LAHORE: With swift kicks and punches, pumped up youngsters, spar and grapple in one-on-one contests full of fun. The gym that is witness to the intense workouts, brimming with the energy and ambition of the youths in the thick of the action, is the headquarters of Mixed Martial Arts Pakistan (Pak MMA) in Lahore, reported Gulf News.
Watching the youngsters closely and feeling fairly proud about his wards as he tracks their moves from near the black punching bags is their idol, Bashir Ahmad, better known as the godfather of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) in Pakistan.
The 35-year-old was the first MMA fighter to represent Pakistan on the global stage when he defeated Thailand’s Shannon Wiratchai in 2013 in his first international fight in Singapore. Since then, he has bagged three wins in Asia’s largest MMA event, ONE Championship. Last year, he won a gold medal at the Bangkok Jiu-Jitsu Championships.
Ahmad has opened two gyms, inspired a whole community of MMA fighters and set up the premier MMA organisation in a country more inclined towards cricket and hockey.
It is hard to imagine that the man who has kicked off an MMA revolution in Pakistan was serving in Iraq as a US soldier only a few years back.
Born in Faisalabad in 1983, Ahmad was raised in Virginia, where his parents immigrated in search of a better future for their children. But little did they know that Ahmad would return home to make his countrymen proud. Ahmad had an epiphany when deployed in Afghanistan as a medic in a bomb disposal unit.
Ahmad discovered his calling as an MMA mentor during the time he spent working out and reading books like Malcolm X’s autobiography and thinking about his hero Muhammad Ali, who refused to fight in Vietnam. “I thought of it as fighting the system through combat sports,” Bashir said in an interview with Gulf News.
He quit the military in 2006 to study global affairs at George Mason University. But the war experiences in Iraq left him disillusioned with American society and he began taking jiu-jitsu lessons and later travelled to Thailand for MMA training. In 2009, he left the United States to start a sporting revolution in Pakistan. “It was in my DNA, deep inside my soul.
“I wasn’t interested in ‘fighting,’ in fact, it was the philosophical and personal development of martial arts that hooked me.”
When MMA emerged as a global sport, he saw the culmination of his grand vision in his homeland. “I came back in 2009 with an enthusiasm to make MMA the mainstream sports in Pakistan.”
With help from his family and friends, he built Pakistan’s first dedicated MMA gym in his one-bedroom apartment and began soliciting fighters through a Pak MMA Facebook page. Ahmad believes his 2013 international victory “changed everything” for himself and for MMA in Pakistan.
MMA gyms soon popped up across the country and out of the dim shadows emerged Pakistan’s rising MMA stars: Ahmad Mujtaba, Umer Kayani, Uloomi Karim Shaheen, Haider Farman and Mohammad Imran.
Ahmad didn’t stop here. After the success of his ‘Synergy MMA Academy’ in Lahore, he initiated a social project called Shaheen (Falcon) to train a different group.
Peace through Sports
One of Ahmad’s proudest achievements, beyond the fame and growing success of MMA in Pakistan, is his to create opportunities for the impoverished, uneducated children. “The biggest security threat to the country is not our neighbours but illiteracy and education” Ahmad recalls.
Next to a dusty park, in the slum of Charrar Pind Village of about 50,000 inhabitants in Lahore is the Shaheen Academy where Ahmad and his team are using martial arts to inspire the poorest and most vulnerable youth to become future leaders and lead better lives.
This is where kids who wear dirty clothes and often walk barefoot come to “to learn some basics, such as how to read and write,” as well as fight. Such a facility is much needed in Pakistan – a country of 200 million where 22 million children don’t go to school.
Among the kids practicing here is 12-year-old Abu Bakr. His mother is a cleaner at Ahmad’s other gym, where Abu Bakr would sit for hours, watching martial artists practice before being asked to train with them. He looks up to Ahmad as a father figure and spends his free time at the gym and even training other boys. “He’s a little leader now,” Ahmad says. “This guy is going to do so much better. He is going an English medium school now.”
“Peace through sports,” is what Ahmad is striving to achieve. His ultimate goal is to “open a camp that teaches impoverished youth, promotes the benefits of martial arts and build the world’s greatest and most honourable warriors.”
It may sound like most of his time is spent teaching or fighting in the ring, but Ahmad is known as a great friend and a family man. “I train twice a day. I have a full-time job. I travel almost half the year. But I keep my family close to me whenever possible. Even, my son comes to training with me” he shares.
Ahmad doesn’t like to call himself a fighter. “I am a martial artist. It is something influences every facet of my life.”