Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Road to One FC: Champions vs Warriors Bashir Ahmad's Hurt Locker

This appears in the Monday, August 19, 2013 edition of the Business Mirror.

Bashir Ahmad’s Hurt Locker
by rick olivares

In military parlance, a “hurt locker” is that area where an explosive device is set off and one where no one wants to be at the time of its detonation. For Bashir Ahmad who served a tour of duty in Iraq with the US Army as a combat medic assigned to an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Team – I am sure you’ve seen that Jeremy Renner film, “The Hurt Locker” that tells the story of one such team – that term has now come to mean the cage where mixed martial arts fighter engage in combat.

The 30-year old Ahmad has made that transition from soldier to a fighter. It’s an irony of sorts that leads the Pakistani-American to grin and reflect on his current occupation.

He joined the military as a medic during his more carefree days because it was “the one job that was the complete opposite of what war is which is death and destruction.” The 5’7” Ahmad remembered watching war films and the medics were always the characters that cared and he began to look up to them.

Shared Ahmad of his time in the Army: “When I joined up, the only thing I wanted to be was a medic. When I was deployed I was happy to be in that role because I did not agree with the US invasion of Iraq. But the fact that I was a medic and my job was to save lives, made me at ease with the situation. Along with treating US soldiers, I also treated Iraqi civilians who did not have regular care to medical facilities and it was a very heart warming experience.”

Amidst the death and destruction, Ahmad looked for anything positive out of the situation. “I was a medic on an EOD team. For those who have seen the movie the "The Hurt Locker" that's EOD. We went out and destroyed explosives. The EOD team was composed of two to three people with about a dozen or so others who would stand guard. I would just stand nearby and sometimes talk with locals. One time we were called out and these kids that were nearby started playing with me then BOOM! Something went off and these children ran away. Although they were safe, they were so frightened and that was when I realized how tragic war is when it affects someone that way. Those children will never be the same for having to spend their childhood in those circumstances. It was a just a simple look of fear but it symbolized to me the tragedy of war.” 

While war can also be destructive on a soldier’s psyche, Ahmad purged himself of Iraq’s demons. From his gym in Lahore, Pakistan, he didn’t hesitate to share his feelings about the conflict. “I have seen injuries on people that would not leave my mind for until well over a year after I returned from my tour of duty. Certain things and even food I ate would remind me of them, and it would scare me that maybe it would never fully leave my mind but they eventually did. Although I can remember them if I wish, it taught me a lesson that what damages a person can also sustain and keep them alive.”

Rather than let the experience consume him as it does to some other combat veterans, Ahmad chose to look at it from a different perspective. He graduated from George Mason University with full honors. “I can say it had a positive impact on who I am. I came away from the experience understanding that war is essentially the suffering of normal people who want to have a normal life between two parties. The soldiers and insurgents know what they are getting into and they agreed to it, but those who suffer the most wish to have no part of it. It's an extremely unfair and tragic situation.” 

After graduation, he took up Mixed Martial Arts because he liked the discipline it taught. Once he learned how good it can be for him, Ahmad moved back to Pakistan, the country of his homeland, to open a gym and teach his countrymen the world’s fastest growing sport.

“I am now based out of Lahore,” added Bashir. “My home gym is there although quite frankly as things get bigger I realize that maybe I do not belong to a specific gym. I feel like I am part of all the MMA gyms in the country. PAKMMA (Pakistan Mixed Martial Arts) is doing great and right now it is going through a bit of a metamorphosis, the results of which we shall see in the next year or two. Before we were just a website and fan page but now the time has come to grow with the changing MMA scene. People are taking up MMA in Pakistan steadily although it has not exploded in the way it has in Southeast Asia, but with time that will happen here too. Kids are not taking up the sport as it is still seen as something for grown ups, similar to the USA. In the USA only recently is it seen as appropriate for kids to do MMA and even then it is not all that common.”

Ahmad won his first MMA fight against compatriot Mohammad Arshad with a rear naked choke in Pak Fight Club at Punjab Stadium in April 14, 2012. It would take almost a year later before he fought his second professional fight and that was during his One Fighting Championship debut at Kings and Champions at the Singapore Indoor Stadium against unbeaten Thai Muay Thai practitioner Shannon Wiratchai.

“I am going to be the first person to defeat Wiratchai,” proclaimed Ahmad. For that fight, he lived and trained in a mosque in Singapore and jokingly referred to himself as a “fighting monk.”

