Contrary to what you are used to inside the cage, I will be starting off easy. You go by the name Bashir ‘Somchai’ Ahmad. Please tell us something about the word itself and why you decided to adopt it for yourself.
BA: The name “Somchai” is a name I picked up in Thailand. It became my fighting nickname. It means “like a man” It is similar to a root word, like they have in Arabic, signifying ‘male’. It is very often used in poetry, fables and song to denote a male character.
I got it when I first went to Thailand. I used to eat at the same restaurant many times and the restaurant owner couldn’t say ‘Bashir’, so he named me ‘Somchai’. Any time a Thai person couldn’t say my name, I would give them my Thai name and it stuck.
If we need anything from the government, we need help arranging visas for athletes to come to Pakistan, we need some kind of partnership with us to enforce safety and ethics and finally we need help in securing the use of sporting venues
I spent two years training in Thailand and I even speak Thai. I trained at some of the most authentic and rugged camps in the country. I essentially lived like a pehlwan does here and lives at the akhara in the traditional way of the pehlwan. Therefore, when I started fighting in MMA, I kept the same nickname. Thailand had a large influence on me.
Prior to beginning your MMA career, you completed U.S. military service and are an Iraq war veteran. What impact has that experience had on, firstly, you as a person and, secondly, on your fighting style?
BA: The Iraq war was understandably a very powerful experience in my life. I saw the best and the worst of humanity from all parties, American and Iraqi. It eliminated any idea of what is black and white and put the world in a grey area for me. It made me see how fragile we really are as people and that death is not a hidden reality, but something experienced and talked about on a daily basis. My time in the army in general has shaped what I feel about teamwork, about perseverance and pushing onward and what it means to be a warrior.
Regarding my fighting style, I think it has played a role in my ‘kill or be killed’ attitude in the ring. When I was in Iraq, there was a saying you would see written all over the base and on equipment – “An ounce of luck, is worth a pound of training.” No matter how much you train or prepare there is that element of unpredictability that can end everything. In war, it could be walking over a landmine or being shot by a sniper. In MMA, it could be where you get KO’ed out of nowhere even if you’re winning the fight. I think that is part of my reason I can get aggressive in the ring: there is something about biting down on your mouthpiece and unleashing the warrior inside you – and it has given me a ‘live and die by the sword’ style at times. My wartime experience influences my fighting spirit. When I go into the cage I am prepared for death, because when you go to war that is what a soldier must do.
When you eventually did decide upon relocating to Pakistan, what plans did you have in mind and how have they changed in all these years? What challenges did you face when trying to set up Synergy, back in 2012, which has now grown to become one of the biggest gyms in Pakistan?
BA: When I first came to Pakistan with the sole intention of promoting MMA, I honestly told myself I would try to spend a couple of months here and set up a gym where different instructors would come and offer their skills in various arts like Karate, Judo and Wrestling and then leave – my job now complete. But getting people to work together like that was not an easy task and with each passing week my responsibilities and projects grew, my network of friends and supporters grew and two months became two years before I even knew it. My original intention was to raise awareness amongst the martial artists about MMA and get them on board, let them know that MMA was an avenue where they could turn their skills into a real career and not a plastic medal or a few thousand rupees. The future was MMA. Aside from the fellow pioneers who had a martial arts background like TFF, Pakido and 3G, many others ended up not listening to me, though now most have come around. Because most of the existing martial artists weren’t as supportive as I thought, what ended up happening was that people new to martial arts started coming to me and newly minted teams like TFF and 3G. So almost all our current MMA talent is from people who were brand new seven years ago.
Setting up Synergy was never really a challenge. I marketed Synergy differently than other dojos and though things were slow at first, I did better than most martial artists considering how new I was. The biggest issue I suppose I had was teaching new guys because no one had any experience and hence I had no senior sparring partners to guide them. Now, on the other hand, when a new person joins Synergy, he has senior teammates that have been training for a number of years and that increases how fast a person learns. Therefore, exponentially you’re going to see better and better fighters coming out of Pakistan. I have said it before and I will say it again: I am not going to be known as Pakistan’s best fighter, but I may be known as the greatest.
We understand that setting up a gym that is equipped with state-of-the-art machinery and MMA-focused equipment along with the introduction of Pak Fight Club and other bodies requires both money and time. Are you being supported financially by any private investors who adore the game or is Bashir Ahmad paying out of his own pocket?
