“Ismail Khan made us proud when he became the first Pakistani to win the medal at the IMMAF (International Mixed Martial Arts Federation) World Championships, and now there are more kids who want to reach higher now,” a very proud coach and mentor Nasir Khan Yousafzai explains what the title by the 22-year-old means for Pakistan.
Ismail’s journey and the achievement is an illustration of the immense talent Pakistan possess and how a small club with small steps and a love of community can bring stellar results on the international stage.
Ismail bagged the bronze medal at the IMMAF World Championships in Abu Dhabi after an impressive run on January 26. He remained a formidable opponent for top fighters, taking down Greece’s Giannis Balampanidis in the first round, beating Tajikistan’s Amir Hamza Islamovin the second fight and then he pulled a massive upset when he defeated Italy’s Fidel Gramiccia through a unanimous decision.
He only faltered in the next fight against Russia’s Shakhban Gapizov that meant Ismail had to settle for the bronze in the bantam weight event.
“He only lost that fight against Shakhban because of the head injury, which was unfortunate,” Yousafzai told The Express Tribune. “It was a mishap really, because we were really expecting a gold from Ismail, but this is still a huge achievement because no one has gotten the medal in this event before. The IMMAF is also affiliated with Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and this certainly opens a pathway for our fighters. Ismail has the potential to even win a gold medal too.”
Yousafzai added that the officials and his club were expecting an India versus Pakistan match up too with India’s Ganesh Raj being in the tournament, however, the latter lost and the tantalising fixture did not happen.
Finding Ismail’s roots
For a boy from Rawalpindi who has a day job on the counter of a store, Yousafzai explains that the victory and the campaign at the IMMAF World Championships speaks volumes of the talent and dedication of Ismail, who was chosen to be a part of Pak Mixed Martial Arts Federation squad.
Yousafzai also explains that Ismail is financially better off than other fighters in the area.
“It has been a huge feat because there is a criterion to get selected for the championship; they choose the top fighters, 30 of them in each of the weight categories from around the world, and this time around Ismail made the cut,” said Yousafzai.
The Pak MMAF sent a contingent of athletes for the event that also included a female fighter, while Ismail’s performance made the mark on the debut of the PAK MMAF in the event.
Yousafzai said that Ismail had been training diligently since Novemberwith him and another instructor at the KAK Academy, which is located near Nasirabad Market in Rawalpindi.
“We found out about this event in November and then we made sure that we did not leave any stone unturned when it came to training,” said Yousafzai, 31, who started the KAK Fight Club in memory of his friend and MMA teacher Kashif Ali Khan.
He said that the cold winter and the conditions in Rawalpindi were enough to push his fighter to the limit.
“We are not some hi-fi academy. We have mats and in winter it gets very cold. The conditions are harsh too. The environment is there to push the athletes, but truth be told we don’t have a lot of good facilities. We trained hard every day, in fact the event scheduled to take place earlier at a different venue. It was because of the Covid-19 restrictions that the tournament took place later in Abu Dhabi,” said Yousafzai.
KAK Fight Club Rawalpinidi started when Yousafzai lost his mentor and friend in a road accident only after a year from when he started training for MMA.
The love for his friend and care for the youth of the area makes KAK Academy’s core and mostly fuels Yousafzai’s drive to make a mark in the MMA world.
“We are a small club really, but we have other boys besides Ismail too. We also have our instructor Muhammad Salman who works with the boys. We have a very close-knit community. The fighters come from the surrounding areas and we manage this club. We even organise fights with other clubs in the city, like our rivals Fight Fortress,” Yousafzai explained.
Humble community of fighters
Yousafzai’s role as a fighter and also a software engineer with a degree from Islamic University in Islamabad, where he also met his mentor is crucial. However, he feels that the fighters of his community deserve better and at least some attention from the government. His club has 20 to 25 fighters at the moment.
“We have our children, our fighters working as loaders. Loading goods in the fruit market for only Rs1000 a day, so that is how our fighters are making ends meet,” said Yousafzai.
He explained that despite financial strains the community supports the boys to go on and fight and there is encouragement for them to pursue sports.
“I can tell you an incident. Abdul Mannan was just seven or eight years old when he joined us and while training he broke his shoulder bone and we got scared. We took him to the hospital, but then at night we brought him home. We told his elder brother what had happened and to our surprise he said that injuries are a part of the sport. We all breathed a sigh of relief since it was a generous gesture from the family,” said Yousafzai. Abdul Mannan is currently thriving as a fighter at a young age of 16.
But the government needs to pay mind to the generation of boys who are hardworking and dedicated to make their mark in the world through MMA.
One such example is the teenager, 16-year-old Mohib Khan.
The youngster is not only providing for his family, as his older sibling is troubled with addiction, he has to work doubly hard to make ends meet and still he finds the drive and keeps the fire alight for the sport.
“Mohib’s day starts at midnight. He goes to the market and begins his job of loading and unloading the fruits. He gets done by eight in the evening and gets back home around 10pm, earning just Rs1,000 for the night’s work, and sleeps. He then comes to the club at three in the afternoon and trains with us. That is his day, but we know he deserves more than this,” said Yousafzai, understanding that there is a lot of expectations from the academy and the fighters are earnest and hardworking youngsters who can bring laurels to the country, and Ismail’s feat at the IMMAF World Championships is just a beginning.
More than cricket
For the betterment of the youth and MMA fighters, the government and the sponsors will need to looks away from cricket a bit.
“Cricket is not everything. If the government can support other sports, if they can support us and these youngsters, then they can do so much for the country. This is my request, the government should look at the talent here too,” concluded Yousafzai, as he points out that with other things, the momentum from Ismail’s win will continue as the IMMAF World Championship bronze medallist will take on Egypt’s Muhammad Abo Ali in the Legacy Fight Series on March 6 at Moin Khan Academy in Karachi.