A group of Mixed Martial Arts fighters train resiliently on the streets and at a club in Karachi, with dreams of making it big on the international circuit. But they are up against not just their economic circumstances and the lack of attention to any sport other than cricket in Pakistan. They must also contend with a homeland that often does not recognise them as its own…
At six in the morning, most of Karachi is still sleeping. The sky is still dark. And the usually jam-packed roads of the city are still deserted. On the empty roads, 32-year-old Muheebullah and his students brave the winter winds and move towards their destination.
Karachi does not get very cold, but January’s chilly spell makes even athletes such as Muheeb walk a little faster to get indoors. Finally, Muheeb and 10 of his students arrive at Grind, a prominent mixed martial arts centre based in Gulshan-i-Iqbal.
Most of the students are young men who have more than a few things in common. Of course, there is their love for mixed martial arts (MMA) and their dream of becoming world-class fighters. But these fighters also come from similar backgrounds.
They are all manual labourers, who are hustling in the city to take home some money to feed their families. They are also all Afghan. Many do not have any Pakistani identification, even though this is the only home they have ever known and the country they wish to represent at international MMA fights.
Muheeb also has much in common with these students. Perhaps he sees himself in them.
He was only 15 when he started training for MMA fighting. He too considers Pakistan, a country he was not born in, his home. But, unlike his students, Muheeb was older when he moved to Pakistan. He has lived here for almost 12 years now, and was about 20 years old when he got here.
Questions of identity have remained a constant in Muheeb’s life. He was raised in Mazar-i-Sharif, a city in Afghanistan’s Balkh province, where his father had migrated to from Uzbekistan, after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
MMA has been Muheeb’s connection between these different lands and borders. When he was 22, he returned to Uzbekistan for his first big fight. “And then, at the age of 25, I fought in Tajikistan, again in an international fight tournament,” Muheeb tells Eos. “I won both of the fights, bagging gold medals.”
Muheeb’s winning streak has continued in Pakistan, but he has never represented the country he considers his adoptive home. Recently, Muheeb won at the National Fighting Tournament held in Lahore in December. Within two minutes, he had knocked out his opponent, who was representing Pakistan. Muheeb was fighting for Uzbekistan, a country he has little connection with.
Life has continued to challenge Muheeb, but he has always fought back. He hopes to inculcate these values and fighting spirit in his students too. He knows the value of having a role model one can look up to, and an outlet for one’s pent up rage and frustration against the system.
LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON
Muheeb’s father, an MMA fighter himself, was both his mentor and rival, who would spar lightly with him when he was a young boy. “My father would always say that it is very important for a man to be physically fit and ready to defend himself come what may,” Muheeb recalls with a smile.
“He used to fight with me every day and then, often, he would take me to other clubs in Mazar-i-Sharif, where he made me participate in inter-club fights,” he says.
Muheeb believes that, by giving him the gift of fighting, his father gave him many things. A passion for life. And the blessing of discipline — something that Muheeb will always be grateful for.
While speaking about his father, Muheeb shares a memory that he remembers vividly.
“Once when I was sparring with my father and I was done with my workout, a man came up to him, insisting that he wants to fight with him,” he says. The man had seen Muheeb’s father using certain unique techniques and wanted to learn them.
“My father told him that he was training his son and the man should come some other time, but the man insisted,” he says. Finally, Muheeb’s father agreed to fight with him and knocked him out within a few seconds. Even Muheeb had never seen the techniques that his father was using.
“This taught me that we should never use all our techniques and tactics in a fight. We should keep some of them saved for rainy days,” says Muheeb, recalling one of his father’s many lessons.
Muheeb has seen some very tough days. Since his childhood, he had to work hard to make ends meet. “I would work as a loader in Afghanistan, carrying bags of sands on my shoulders to earn some money,” he recalls. “But this hard work blessed me with a strong body, transforming me into a skilled fighter,” he says, looking at the bright side.
Things have changed back in Afghanistan a lot since Muheeb was there.
