KARACHI: What makes a middle-class Karachi born-and-bred pack his bags, put his studies on hold, leave his family behind and relocate to a different city?
A love interest.
Not of a muse, but of the blood, sweat and tears that come with the grueling sport of mixed martial arts (MMA).
“It was love at first sight; the perfect match,” explains Shahid, with a madness that says he is the kind of guy who would ditch his date if there’s a possibility of a sparring session. “I just love MMA. It’s my lifelong passion.”
First day of the rest of his life
Circa 2008, Shahid watched a rerun of Chuck Liddell knocking out fellow UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture on AXN and got instantly hooked.
He wanted to rule the cage and throw down like the mohawk-sporting wild American. Before that though, he needed to combat the daily grind of school, college, job, house chores and social expectations.
Buried deep under a pile of books, a typical Karachi teen rarely dabbles into sports. Do so and “you would amount to nothing,” and “you’re throwing your life away” are often thrown at you. The support only comes when you make it, never before.
In the midst of this nonexistent sporting culture and parents’ deep-rooted desire to saddle their tots with textbooks, Shahid’s decision to dedicate his life to the seemingly blood-curdling world of cagefighting was, and even is, considered madness.
The lie behind Lahore
The second child of two career educationists, Shahid on one fine morning, dropped the bombshell. “I’m going to Lahore, and I’m going to stay there,” he told his perplexed parents before smoothing things with a half-truth (or a half-lie) — one of many he has had to tell over the years to justify his trips to Lahore. “I’ve gotten an accounting job there.”
The old couple breathes a sigh of relief.
But the ‘job’ he was referring to was an apprenticeship at MMA pioneer Bashir Ahmad’s rundown gym near Lahore’s Ghazi Road; at the time an excuse of a facility, located in a dingy apartment and aptly named The Slaughterhouse for the chaos it harboured.
Shahid did handle the accounts, but only after squaring accounts with sparring partners in the cage and on the mat.
Nightmare start to career
Hollywood tells us to chase your dreams and you will get rewarded. But that’s in the movies, this was real life.
Shahid had taken the leap of faith but had precious little skill to go with his raw passion. In his first amateur bout, he got gassed in round three. “I can’t recall who won that one,” he says, but his tone gives away the secret.
The pounding he took from Sarim Rahim in his second amateur fight was too severe to let him forget who lost. “Yeah, I was stopped in the third round and was very disheartened after that,” he said. “I came back and started a job with a construction company.”
A meaningless job, he knew would get him nowhere.
Some soul-searching later, he entered the ring once again; only this time better trained and more motivated. Against Afghanistan’s Nangyalai Nikzad at Fighting Alliance 1, he put up a valiant fight and went the distance, but nonetheless lost.
0-2 became 0-3. And with it came soul-searching round two.
The tide turns
One advice often offered to fighters is to not enter the cage unless fully committed. MMA is not a sport for those caught in two minds.
Shahid, with three defeats on his resume, wasn’t fully committed. He was an amateur fighter with an immature approach; travelling a couple times to a different city and getting beat up. The permanent relocation, mentioned all so dramatically above, and the changing of gyms from Karachi’s 3G MMA to Bashir’s Lahore-based Synergy helped him get over the hump.
Surrounded by professional fighters and with a ready supply of Bashir’s knowledge to draw upon, the now single-minded Shahid was, for once, fully committed.
It’s no surprise he won his next fight — a split decision against Haider Ali in March 2016. Having finally found someone he could defeat, Shahid wasn’t going to let go of Haider this easily.
A month later, he would batter Haider in similar fashion at FA3 to notch his second straight win.
At FA4 and FA5, he picked up two more wins over Mohammad Ibrahim and Hafiz Masood, the second one coming via a TKO — the first time he stopped a man.
Then on March 26 came the highest of his highs. Making his international debut in Bangkok, Shahid knocked out Thai-American William T May at Dogfights Championship and returned home with a belt around his waist.
The belt may not have UFC embossed on it and may be made of cheap leather, but it represents a personal triumph more than anything else.
The Shahid of Karachi, who at one point couldn’t find his way past local competition, was now a KO winner at international level. If anyone’s counting, that’s his fifth win in a row.
‘I love what I do’
Blood, sweat and tears remain true in a proverbial sense in most sports, but in MMA things take quite a literal turn. A cagefighter puts his body through hell during training, doing intense cardio, sparring and weight cutting. There’s your sweat.
The layers of rules have made the sport safer, but at its core MMA is combat. On a good day, a bloody face is a common sighting. On a bad day, it is the least of your concerns.
Tears too have a deep and very real connection with MMA. No matter how big a sport or how grander the defeat, none even compare to the humiliation of getting your butt kicked in front of a live audience. This is not about leaking goals or conceding runs, this is about a human being completely subjugating another, physically and often mentally. There is no fun in that. If a losing world cup finalist is an emotional wreck, a defeated MMA fighter is a wreck in every sense of the word.
It would be logical to walk away from this sport — low as the rewards are — but Shahid is here on logic.
“There’s little money and I am not a household name,” he says. “I didn’t take this sport for money anyway. I am comfortable in my own skin and content with what I have or will have in future. Of course, I have set some goals for myself, which include the holy grail of fighting in the UFC. If that happens, the rewards will come, but even if it doesn’t, I will have no regrets choosing this career. I love what I do.”
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