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Going against the grain: How Zeba Bano is paving way for Indians, female Muslim athletes

'Fighting Queen' has overcome shame and ridicule from those closest around her to chase her dreams of MMA glory.
zeba-bano

Zeba Bano has fought against all odds to be where she is today. Literally.

The undefeated Indian MMA fighter, who hails from a conservative Muslim family, did not have many blessings to pursue what seemed like a degrading occupation to the people around her.

"My family fully supported me, but our relatives were against it since we are from the Muslim community," the 23-year-old said. "They didn't like me wearing shorts and sandows, and they would say mean things to my father."

Despite the criticism, Bano (6-0) decided to continue pursuing her passion – and it has finally paid off.

The lady known as "Fighting Queen" will make her big ONE Championship debut against Muay Thai phenom Nat "Wondergirl" Jaroonsak (0-0) in a strawweight mixed martial arts bout at "ONE 157: Petchmorakot vs. Vienot" on Friday.

"Now that I have been given an opportunity to fight at ONE Championship, I want to show my critics that Muslim girls are not limited to just the burqa. They are more than that," she said.

"Even today, people don't want to let girls compete in martial arts. But through this huge platform, I want to represent India on the global stage and want to be a source of inspiration for the people."

Bano, the fourth of six siblings, took baby steps into combat sports during her childhood. She stumbled into wushu by chance and instantaneously developed a liking for the stand-up art.

Within a matter of years, "Fighting Queen" found tremendous success in wushu, claiming a couple of victories in major tournaments.

"I won two gold medals at the national level," she said. "Once I reached the senior level, I started training in kickboxing, where I won four golds at the national level again. I won the flyweight title at the K-1 competition, which was held in Kerala."

Despite all she has achieved in wushu and even kickboxing, Bano still felt like her career did not pan out the way she had envisioned it.

But in the early 2010s, MMA had slowly started gaining traction in India, thanks in part to local promotion Super Fight League. It continued to grow over the years, especially when her compatriot, Bharat Kandare, became the first Indian to sign with the UFC.

For Bano, it became clear where her next step would be.

"When I used to win medals at the national level (in wushu and kickboxing), no one would seem to care. But after joining MMA, I started getting noticed. So, I decided to pursue MMA," Bano stated.

"I started my MMA training in 2014. It was not popular in India then. (But) when fighters like Bharat Kandare started competing on the international stage, it inspired me to pursue it. I felt that if he can do it, so can I."

Bano's standup repertoire made the transition into the all-encompassing sport a little easier, but she still struggled to equip herself with the grappling necessary to round out her game.

Thankfully for "Fighting Queen," her head coach Pankaj Khanna formed a suitable training regimen for her to excel.

Following a tough amateur MMA debut in March 2019, which saw her earn a gritty split-decision victory in Mumbai, a local Indian promoter convinced her to turn pro.

Though it may not look like a wise move on paper, it wound up being a great decision.

Since kicking off her professional career in September 2019, Bano has gone 6-0 with five of those victories coming via stoppage.

But even with all the Indian's recent success in MMA, the naysayers – including a couple of her relatives – still believed that what she was doing was against their beliefs.

"Some members of my family have told me several times that if my limbs get broken, I will be of no use, and then who would marry me?" she said. "I used to get really angry with that, but it used to motivate me too, and it helped me to reach here today."

At ONE 157, Bano intends to continue defying the odds and prove to those doubters that anything is possible regardless of gender or religion.

In fact, she has a special message for those who have discredited her from the very beginning.

"I actually want to thank the people who have tried to demotivate me," she said. "They have played an important role in helping me to reach here."