MMA fighting has been gaining more and more traction there over the years, with at least three fighters from the country winning Ultimate Fighting Champion (UFC) contracts — MMA’s zenith and a feat that no Pakistani has yet been able to achieve.
But the Taliban takeover reportedly forced MMA fighters and a promoter to flee the country with the help of the UFC. According to a Business Insider report, MMA fighters, who were already receiving death threats before the Taliban takeover, now fear for the future of the sport in the country.
The return of the Taliban has meant heightened fear for many. Muheeb also worries for his father, who has continued to live in Mazar-i-Sharif and has refused to budge, even after repeated requests that he move to Pakistan like Muheeb.
Even if his father decides to come to Pakistan now, Muheeb fears that it may be too late. Crossing the border is much more difficult since the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. “My father cannot come with my family to Pakistan because the agents at the border are demanding 20,000 rupees for each person to get them through the border security,” he says. He is also unable to send them money, and they do not have enough saved to cross the border themselves.
“The situation there has worsened,” he tells Eos. “There is no work and no money.”
In Karachi, Muheeb’s students are his everything. Indeed, it was his students who helped him land his job at Grind. Before joining the club as a trainer, Muheeb used to sell French fries in Karachi’s Al-Asif Square, where many Afghans live. And he also trained students because fighting was his passion.
“I used to train for years with my students at Safari Park in the morning,” he recalls. One day, some martial artists saw Muheeb and his students and invited them to a fighting tournament. Three of Muheeb’s students at the time fought in the tournament and two won their fights. Their skill convinced the owners of Grind to offer Muheeb a job training students at their club.
“It was the first time that we got mats to train on,” he says. “We got so lucky.”
Today, Muheeb trains students from six in the morning to 11pm every day. Of course, he teaches non-Afghan students as well. But the difference of circumstances shows in their approach to training, Muheeb feels.
“The only issue with my non-Afghan students is that they usually do not give the time they should be giving to their bodies and selves,” he says. “How hard is it to take some time out every day for your own body, to be fit and in shape? Two-hours only! But I have seen that they take breaks during the workout time and often waste their time, consequently lagging behind their Afghan and Pashtun fellows.”
During one of his classes, Muheeb imparts some wisdom to his students. “You have to work hard on your body,” he says. He tells the young fighters in front of him that if they take a break every time their body shows results, it is like wasting their hard work.
He then moves his attention towards one young man who has been training under him for months. “Be consistent,” he says. “Obviously, the workout will give you pain, but without pain your body can never be transformed.”
As he speaks about working through the pain, Muheeb appears to be speaking from experience. He may be drawing from the physical pain of working out, but also the hurt caused by discrimination and having always been looked at as an outsider.
OUTSIDERS AT HOME
Muheeb has not always felt welcomed and has been discriminated against because of the way he looks — something many ethnic minorities, including his Afghan students and Hazaras who are also very prominent in the martial arts, can relate to.
“We are seen as troublemakers wherever we go,” he says. “We are labelled as people who love to indulge in brawls and are looked down upon.” But since being hired at Grind, he feels more accepted.
He is also glad that attitudes towards MMA are changing. “Thanks to social media, now millions know about MMA and kickboxing,” the trainer says. “Now it’s taken as a sport and a passion, not as an activity for a few ‘insane people’ who are bent upon fighting with each other.”
But while Muheeb has come a long way, he hopes his journey is far from over.
“I am a professional fighter and have been active with Sindh Kickboxing Association, but there is not much money in this sport, as most of the money goes to cricket,” he says.
Muheeb has not always felt welcomed and has been discriminated against because of the way he looks — something many ethnic minorities, including his Afghan students and Hazaras who are also very prominent in the martial arts, can relate to. “We are seen as troublemakers wherever we go,” he says.
Issues of funding and resource allocation aside, individuals such as him have to also constantly fight questions of identity. “While we have all it takes to become international fighters for Pakistan, we are sidelined for being Afghans and live here without citizenship,” Muheeb says.
