- Mixed Martial Arts has a huge fan base in Afghanistan.
- But as the Taliban closes in on Kabul, the capital, the future of MMA – and leisure pursuits of all kinds – are in peril.
- Two star fighters, Wahid “The Stone Eater” Nazhand and Zaki the Outlaw Scrapper, say they are fighting for peace in Afghanistan as much as anything.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Kabul – MMA fighter Zaki Rasooli is running late. He has a training session in 30 minutes and the gym is all the way on the other side of Kabul, Afghanistan’s traffic-clogged capital.
He pulls his car behind a Police Ranger, hoping he can outmaneuver the traffic jams and street vendors, the blast-proof barrier walls and police checkpoints. Once a day, an improvised explosive device might detonate in Kabul, so that’s another reason to keep moving.
As he speeds through the streets, he passes by at least three billboards of Ahmad Wali Hotak, another MMA star known as “The Warrior,” who clutches a can of Predator energy drink as he aims a punch at the camera.
Rasooli isn’t just trying to avoid the congestion. The hulking 176-pound MMA fighter hopes to pass through town without being recognized. With three major wins, one loss and one draw since 2018, the 24-year-old is one of the best-known MMA fighters in Afghanistan.
Since he first started winning matches as his alter ego, Zaki the Outlaw Scrapper, he has been receiving threatening phone calls. He assumes the threats are just bravado from fans who are loyal to the men he beat, but Rasooli isn’t taking any chances. Targeted assassinations have become worryingly common in Kabul, claiming the lives of famous journalists, rights workers, academics, and religious leaders. Meanwhile, the Taliban has been retaking large swaths of the country, including three of the its biggest cities – Kandahar, Herat, and Lashkar Gah. The Taliban is expected to make a push for Kabul any day now.
Finally – and, somehow, just on time – Rasooli parks his car and enters a nondescript building tucked amid a row of kabab restaurants, shisha bars, and cafes. He jogs down a handful of deep-set stairs to the basement.
The gym down below is pretty basic. A few fans and simple light fixtures protrude out from the walls. A punching bag, a giant truck tire, some ropes, and various weights are scattered across the small space. In recent years, better gyms catering to Kabul’s emerging moneyed class have popped up elsewhere in the city – modern, $100-a-month facilities, with personalized monitors and iPads.
But for serious athletes, it’s the training, not the amenities and gadgets, that really matter. The anonymity this place offers is an added bonus. Everything from volleyball games to Cricket grounds, Buzkashi matches and even a wrestling gym have come under attack in Kabul and other provinces. As the fights grow flashier and the arenas get bigger, there’s a fear that MMA could be next.
Rasooli’s coach, Mohammad Yusuf Mohmand, has already started with another young athlete, an up-and-coming MMA hopeful who is pounding a sledgehammer against the tire, grunting noisily with each swing. Mohmand, a legendary fighter who is not quite in his old fighting shape, is taunting the man as a coach does, yelling that he is making more noise than he is landing blows. Rasooli disappears behind a piece of hanging fabric to change out of his jeans and into short white shorts and a black tank top. It’s attire he wouldn’t dare to wear outside. He then gets to work at the punching bag. It’s his second training session of the day.
“When you enter that octagon, you show your body, your talent to the people,” he says of what pushes him to train so hard. “They go hand-in-hand.”
A sport at a crossroads
As the Taliban moves toward Kabul, the future of MMA – and leisure pursuits of all kinds – are in peril. During the Taliban’s rule, which extended for five years before the attack of Sept. 11, 2001, the armed group allowed some sports, but with heavy regulations on attire and with breaks for prayer. The short-shorts and bare chests and tattoos sported by several of MMA fighters would be against all Taliban decency standards.
There is also the question of whether there will be enough calm in the cities to conduct matches at all, or whether foreign fighters would feel comfortable coming to Afghanistan for bouts. Likewise, if the Taliban takes over and Afghanistan turns into another pariah state, that would further complicate Afghan athlete’s to secure visas to train and fight abroad. There’s also the matter of television, which was forbidden during the Taliban rule. It remains to be seen if MMA fights would be broadcast, or if there would be TV stations left to air them.
