By Sonya Rehman
Synergy MMA Academy in Lahore, Pakistan, is almost empty this morning. But it’s early, and besides, it’s a Sunday. Sitting on the mats with a friend, the gym’s owner, Bashir Ahmad, is dressed in a black robe with the belt loosely tied around his waist, revealing a toned chest and defined abs.
A framed pair of bloody shorts hangs on the wall near the building’s entrance. These were worn by Ahmad when he fought the Thai MMA fighter, Shannon Wiratchai, at the ONE Fighting Championship in Singapore in 2013. “It was my first proper fight,” he tells me, as he relaxes before training. “You get closer to the cage, get your hands wrapped and all that nervousness goes away. It’s like an out-of-body experience. Nothing’s going through your mind. It’s just like pure consciousness.”
As well as being Ahmad’s official debut, he was also the first Pakistani MMA fighter to represent his country at an international MMA event. He won that bout, and followed it with another victory in his second ONE FC match, held last October, in Kuala Lumpur, by defeating Tanaphong Khunhankaew in the first round. “I felt there was room for improvement,” he says, slightly dismissively of that second match. “Realistically, I’m a baby at this sport. I’ve been fighting for a year-and-a-half professionally and I’ve been training for about eight or nine years, which for martial arts is not that long a period of time. Plus, I started late, when I was 23.”
Born in the city of Faisalabad, in Pakistan, Ahmad moved to the United States when he was three years-old. His father got a job after studying at the University of West Virginia. “I lived in a very multi-cultural area outside of DC, so it wasn’t very strange,” Ahmad replies when asked whether it was hard for him as a young Pakistani growing up in the US, “But obviously, back in the 1980s, the knowledge and awareness of Pakistan was pretty limited.”
Ahmad says he always had an inclination towards the rough, tough, stuff. As a child, his family would find him outside with an air-gun hoping to shoot birds. “I signed up for the army because I was one of those boys who romanticised the idea of soldiers and war.” He was stationed in Iraq from 2004 to 2005 as a firefighter and says he is thankful of the experience. “It shaped me as a man. I learned so much about the nature of humanity, the good and the bad, the beautiful and the extremely ugly. In war, kindness and cruelty become amplified.”
In emotional terms, Ahmad admits that his year-long experience serving against the War on Terror was more difficult. “It made me realise my true separateness from American society,” he says. It was during this time that Ahmad discovered boxing. “Muhammad Ali was my hero,” he says. “And then I read a lot about hand-to-hand combat, self-defence and that led to martial arts. The ‘way of the warrior’ philosophy fit in really well with my circumstances.”
Given that he’d be on call at any given hour in Baghdad, Ahmad began frequenting a Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) centre set up for American soldiers. “It was sort of like a gym,” he says. “I started hitting the bag for over an hour and enjoyed it. So all these things combined and I knew when I got back home that I was gonna start training in martial arts.”
Ahmad quit the military in 2006 after returning from Iraq. “There was no need to stay longer,” he says of the decision. “But when I left, I was always going to be a soldier no matter what. I missed some aspects of the army routine but I was very comfortable knowing I had joined the family of warriors that has been on this Earth for thousands of years.”
If leaving the military was an easy decision, being back in the US was more complicated. He’d resumed an undergraduate degree in political science at northern Virginia’s George Mason University, but the experiences in Iraq had left him disillusioned and alienated from American society and life. “Coming back was strange,” he says. “I was very bitter towards American policy and there was a very real emotional component to it that you just can’t get from reading newspapers and books.” He recalls classroom discussions about military strikes. “I was like, You’re never gonna see anything like this, ever, you know? And then you people go on to make decisions about what goes on in the world without any bearing for my personal life, my safety or my family.”
Although he finished his degree in 2008 he describes feeling completely detached from a subject that he was once very passionate about. So he filled that gap by throwing himself into martial arts. Enrolling in a street self-defence class for a few weeks, Ahmad moved on to traditional Japanese ju-jitsu classes led by a samurai whose father was a soldier stationed in Japan after the American occupation after World War II. “When I first started I went from zero to 60 very quickly. I began going to two different gyms in my area, then I added a Brazilian ju-jitsu class at the same time. Any spare time I had, I’d fit in martial arts training.”
Ahmad then moved to Thailand for a year, where he trained in MMA. Moving from camp to camp, he met with a number of individuals, now influential in the MMA scene in Asia. “I developed a network,” he says, “so when I came to Pakistan and started promoting MMA, all these people saw what I was doing. I became sort of a personality figure in Asian MMA. So when ONE FC wanted representatives from every single country that they could get in Asia, I was the logical choice for Pakistan.”