His frustrations are shared by Rauf Khan, another fighter who trains at Grind, who recently also fought and won at the National Fighting Tournament in Lahore. The 27-year-old fighter’s parents also belong to Afghanistan but they migrated to Pakistan when he was only six months old.
“It was unfortunate that I had to fight for Afghanistan when my heart lies in Pakistan,” he says. “I agree that I was born in Afghanistan, but Pakistan is like a mother to me that raised me to become a fighter.”
The hardships that Rauf and his family have faced have motivated him to strive to be the best. Coming from a household with limited means, there were days when Rauf’s family did not have food on the table. “This was the reason that I entered the octagon to fight my opponent,” he says. “I had to defeat him no matter what, to take some money for my family back home in Karachi. Only I and my God know what was going through my mind during that fight,” he adds.
Rauf succeeded. “When I won the fight in Lahore, the event organiser came to me and presented me with two hundred thousand rupees, as a gift for my performance,” he says.
THE FIGHT FOR ACCEPTANCE
Rauf has an amazing portfolio as a fighter. He has been in 30 fights, most of them in Afghanistan. “We are more prepared to fight for Pakistan as kickboxers or MMA fighters than other sportsmen who have Pakistani CNICs,” says the fighter, who is not a Pakistani citizen even though he has lived most of his life in Pakistan.
“But still we are labelled as outsiders and often discriminated against because we are Afghans. Only Allah knows how much we love this country that embraced us in our weakest moments,” Rauf adds.
Rauf feels he has no option but to be an exceptional fighter. “I once used to play out of my passion, but today I play because I have to play, to win some amount of money [for my family],” says Rauf.
He has little connection with Afghanistan other than some extended family, the occasional international fights (the last of which he went to in 2017) and his ustaad.
“I used to go to Afghanistan only because my ustaad would invite me for fights,” Rauf says. “But I have no intention of going back now because of the conditions people are living under in Afghanistan, unless the Pakistani government forces us to leave this second homeland of ours.”
Rauf has also faced discrimination for being an Afghan.
Before he started coming to Grind, he would go to another club that he chooses not to name. There he would train under a non-Afghan coach. Rauf felt that the coach would sideline him, even though he was a talented fighter. When there would be fights or other opportunities, Rauf would not be told about them. “Thank God I left that place,” he says.
But he is quick to add that he has come across many good people as well. He gives the example of his latest fight and of the man who gave him the cash prize as a way of supporting fighters, irrespective of their ethnic backgrounds. “There are still people like that,” Rauf says, appreciating individuals who respect fighters.
RESPECT AS FIGHTERS
Many of Muheeb’s Afghan-origin students share the dream of representing Pakistan internationally one day. One of them is 18-year-old Haseebullah.
Haseeb’s day starts by making and selling rotis with his father in Sohrab Goth. As the lunch rush starts, Haseeb’s hands start moving faster, quickly kneading dough and making roti after roti. Haseeb is something of a pro at speed roti-making. This is not surprising, considering that he has been helping his father since the age of 10.
But every day, the young man makes sure that he takes a break and goes to Grind. His tiring schedule has made him strong enough to impeccably deal with the punches and kicks that come towards him during the fights.
Haseeb has no doubt in his ability to make it big, with a little help. “I wish I had support from the relevant people to participate in fights which I am sure I can win,” he says. The support he is talking about goes beyond monetary support or airfare to fly out to fights.
“I cannot even travel to Lahore or Islamabad [by air] for fights because, despite my age, I do not have a CNIC,” says Haseeb, as he borrows boxing gloves from a friend before training starts.
Haseeb first discovered Muheeb online. He saw a post about the fighters on social media and at once knew where to find Muheeb and the other MMA fighters at Al-Asif Square. “My ustaad [Muheeb] is my inspiration, whom I have been seeing since I was just a child training in the area I live in,” he says. “During my free time, I would watch videos of his fights and learn so many techniques to use in sparring.”