BA: Actually, setting up an MMA gym is nowhere near expensive as setting up a bodybuilding or solely fitness gym. No treadmills, no machines, not too many weights. That being said, I put my entire life savings into MMA in Pakistan. And I continue to put what I earn from the sport back into growth of the sport in the country. At first it was slow but as Synergy grew I was able to support myself from my gym as I worked to promote MMA in Pakistan. Throughout the years, various individuals have supported the efforts of PAKMMA projects, and there are too many to thank. Those who cannot help financially have done so through their time and skills like graphic designers, writers, musicians and many, many more from fields that would surprise you. I thank all of these people and every single one of them has put their efforts into laying the foundation of what we can now call Pakistani MMA.
As for the scene, this sport is going to rival cricket. I believe that
Pak Fight Club was actually a venture from a Pakistani American named Zainulabedin Shah. He took a major risk to have an MMA series in Pakistan when there was not really a scene here. He helped boost the scene and was a critical factor in Pakistani MMA’s early growth but unfortunately it was not a viable option at the time. I helped him as much as I could but unfortunately, we had some different opinions on whether MMA events were a lucrative venture. I knew that it would be a few more years before people would pay for tickets and in fact even today, we are still holding free events just to continue building momentum to create an environment where MMA events can be a self-sustaining venture.
Turning MMA into a commercial industry is very important because it helps keep those passionate about the sport capable of supporting themselves and their families through MMA. I have said to many people that I want this sport so big that the person who hosts a weekly TV show on MMA in Pakistan is a star in his own right and making decent money from a large sports industry.
You have pointed this out previously and everybody realises that perhaps Pakistan is too consumed by cricket that it often leaving no breathing space for other sports. How do you plan on penetrating or, more appropriately, creating a new market for other sports? Have you received government support in any form, either financially or a more welcoming attitude towards it?
BA: It’s simple: keep doing what we are doing. We have made so much progress in the past seven years that at this rate we will be a substantially followed domestic sport in five years. I have no doubts about that. I have a fan following. Uloomi Karim has a fan following. Ahmed Mujtaba has a fan following. Tell me of any other sport in Pakistan other than cricket that has a growing number of athletes with fan followings? As everyone continues to push ahead on the same path and on the same mission that we set out on seven years ago, we will get there. I have no doubts about this.
Now how do we do it? By making it entertaining, by creating stars, by holding events and by continuing to reach out to the media to cover the things we are doing.
We have received no government support and I have been vocal in stating that we don’t need it. If we need anything from the government, we need help arranging visas for athletes to come to Pakistan, we need some kind of partnership with us to enforce safety and ethics and finally we need help in securing the use of sporting venues.
What, in your view, are the good, bad and ugly sides of the commercialisation of sports, especially of course MMA, and how are they facilitated by the opportunities available in a country like Pakistan?
BA: Let’s start with the good. Commercialisation means that market forces come into play. The good part of commercialisation of sports is that it activates the power of the public and the private sector. When there is money, there is incentive to get involved. When people get involved things happen. Sponsors come on board, and competing brands and organisations try to outdo each other to become the better product. Commercialisation encourages development and professionalism.
The bad side is that the direction of the sport is now too often directed by solely money. The commercialisation of anything results in the loss of its original purity and artistry. So instead of espousing a culture of the warrior poet, and respect and honour among the athletes, you see that decision makers are now encouraging behavior that is anti-social but is attracting more viewers. People begin trash-talking to get attention to themselves. Women (and men) are objectified and sexualised to sell the brand. I don’t like the loud-mouthed antics and disrespectful attitudes shown by many of the world’s top MMA fighters, that’s not the type of behaviour I would encourage children to model themselves after.
The ugly side is unethical people becoming attracted to the sport and then using people, in particular fighters, to benefit only themselves. This is where you have the appearance of slimeball promotors like Don King, someone who Mike Tyson has said “would sell his mother for a dollar.” The ugly side is people’s lives being ruined for someone else benefit. But that is something not particular to sports but the greedy side of life in general.
We realise, you realise and we are certain that investors do as well the value of being an early sponsor of emerging sports. Sports like Formula E, UFC and eSports are giving rise to a raft of lucrative sponsorship opportunities for brands that get involved early. Do you think you can attract the private sector to invest in MMA? What is your strategy and have you been approached by any sponsors yet?
BA: We have approached sponsors and sponsors have approached us. We have had some success with sponsors and sponsor support has grown alongside the sport in general. We have not yet met the visionary sponsor who sees the potential to buy an entire sport at a bargain price. Sponsorship of Rs. 1 crore (10,000,000) for one year would be like a jet fuel injection for this rapidly growing sport that is teetering on the edge of going mainstream. After that, 1 crore will seem like a drop in the bucket. I can tell you this much: we have already attracted the attention of some star cricketers. See Inzamam ul-Haq, Mushtaq Ahmad and Irfan Muhammad make their appearance very soon – not in fighting though.
As you must already be aware, almost all leagues and events have had to add elements into the sports that make it entertaining along with it being competitive. Can MMA in Pakistan provide that to its fans? If yes, then in what ways?
