Bashir Ahmad is a Muslim American MMA star
Served in U.S. forces before return to Pakistan
Hits out at Donald Trump over "hateful" remarks
Next fight is in Indonesia on February 20
If Donald Trump and his Republican rivals had their way, people like Bashir Ahmad would never step foot in the United States.
A Pakistan-born Muslim who moved to the U.S. at the age of two, Ahmad served in the American forces during the Iraq war in 2004 – the scene which would witness the birth of his Mixed Martial Arts career.
His parents swapped Lahore for Great Falls, Virginia, and Ahmad says he grew up without facing the prejudice that has accompanied some of the recent rhetoric surrounding the recent GOP debates – rhetoric that has left him feeling “isolated” and “degraded.”
Now, as Pakistan’s most famous MMA fighter competing in Asia’s ONE Championship franchise, Ahmad has both the profile and the platform to speak out.
“When I hear somebody like Trump, it’s like a comedy,” Ahmad told CNN.
“It’s frightening that he has taken control of the American mob – that’s what his whole campaign is based on.
“It was like, ‘Who hates Muslims more?’” he says of the debates between the Republican party candidates.
Ahmad, who runs the most successful MMA gym in Pakistan out of Lahore and retains business interests in the U.S., may be what he terms a “global citizen” but the upsurge in attention surrounding the American Muslim community has shocked him.
While he spends much of his time working and competing abroad, the man known as the “Godfather of MMA in Pakistan” keeps an eye on the country for which he was prepared to lay down his life in Iraq.
He was the man his unit in Mosul would look to in order to reassure locals; his presence and the name on his uniform would often defuse potentially dangerous situations.
Yet, now, the same name that once proved so valuable on the streets of Mosul in saving American lives is now the one he believes is being targeted by those who feel Muslims should not be allowed to enter the U.S.
“I couldn’t believe it was 2015 and I was listening to stuff like this – you wonder how much of U.S. society is being influenced by thinking like this,” he says of the GOP debates.
“The fact Trump gets support hurts my heart a bit. One of the greatest ways towards peace is for people to sit down together and realize they’re not so different.”
Trump, one of the frontrunners for the Republican nomination, announced last year – in the wake of the deadly mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, by suspected ISIS sympathizers – that he would ban Muslims from entering the U.S. “until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”
He has also previously called for surveillance against mosques and said he was receptive to establishing a database for all Muslims living in the U.S.
For Ahmad, who makes his living fighting with his fists rather than arguing with politicians, those kind of policies take him back to his time at college.
After returning from Iraq to complete his political science major at George Mason University in Virginia, he encountered students who he said had little understanding of the real problems.
Describing himself as “very skeptical of the intentions of the government and what was happening in the world,” Ahmad says his time in the midst of the action focused his mind.
“When I got back to college I just got fed up with so many people talking about something they know so little about,” he says.
“I used to get engaged in these political conversations about Iraq but after coming back it was a little bit pathetic hearing arguments from people who had never been outside the classroom.
“They could have been the guys going on to make the decisions of the future and yet they’d never see the consequences. I kind of detached myself after that.”
Ahmad joined the National Guard in 2002 after listening to a recruitment talk at his college.
He says he decided to live by his mantra that he did not want to wake up one day and wonder, “What if?”
It was then that he headed off to training, though the prospect of seeing any action remained thin.
“The National Guard training was like being in one of those ‘Police Academy’ comedy movies,” Ahmad jokes.
“I was one of the most serious guys there. Going to Iraq? We didn’t even get to go to the gas station.
“So when I returned to college after training, I didn’t really expect much.”
In 2003, life began to change for Ahmad as the U.S. invaded Iraq.
That news was greeted with a premonition that he would suddenly be thrust into the action – one which would come to fruition.
In March 2004, Ahmad arrived in Iraq and began his tour of duty as a medic in an EOD unit (explosive ordnance disposal) working around Mosul.
He was on standby whenever the call came in that an IED had been located, just in case his services were required.
“I was the only Muslim soldier and so everyone assumed I spoke Arabic,” Ahmad says.
In reality, he didn’t.
“But most of the time, Iraqis would see the name ‘Ahmad’ on my uniform and ask if I was Muslim – then they would be OK with me.