Politics notwithstanding, Mixed Martial Arts has an intensely loyal fan base in Afghanistan. Local MMA stars like “The Warrior” and Baz Mohammad Mubariz (“The Afghan Eagle”) appear on billboards and commercials across the country. In Kabul alone, there are 120 gyms that cater to MMA hopefuls, according to Qais Nawabi, a local sports journalist.
At least 50 MMA matches are broadcast on Afghan TV a year. While fears about COVID-19 have thinned the crowds at the actual matches, cheering fans waving the Afghan flag can be found packed into restaurants and cafes on fight nights. Most fights pit Afghans against one another, but combatants are also known to travel from nearby countries like Kazakhstan, Iran, Tajikistan, and Pakistan.
The top Afghan fighters are increasingly looking for bigger opportunities. For the top six fighters, the prospect of traveling to Russia or even Las Vegas carries with it the chance for wealth and global stardom. The route to fame and fortune is a difficult one under any circumstances. In Afghanistan, it’s especially so.
Here, fighters stand to earn only a couple hundred dollars per fight. The lack of sponsors in a country with a struggling economy hasn’t helped the fighters either. There are only so many companies – local energy drink brands, mostly – willing to invest in athletes and celebrities. Fighters who want to compete internationally have to finance their own trips abroad, which can cost upwards of $5,000.
They wanted to show that they too could become world-class champions, even without the financial spoils. That the Afghan people are still capable of greatness. That they, too, can be heroes.
The challenges don’t end with money. Afghan fighters continuously struggle to obtain visas to fight and train abroad. At times failure to obtain foreign visas has cost them matches they spent months training for.
There is no governing authority for MMA fighters in Afghanistan. In the United States, the Anti-Doping Authority ensures that fighters don’t cheat by taking performance enhancing drugs and state athletic commissions enforce the combat engagement rules. But in Afghanistan, steroid use is common with many athletes considering it the norm, and, without regulation, there is always the suspicion of fighters using anabolic steroids.
Wahid Nazhand, currently the number three Pro Men’s welterweight in South Asia, goes by the nickname “Sang Khor” – “The Stone Eater” – among his legion of fans. He recalls one of his first MMA matches in 2015 as an example of the kinds of struggles MMA fighters have had to face in Afghanistan. “I entered the octagon in this dingy, dark room and there was literally sewage dripping onto the octagon from a sewer pipe above us. Imagine facing your opponent while trying to forget the stench that had permeated everything.”
Despite all these obstacles, more fighters are coming up and more Afghans – men, especially – are becoming fans.
The Stone Eater vs. The Outlaw Scrapper
The specific fight that really ignited the popularity of MMA in Afghanistan came in 2020, when Rasooli (“The Outlaw Scrapper”) faced Nazhand (“The Stone Eater) at the Snow Leopard Fighting Championship (SLFC), Afghanistan’s premier MMA event, to determine the undisputed welterweight champion.
The build-up for the fight saw Rasooli and Nazhand engaged in heated verbal exchanges on live TV, something that was quite new for sports in Afghanistan.
On fight night last December, hundreds of men, young and old, gathered in the arena just as the COVID-19 pandemic was starting to dominate global headlines. Many more watched from their TVs at home, while hundreds of others ignored coronavirus warnings to watch the much-anticipated bout at several of the city’s restaurants and cafes.
It was five rounds of violence, as both men were drenched in blood and sweat.
The fight started off in a surprising way as Nazhand, a kickboxing standout, took Rasooli to the ground, controlling him for the majority of the round. The second and third rounds were much of the same. In the fourth, Rasooli managed to rock Nazhand with vicious elbows. Nazhand’s blood spilled all over the canvas, but he gained his composure and finished the round on top. The fifth round was a back and forth as Rasooli grew desperate, giving Nazhand an opening for a Kimura and a triangle choke from the top. Sensing victory, in the final second of the round, Nazhand smiled at the camera, assuring the crowd that he remained on top.
In the end, the crowd was thoroughly entertained. They had just witnessed a UFC-calibre fight in their own country. By night’s end, MMA had a newly rabid fan base in Afghanistan.
“With each blow, we let the people of Afghanistan know that there are guys like us who can dominate the world of MMA,” Rasooli said, looking back on that night.
‘You know he’s Talib, right?’
