be talking to One FC about my next fight.”

Mixed Martial Arts in Pakistan lives amongst the sub-cultures of death metal, punk rock and skateboarding. But with Bashir at the helm the sport will eventually turn mainstream. And who knows maybe one day it will be bigger than field hockey, the country’s current national sport.

Author’s Note:

Pakistan and California have a twelve-hour time difference.  My interview with Bashir was supposed to occur at seven AM (PST) on a Saturday. When his video feed appeared on screen it was dark, so dark I couldn’t see him. He was with family and celebrating Eid, a Muslim holiday that marked the end of Ramadan. Muslims worldwide observed the holiday by fasting from sunrise to sunset for an entire month.  He accommodated his students by opening the gym after sunset each day so they could eat and have energy to train.

At the end of our interview I could make out Bashir’s beard on screen and the white headphones he was wearing. I was able to see family members walking behind him. He explained the power goes out every hour due to an electricity shortage in the city. It’s not uncommon to have a home’s power supply run on car batteries until the power returns.

I found Bashir’s story and his country fascinating.