Haseeb wants to continue fighting and gaining strength. “It has become the objective of my life, I want to represent my homeland internationally,” he says, adding that he has to improve in many different areas and has a lot to learn from his ustaad.
When asked what he considers his homeland, Haseeb’s response differs from many of his fellow fighters. “Both,” responds Haseeb. “Pakistan and Afghanistan are both my beloved countries,” he says. “There is no difference in my love for them.”
Haseeb has heard that fighters abroad get a lot of importance. And that they are taken care of by their governments. But here, he laments, there is no respect for fighters. “Sometimes I do not have basic things such as gloves and shin pads to train, but I still keep going and training with the help of my people here, who have been very supportive,” he tells Eos.
For fighters such as Haseeb, even the nominal fee at Grind can mean a few days’ wages every month. They then struggle to afford other material required, such as gloves, shin pads and wraps.
“We need only a little bolstering up by the government and we can do a lot in return,” Haseeb says.
As Haseeb is speaking, Muhammad Moosa, a 19-year-old, non-Afghan student of Muheeb’s enters the club. He asks Haseeb if he’d like to fight, and Haseeb agrees instantly.
Moosa says that what amazes him about his Afghan friends at the club is their will power. “They fight because they have a passion for fighting, and discipline,” he says, while putting on his gloves and pads.
The fight soon begins and these young fighters put on quite a display. Punches are thrown and kicks are launched. After a few minutes, both the fighters take a break. Haseeb is still not out of breath and can go on to the second round without waiting.
“This leaves me baffled,” says Moosa, as he cools himself down after the light fight. “They are strong and are way too disciplined. Also, they would never look down on their fellow fighters or even rivals in a fight,” he says. “They teach us and even learn from us whenever they can,” Moosa says, with clear admiration for his friend.
A SAFE SPACE
Twenty-year-old Noor Muhammad also has Afghan parents, but is lucky enough to have a CNIC. The fighter, who was born in Pakistan after his parents migrated here from Afghanistan some 30 years ago, is a bike mechanic and is employed at a workshop in the Abbas Town area.
Noor shares that he would waste his time with the “wrong company” in Sohrab Goth until, one day, he was told by a friend about Muheeb, a fighter who trains young men “such as us” at Safari Park.
Safety is not the first thing one thinks of when MMA is mentioned, but that is exactly what Muheeb has offered his students. Noor considers himself lucky to have found his ustaad when he did. This, he believes, has kept him out of harm’s way and away from drugs.
“I have participated in some 20 kickboxing fights and eight MMA fights,” he shares. “Last time at the National Fighting Tournament, I was knocked out and had suffered injuries in the fight. We as fighters have to [deal with the] wounds on our own too, because there is not much [medical or financial] support,” says Noor.
Like many of his friends, Noor has to work hard and put in extra hours at the workshop in order to take some time out for his MMA classes at the Grind. “I manage to earn around 700 rupees every day, and then come to the club for my physical fitness and to keep in shape,” Noor says. Fighters such as Noor rely on the support of donors and organisations to fund their travel and lodging for fights.
“The last fight was sponsored by the SA Group [an organisation that organises fights in Pakistan] who took care of all the expenses,” he says, adding that it was the first time in all these years that he felt respected and supported as a fighter.
Muheeb, Rauf, Haseeb and Noor are continuing to work on themselves and their skills despite their circumstances. One wonders what keeps them going.
“I am hopeful for the future against all odds,” says Noor, who has to believe in a better tomorrow. “If things do not work out, I will have no options other than spending the rest of my life working as a mechanic,” he says.
“We are not asking for much,” he says. “We just need a little support, like sportsmen get for other games. Is it too much to ask for?” he quickly adds, before leaving for his training session with Muheeb.
Soon the training session starts. As Muheeb begins passionately speaking to his students, undeterred by the challenges life continues to throw his way, his dream for excellence, acceptance and a welcoming home feels like it is almost within reach.
The writer is a journalist who covers human and labour rights violations. He is currently associated with Soch Videos. He tweets @FawadHazan
Published in Dawn, EOS, January 16th, 2022