But Ahmad’s dream of promoting MMA in Pakistan required a big change. He knew he had to set up shop on home turf to make his dream real. “Ever since I was young I’ve held a strong connection to Pakistan,” he says of the move. “Compared to the rest of my American cousins I was the only one born in Pakistan and I wore that like a badge of honour. I consider myself a son of the soil. So this was the perfect reason to come back and do something positive for the country.”
The Synergy MMA Academy in Lahore came into being in 2009. Ahmad planned on going back to the United States after setting the gym in motion, but the weeks quickly turned into four years and he has plenty of activities to keep him there for the foreseeable future. Apart from training students at his gym, Ahmad also heads an organisation that promotes MMA in Pakistan. Founded in 2007, Mixed Martial Arts Pakistan (also known as Pak MMA) has brought MMA to the forefront thanks to its popular Facebook page and regular events in association with ONE FC. So far they have hosted Pakistan’s first Brazilian ju-jitsu seminar in 2010 and the country’s first MMA event, Pakistan Warrior Challenge. They’ve also helped organise South Asia’s first MMA event in Pakistan in 2012, at the 10,000-seat Punjab Stadium in Lahore.
Despite these successes, moving back to Pakistan brought its own sets of problems. “I feel more at home in Pakistan than anywhere else, but some situations make me feel like an outsider,” he says. “In general, I feel like an outsider everywhere. In the US I am a Pakistani and a Muslim, and in Pakistan I am an American.”
Initially, when he approached seasoned Pakistani martial artists, Ahmad would be dismissed. They didn’t take him — a foreign returnee — seriously, or his grand idea to bring all the different martial arts federations and styles together to offer their skills, expertise and knowledge. “You need a variety of martial arts techniques to make the perfect MMA fighter, so I thought everyone would come together and make this super Pakistani champion. But they just thought I was bringing this new weird thing from America that no one in Pakistan was going to like.”
When it was clear that this plan wasn’t going to work, Ahmad decided to go solo. He says that in hindsight it was the best thing he could have done because it forced him to take a different path from the other traditional martial arts. “By using social media, I attracted a completely different crowd. In order to make it really go mainstream you have to get everybody in Pakistan to accept it and to get the cool factor, so that is kinda the secret to the success of Pak MMA.”
For the years ahead, Ahmad hopes to remain in good shape for MMA competitions. He’s canny enough to know that being successful in MMA is not just about how hard you train or compete. “Your personality has a big part to play in the fights you get,” he says. “You need to have that star quality. If you’re always winning on points and running around the ring, you’re not going to be a popular fighter. People wanna see knock-outs, submissions and dominant performances.”
One of his mentors is Sensei Jones, a brilliant Canadian martial artist now in his seventies, who taught Ahmad ju-jitsu for two years. Jones instilled within him the spiritual aspect of the sport. “He told us that one should try to minimise injuring the person. Like if someone attacks you, maybe the person is having some kind of emotional breakdown and maybe you have so much more power over that person because you have training. Is it then appropriate for you to use shock and awe? Did you use an appropriate response? Sensei Jones was very particular about these things.”
Of course, the appropriate use of force is a grey area, both in and out of the ring. While waiting for his luggage at the Lahore airport after the Malaysia fight, Ahmad saw what looked like a group of prostitutes accompanied by two pimps. One of the men began bumping into him aggressively. “I was like, Easy now. And then he grabbed me and started swearing, like he was threatening to slap me. My instant reaction was Bam! I hit him and he was out cold. At first I was really scared and embarrassed; I was like, God I just killed somebody, and I’ve never, ever, been in a street fight in my entire life! That was the first time I struck anybody outside of training,” Ahmad says. “I was apologising and telling everyone he’d get up in five minutes, and they were like No, you did a good thing! This joker was bugging people!”
Beyond his ultimate goal to be a contender for the ONE FC belt, Ahmad hopes to expand his operations in Pakistan, in terms of more gyms, additional events, and to set up an academy for the poor in Pakistan. “I want to have a centre where I get the poor off the street, educate them and prepare them to become future champions. My intention with MMA in Pakistan was to give me a platform. That chapter will begin soon enough.”
For now, MMA in Pakistan has some way to go. Other more established forms of martial arts, such as the Pakistan Wushu Federation and the Pakistan Ju-Jitsu Federation, have been funded by the government for a long time and enjoy a solid following. But Ahmad is confident that MMA in Pakistan can have a positive cultural impact “Look at Pakistan’s military,” he says, by way of comparison.” I would say that the culture and standard of behaviour of military personnel here is much higher than the average civilian. I think the MMA lifestyle has the same benefits.”
So while Ahmad admits that finding financial sponsors for his planned event is tough, and that the sport in Pakistan remains underground, he believes it has a big future. “It’s going to mirror the growth of MMA in Asia, which is on the rise,” he says.
And in a country where good news is often in short supply, that can only be a positive development.