Tough love ❤ fight clubs

Audacious photo stories of moral imagination, by a 2014 Acumen Global Fellow, placed in Pakistan.

April, 3 2014 — Islamabad, capital of Pakistan

Discovering tough love, humility and incredible hospitality in MMA fight clubs.
The earth is full of love. Sometimes we have to dig — deep, but inside the soil is soul …

After Pakistan’s independence in 1947, Karachi was its first capital. Traditionally, development in Pakistan was focused on the colonial center of Karachi. In 1960, Islamabad was constructed as the new strategic, and forward capital of Pakistan.

In comparison to other cities, Islamabad is overwhelmingly developed. To begin with, you’re not faced with the onslaught of loud rickshaws zigzagging through traffic. Instead, the city has an old but reliable taxi service. Roads are broad, cars drive in lanes and people adhere to traffic signals. The charming city of Islamabad is nestled inside scenic mountains, with picturesque views, lots of green land and a relatively pleasant climate. You’d think you’ve walked into a different country, especially if you’re coming from the outskirts of Cholistan Desert.

During a spontaneous May Day trip to the city, one of the first things I did upon arrival was to quench my thirst for a quick fix of boxing. Considering Islamabad’s cosmopolitan status I figured my chances of finding something here were better than anywhere else in Pakistan.

I did a random search on the internet for boxing clubs. To my surprise there were a handful of results. One of them was a blogger who goes by the name “The Diesel Diva”. Diesel Diva is a “50-something” expat lady who appeared to travel around the world discovering new sports and then writing about them. One of her articles wrote about her encounter with MMA fighters in Islamabad. However, at the end of the tantalizing read, all I was left with was an email address and no location information of the place she’d reviewed.

So, I wrote an email on the off chance that perhaps I’ll find at minimum a bag to punch. What I got instead was an in kind invitation to spar that same evening. With no expectations I arrive at the building. From outside it looked run-down, and with no electricity and no lights it probably looked worse than it was. Inside, it was a fighters fortress and this became a serendipitous encounter with Pakistan’s real-life warrior’s. Unexpectedly I’d just walked into a training session with Pakistan’s upcoming champion MMA fighters, who were training for their biggest competition in the region, taking place next month.

My first thoughts were, sh!t, what have I done? From past experience, I know the intensity and velocity these guys train with. And they weren’t about to change anything for an inexperienced, at best, a curious guest.

I made myself known to Ehtisham the person who I had exchanged emails with. Without any small talk, I was promptly shown the changing area and within minutes of arriving I was warming up, running laps around a small square room. The sense of urgency and discipline spoke magnitudes for their professionalism.

This is unlike my past experiences in Pakistan where too often the “unnees / bees” rule applies. A Urdu saying which literally means 19/20. Implying that its ‘neither here nor there, a minor difference’. Its used for most instances where an excuse is required and can be interpreted as patronizing — whether its a colleague late for a meeting or when Pakistan’s national airline failed to show up on time for a pre booked flight, with nothing in the way of an explanation.

As I continue sprinting, my initial fear subsides, instead I become ever so more intrigued by their exemplary commitment.

Ehtisham and Sultan are self-taught Pakistani MMA fighters. They founded Fight Fortress some 5 years ago. It started off as a grassroots project to encourage local youth off the streets of Islamabad. Most of the funding is from their own day time jobs and a few paying members to sustain the project and venue. Today they are training Pakistan’s next generation of professional MMA fighters.

On the surface the duo look like bad ass fighters, but I immediately felt a strong sense of comradery, coupled with unconditional kinship, like brother-in-arms. Originally from Hunza, northern Pakistan these two fellas are the epitome of tough love and humility, with incredible hospitality thrown in for good measure.

To the layman these types of traits aren’t typically associated with fighters, but as Ehtisham put it, this is what ‘differentiates glory from defeat’. As we slow down from our sprint, he eloquently describes … ‘gasping for breath and recklessly pacing back and forth, is counterproductive, you might as well throw in the towel. Instead … focus on breathing slower and deeper from the stomach’, ultimately collaborating your gravitas, he goes on to add:

‘This controls the mind, so its no longer in a state of fury, re-enabling rational thought; this is vital for winning fighters who are under constant threat.’

About midway through our training a few new faces show up, with kitbags, they were obviously here to train. In their mother-tongue Burushaski combined with Urdu, Ehtisham and Sultan speak to them with determination and authority. The young trainers hover around with subdued defiance, or at least an attempt. The rest of us stop and use the time to have a sneaky break. As I tried to make sense of the situation, Ehtisham sees us and shouts, ‘get up, don’t stop!’ Their exchange continues, this time Ehtisham is speaking to them in English, again, with determination, outwardly refusing them entry and essentially escorting them out of the premises. The guys were visually disappointed.

After an unprecedented two hours later, completely wrecked, our session ends. I ask them what the confrontation was about. They go on to explain how some of these guys are the best MMA fighters he has for next months competition, but he can not tolerate lack of punctuality. These young fighters were almost an hour late. Sultan explains that these guys are excellent fighters but with that attitude they will not be winners. They must understand the importance of punctuality.

The hardest part of this was the fact that, one of the late comers sent home by Ehtisham was his younger brother. I can see and feel that it wasn’t easy for him to reject his own brother, who I’m sure he’s going to see later that evening. Everyday Ehtisham and Sultan selflessly bring themselves wholeheartedly; the least they deserve is uncompromisable punctuality. Their sense of the greater good in why they do what they do is what drives them and they lead with example.

At this point I’m in complete awe of these guys. Considering what is going on in some parts of Pakistan, where apathy and the lack of punctuality and discipline seem to be ingrained in the fabric of its society.

Ehtisham and Sultan are a living embodiment of tough love, in action. Their wisdom considering their situation is mind-blowing. At first sight you wouldn’t expect this of their menacing exterior, but their exemplary ways are testament of the hope that exists in Pakistan.

… If you look deep-enough, inside the soil is soul.

Thank you Team Fight Fortress for an invigorating session. Keep up the love, energy and dedication and the incredible work you're doing.

Fight Fortress:
Better Bodies Gym, 5th floor,
D-Chowk, Main Jinnah Avenue,
Blue Area.