However once inside the cage against Wiratchai, it didn’t look good for Ahmad early on. Referee Senichi Serizawa stopped the fight early in the first round when the Thai cut the area above Ahmad’s eye with a vicious elbow. When the fight resumed, a fired up Ahmad who was able to gain his bearing during the brief stoppage, immediately nailed Wiratchai with a right.

The Thai responded by taking the leg from underneath the Pakistani-American for a second takedown. Wiratchai tried to open up the cut but Ahmad reversed the takedown and pinned him to the fence where he teed off on him. The round ended with the Thai on his back as he was literally saved by the bell.

Ahmad opened the second round with a stinging left. He took down Wiratchai and punished him with some shots before the referee instructed Ahmad to break the clinch that after a while wasn’t going anywhere.

Wiratchai goaded Ahmad to give him something drawing a roar from the crowd. The two would trade shots over the course of the next two rounds but Ahmad proved to land the more telling blows for a unanimous decision win.

My interview with Bashir Ahmad after his fight with Shannon Wiratchai

“The One FC medical staff did a great job of stitching me up after that fight,” recounted Ahmad of that bout where Wiratchai made a bloody mess of his face. “I look fine, you can hardly see the scars. I have learned a lot from that fight and I am glad that it went 15 minutes as it gave me plenty of time in the cage and I think that's very important since I am relatively in experienced in terms of amateur and pro fights. That was my first fight against a legitimate opponent. Shannon had three pro fights and six on a much more competitive (compared to Pakistan) Thai MMA scene. So I was glad I got to spend that time in the cage, and feel confident about my conditioning and feel comfortable. This next fight against (Brazilian No-gi fighter) Bruno Pucci, you are going to see a much much better Bashir Ahmad."  

“I expect Pucci to be a well-rounded fighter and he can expect the same for me. That being said, he is very good on the ground and this is a very interesting situation for me. So for that I have been training with Abu Dhabi Combat Club medalist (and fellow Virginia native) Ryan Hall. He (Hall) is Pucci's size and is a very, very decorated grappler. So, I am going to be coming to the cage very confident of my abilities. I will be prepared for this match. I will have sharpened all my weapons for war. I will have done all I good to come prepared for that night. God will decide the rest. 

With the bout against Pucci a few weeks away, Ahmad, now considered the father of MMA in Pakistan, had time to reflect on everything that has happened including the irony of his chosen path of a warrior who thought that he had seen enough combat. “Being a MMA fighter and being a soldier have many similarities. The biggest is that both require you to endure periods of discomfort and learn that it's not that bad and your body will handle it. You realize that discomfort is all in your mind and that it will never last forever. It always eventually passes. Both require discipline, waking up early and very monotonous routines. The warrior lifestyle is the same no matter where it takes place.” 

On the next Pakistani MMA prospect:
Bashir Ahmad: “Afnan Iftikhar is one of the guys on the scene that you will be seeing more of in the future. He is one of the pioneer fighters of the sport in Pakistan. He is well rounded and has a great understanding of the game. He also helped prepare me for my first One FC fight and was in my corner. So not only is he a good fighter, but he's a good coach.

People never really take the time to think about who trained me for my One FC debut in Pakistan and the general consensus is that I train alone, but everyone knows that that is impossible. Afnan was my coach and my sparring partner for that fight, and as you see it paid off. He's going to the first Main Event at the first show of our new league, PAKMMA Fighting Alliance. It's an amateur league that has one professional main event bout on each card and he will be the first person to honor that slot. Get ready to see more of this guy on the international scene as well. he is also another fighter that has the potential to get to ONE FC. 

On military vets who went on to athletic careers:
Former military men who have gone to athletic careers are nothing new. The world has seen it happen most particularly after World War II when many servicemen went back to playing professional sports.

In American baseball, there were Boston’s Ted Williams, New York’s Yogi Berra, and the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Jackie Williams to name a very few.

In boxing, there’s Ken Norton Sr. and Leon Spinks who both served in the US Marines before their ring careers.

There’s Rocky Bleier of the Pittsburgh Steelers who was wounded in Vietnam to the point where he was told he’d never play pro football again except he did winning several Super Bowls.

There’s professional wrestler Jesse Ventura who was a former US Navy Seal.

In more recent times, there’s David Robinson who served time with the US Navy before playing for the San Antonio Spurs and the Tennessee Titan’s Ahmad Hall who served a tour in Afghanistan before going to the NFL.

Since that last great war, there have been fewer former soldiers competing in sports.

On the home front, there are footballers Chieffy Caligdong and Ed Sacapaño.

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