“I could defuse a lot of situations and tension would subside and people would be more sympathetic to us.”
Ahmad served in Iraq between March 2004 and February 2005 – a period of his life which he credits with the birth of his fascination with MMA.
It was a long and often arduous time and, as someone who was outspoken of his disillusionment with U.S. foreign policy, he often sought other avenues to cure his frustrations.
“When I was in Iraq there were times when I had a lot of downtime and I’d spend that either reading about MMA or practicing,” he says.
“As a kid I was very into Muhammad Ali and his life – I found that MMA was my therapy.
“I would wake up at 3 a.m. some nights and go to the bag and start practicing – that was an important part of my life when I was there.
“It was a hobby but a very obsessive hobby – it helped me to de-stress and that continued when I got back to the U.S.”
There he continued with his passion for martial arts and took up a street fighting class.
From then on it was a rapid ascent into the world of Japanese and Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
The extra outlets let Ahmad burn off the worries and anxieties which had surfaced from his time in Iraq.
“People had it much, more worse than me,” he says.
“It was very apparent to me that it had affected me because I got back in February and went to Pakistan and was thinking, ‘Whoah, this is scary.’
“I had been going ever since I was young and it was usually very enjoyable but now driving through Lahore I’m thinking, ‘I don’t have a weapon or body armor.’
“My hand twitched (towards where my gun would’ve been) while I was sitting in the car, and I noticed noises a lot more. The 4th of July wasn’t an enjoyable day.”
The combination of his time in Iraq and the frustration with college life, which he returned to after serving, led to him planning a future away from the U.S.
Ahmad moved to Thailand for a year to train in MMA before going on to Pakistan to set up the next chapter of his life.
Fed up with college and the opinions of his peers, who he says “would go on to make the decisions in the the world but never see any of the action,” he sought solace in MMA.
Ahmad had to get out – he didn’t even attend his own graduation.
While his parents had expected him to come back to the U.S. after his time in Thailand, Ahmad had other ideas.
After a couple of months working, he was soon on an airplane to Pakistan clutching a one-way ticket and dreaming of becoming the country’s MMA man.
He headed to Lahore and rented out an apartment above a shop that he kitted out as a gym – albeit a rather basic one.
He became close friends with his grandmother’s former driver, as they maintained the facilities while sleeping on the gym mats at night.
Slowly but surely, the venture began to take off with groups of kids coming to learn MMA and spreading the word on social media.
The surge in popularity has led to four expansions and a move into the central district of Lahore, where hundreds of enthusiasts now train at Ahmad’s Synergy Gym.
“We’ve got a real broad mix of people coming in,” he says.
“We have people in the music industry, film industry – and people who can’t read or write.
“For Pakistan, that’s a huge deal because social hierarchy is very strong.”
Star in the making
With the business succeeding in Lahore and his family settled in the United States, Bashir flits between the two.
His One Championship career is beginning to take off.
Three wins from his past six fights and with a huge following across Asia, Ahmad is becoming Pakistan’s warrior figure.
That’s not bad for a guy who says he’d never considered becoming a professional fighter.
“It wasn’t the plan,” he said before his defeat by Jimmy Yabo of the Philippines in Jakarta, Indonesia last weekend.
“But after the army I knew I wanted to get serious.
“To do that I had put myself in a situation to see if I was any good – which meant going into an environment where I could could get hurt.
“So I used the MMA competitions and although I came late to the sport – my first professional fight was at the age of 30 – I did well.”
While he remains focused on the fight ahead of him inside the cage, the political battle for the White House remains of some interest.
Ahmad, who moved to the U.S. from Pakistan after his father found work in Great Falls, Virginia, is all too aware of the hysteria being whipped up during the presidential campaign.
While the 33-year-old featherweight recalls facing little prejudice during his youth, he says he had particular problems when traveling out of JFK airport in New York.
Now, older, and a parent, he is beginning to wonder what kind of America his son will face.
“As a parent, I wonder how the future will affect him,” Ahmad says.
“I have to think about him – but I have a lot of hope in what America is about, even though bad things can be said and some can side with negativity towards Muslims.
“I still think tolerance and peace will win out and I think that’s where America is going.”