BA: MMA events in Pakistan have already done that. Go to almost any martial art event in Pakistan and they are almost the same. Large government events like the national games and small district events too are not fan friendly. They are not organised, they don’t start on time, they don’t keep the audience engaged, there is no hype or entertainment value. The MMA events in Pakistan we have held last for some three hours and there are lights, sound and music, fighters enter with a proper walk-out and there is a festive atmosphere. Anyone who comes to a live MMA event always has a great time. We don’t need to change anything except continue to get better as we have already been.
None of the two local sports channels, PTV Sports and Geo Super, have ever shown an MMA contest although they have recently begun showing Amir Khan’s boxing matches. Does this act as a barrier between those who want to promote and develop the sport and the general public? These channels get away by claiming that there is simply not enough demand for the sport in Pakistan. How do you escape this vicious loop?
BA: Even 2-3 years ago, for the media to say there was not enough demand was fair. It is not the case now, and 2017 may be the year when we start having our events covered. I feel that the timing is fine now because our events are better and will be enjoyable if covered live. It’s a young sport so at first people weren’t that experienced in holding events but everyone is almost on the same page now and live coverage will show the domestic audience how far we have come – and I am sure it’s going to get an amazing response.
Although now its glory has started to fade, Pakistan has always admired the sport of kushti. Do you have an eye towards history and think that pitching the sport as being somehow rooted in the kushti tradition could help in creating a more relatable image in the minds of the general public? How, if at all, can MMA benefit from the rich history of the well-established kushti tradition in Pakistan?
BA: I have always wanted kushti to get involved. From the very get-go, linking up with the pehlwan community was at the top of the agenda. However, as you can see in the video, we really didn’t have much incentive for them (that Fite Selector thing never came to fruition – first of many such instances). Now we have a precedent and we have success stories to show them and give them a reason to get involved. In fact, we already have a few pehlwans coming to Synergy and you will see them make their MMA debuts in 2017. This partnership will revive kushti and will give MMA a huge crop of fighters with a very strong base in a critical element of the game. MMA made wrestling stronger in the USA and it can do the same here. More youth will want to take up kushti as a development system into MMA. Wrestlers who are top level but aren’t making the money that Rustam-e-Pakistan does, have another avenue. And in time maybe Rustam-e-Pakistan title holders will make an assumed next step into MMA. Let’s see.
For any sport to flourish in a country, it needs homegrown players and figures that they can look up to. Barring you and Ahmad Mujtaba, hardly any names come to mind. While Connor McGregor’s trash talk over the years has indeed garnered some attention, there simply is not enough of driving factors. How do you plan on coaxing this crowd to step into the cage?
BA: The next stars are already lined up, it’s just a matter of working their way into the media with a few solid wins internationally. The fighters are getting better and better and this is just the beginning. Each fighter sees what the ones before him did for success and recognition and there are a lot of young hungry guys out there working very hard to get their chance and many are going to make it. It’s an exciting time.
Finally, Bashir Ahmad, after leading MMA into a more impactful era in Pakistan and working one-on-one with many individuals, have you come across any youngsters who have the fire to make it to the top level and succeed there? In ten yeas’ time, where will Bashir Ahmad be standing and where will Pakistan’s MMA scene be standing?
BA: I have a couple of guys under me that in 10 years’ time have the potential to be legit world champions. Other gyms like TFF, 3G and Pakido do as well. There is fire in a lot of kids. The main issue with some of them not getting ahead is that they expect success quickly, it is those that work hard for years that get a chance to crack into achieving their dream. We have a huge population with a huge genetic pool. We have no shortage of people who have some scary abilities hidden away in themselves, or that have unbreakable resolve and focus.
In ten years Bashir Ahmad, is going to be hopefully finishing up his career. I plan to compete into my mid 40’s as long as I don’t sustain too much damage in my career. I will continue to mentor the MMA industry not only in Pakistan but Asia and maybe even globally. I will open up my dream gym and will continue coaching and mentoring another generation of martial artists.
As for the scene, this sport is going to rival cricket. I believe that. The only way i don’t see that happening is if another sport starts now to model itself with what MMA is doing and that quite frankly can be summed up in two words: “look cool.” Any attempt to promote a sport in Pakistan the same way it has been done with other sports is not going to make it. People too often look for government support first and results second. So, unless other sports start taking an audience friendly approach in Pakistan, it is going to be MMA and cricket and then maybe boxing and wrestling as a result of MMA bringing it up in the wake of its own success. So yeah, you could say I see a bright future ahead. If we look at the growth that MMA has made in the last five years and expect the same speed of growth, there is nothing that can stop us from being one of the most talked-about sports in the country.