Issue 49 / The Ultimate Fighting Champion's Rise In South Asia

The Ultimate Fighting Champion’s Rise In South Asia

May 14, 2016

South Asia has tipped the popularity of the Ultimate Fighting Champion into overdrive. With that comes players and dealmakers. And The UFC noticed. 

The Ultimate Fighting Championship (better known as the UFC) has gone through two popularity booms since its inception in 1994. We’re currently in the midst of the second one, thanks to the star power of Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor. The UFC currently has over 10 million fans on Facebook, but did you know that more than a third of those fans situate in India?
The popularity of the sport known as Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) has touched down on South Asian soil and penetrated the mainstream, as evidenced by the 2015 film Brothers, starring Bollywood heavyweight Akshay Kumar and Sidharth Malhotra. The film chronicles the rivalry between two MMA fighters/brothers and is based on the 2011 American film Warrior starring Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton.  
But how has the sport itself been impacted by Indians?

In 2015, the All India Mixed Martial Arts Association (AIMMAA) landed India a spot at the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation (IMMAF) World Championships of Amateur MMA, which was part of the UFC’s yearly International Fight Week held from July 6 to 11. That was the same week the aforementioned McGregor won the UFC interim featherweight title. So that week had a lot of eyes on it.

Dana White, UFC president, said in a note, “Over 30,000 fans from all over the world (will be) coming to celebrate UFC International Fight Week.”
So it was a pretty big deal.

Coach Alan Fenandes (centre) with his fighters.
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Dana White, president of UFC.
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CM Punk, a former pro wrestling superstar turned aspiring UFC fighter, has a huge fan base in India. That week, he said, "I love Indians. It is possible that one day you will see UFC happen in India. It's possible, you never know."
Well, guess what? Later that year, Reebok, the official combat gear outfitter of the UFC, was reported to be looking to partner with official Indian UFC broadcasters Sony Six/Kix to introduce their own competitive league featuring some of the top UFC talent in India.
During that same International Fight Week, former UFC heavyweight champion (and likely future hall of famer) Frank Mir expressed his hopes and concerns about India really making a dent in the MMA landscape. "I think India has such a huge population of different individuals. And if you really follow, it has a martial arts background. If you trace back the Shaolin temples, then Martial Arts originated in India. So actually it will be a cool full circle that we will find time to see us and go back there and fight.
"But right now we need more representatives from India to be doing rounds of UFC.”
Meaning the sport needs combat sports stars from that part of the world.

But with India being a nation that values academic achievement far more than sports prowess (India has quite a hard time earning Olympic medals), then will this dream come to fruition? That’s up in the air.

But! Another part of South Asia may produce that talent, and that place is Pakistan.

Enter Bashir Ahmad. He may be a low-ranking fighter at present (and not yet in the top MMA organization — the UFC), but the man is trying to use the sport to better the youth of his troubled country.

Bashir stepping on the scale before battle.
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A former army veteran, Bashir attended George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, where he put his army-earned put-your-nose-to-the-dirt-and-work mentality into action and earned himself an honorary degree. During his time there, he also learned of the martial art Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. This was around 2005, during the baby stages of the first UFC popularity boom.  

Bashir became so engrossed that in a single day he would happily drive to three different gyms for three different training sessions.
But where has that led him?

From 2007 until the present, Bashir has made it his mission to teach the children of Pakistan what he knows. His teaching phases have come in three separate increments.

Increment 1: In 2007 Bashir began training local kids in Lahore.

Increment 2: In 2009, after acquiring the skills of Muay Thai in Thailand, he returned to Pakistan to open up a training gym in his small, lackluster apartment, which he aptly named The Slaughterhouse.

And increment 3: Synergy MMA Academy

Bashir’s Synergy aims to keep kids away from the violent pitfalls of Pakistan, a country no stranger to violence. Sixty per cent of Pakistan’s population gets by on less than $2 a day, and in times of desperation extremism tends to occur. Pakistan has been hit hard by violence fueled by religious and political dogma. Two thousand people have been killed by these kind of attacks in the past five years alone. In 2014, during the Peshawar School Massacre, seven gunmen from Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan shot and killed 141 people including 132 children.
This is the kind of violence that Bashir wants to deflect kids away from, and since 24 million out of the country’s 50 million school-aged children don’t go to school, something needs to be done. He wants to cleanse the community by helping sway the misguided children of today from being the extremists of tomorrow. And one outlet for their frustrated emotions is regulated sports in the form of MMA.
Bashir has traveled to over 25 countries in search of new combat skills and ways of thinking. And ultimately, Mixed Martial Arts is all about combining all of the different martial arts styles, learning from others, and combining them into a healthy expression of pent-up aggressions. This is the way of thinking that he and his training gym aim to educate the troubled youth of Pakistan.
“I have just learned a lot of tolerance to other people’s opinions and ways,” Bashir has told the MMA website, “Not just tolerance for others, but also fascination about their culture. I truly consider myself a global citizen. I am an American citizen, but who I am has been influenced by Asia just as much as the USA.”
Main Image Photo Credit: Image Credit:


Taras Babiak


Taras is a freelance blogger, video editor and screenwriter. He is the co-writer of "Made In Bali," which recently won Best Short Film of the year from the Director's Guild of Canada. 


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