When Rasooli isn’t training he’s often posting updates to his 50,000 followers on Instagram, where his gruff but affable personality shines through. There’s a video of Rasooli playfully directing a baby to throw repeated jabs at his chiseled jaw that looks gigantic next to the baby’s tiny fist, and clips of him letting out exasperated sighs as he struggles to bring down an opponent in a game of Tekken.
The mixture of success, fame and affability recently landed him a gig as the brand ambassador for the city’s new high-end sports lounge, the Buffalo Kings.
“I was drawn to Zaki not just because he’s a good fighter, which he clearly is, but also because he just has a great personality and comes off as someone who is very positive,” the owner of the sports lounge, Said Bashir Jalili, says of Rasooli’s appeal.
Rasooli is now accustomed to being surrounded by fans when he steps out in Kabul. But two years ago he had an experience that confirmed for him how far MMA’s reach had extended.
He was tending to his family’s land in their native Maidan Wardak, a province known for its apples but also for insecurity and Taliban presence. On that afternoon, a bearded man in a black turban approached him. “I know you. I’ve seen you on TV,” the man said in Pashto to an astonished Rasooli. “Aren’t you that fighter? I was so happy when you won your last match, we all cheered. Everyone here supports you.”
The two men chatted for a while longer, as Rasooli’s father looked on. “You know he’s a Talib, right?” his father said later.
Rasooli was certainly aware of what the five years of oppressive Taliban rule had meant, even if he was too young to remember it himself. Men were required to grow beards, and anyone could be lashed for not being in the mosque during prayer times. Football players were forbidden from wearing shorts on the field. All forms of entertainment, including TV, were banned.
So, to hear that a Talib not only recognized him, but called himself a fan, was surreal.
‘One of the greats’
Rasooli and Nazhand both grew up in Kabul, and both men consider themselves self-made. Early on, Rasooli worked at a mechanic, where he taught himself English from the cartoons on TV. Nazhand was once a bookseller, earning 50 Afghanis (63 cents) a day.
For more than a decade, they pushed their bodies to the limits and witnessed the anguish of their families as they dealt with injury after injury. They had little to show in terms of wealth, but both men were undeterred. They wanted to show that they too could become world-class champions, even without the financial spoils. That the Afghan people are still capable of greatness. That they, too, can be heroes.
“My family gave me chance after chance and in the end, we gained the respect of our communities,” Rasooli says. “We have to continue so we can bring Afghanistan back to the world stage.”
They may be from different ethnicities and geographic locations, but both men proudly display the Afghan flag. And both men possess what’s vital for MMA stardom: Charm, fighting skill and showmanship. So, for all the uncertainty about their futures, and Afghanistan’s future, they keep going.
In contrast to Rasooli, Nazhand is all bravado and intensity. Even when he runs on a treadmill, it must be barefoot and at the maximum speed as he lets out grunts and groans. His Instagram, where he has just under 100,000 followers, is filled with photos of him pulling himself up from cliff sides and walking shirtless in Kabul’s frigid winter air. When he’s posing for pictures with excited fans, fellow MMA fighters, or an Afghan dignitary, the most he can muster is a coy half-smile.
When he does speak, Nazhand is known to go off-script. He has no interest in niceties. He goes straight for the kill, even with his words. “I didn’t let my opponent leave unharmed. I broke his face and his head,” Nazhand said to a female TV anchor when describing his first-ever match-up.
Occasionally, though, Nazhand lets that guard down, like when he talks about the wide-eyed ambition of his younger days. He still remembers nights where he would sit down at the base of some of the billboards dotted around Kabul, looking up at the faces of young fighters he sparred with, and dreaming of seeing his own face up there. “I was determined to become one of the greats,” he says.
While his fights have been widely advertised, he has yet to land a major sponsorship deal.
Fighting for peace
Fame, though, has been complicated to manage, as Afghanistan still struggles with a fast-paced return to modernity and the very real threat of all-out civil war.
Nazhand plays a Facebook voice message from a female fan that has incited him to leave the new high-end sports lounge and find her. She said she was being harassed by a young man while in the hospital with her family.
“I get so many messages. I can’t possibly answer them all. When I heard her message, I knew I had to do something for her,” he says. He rushed off to find her. When he finally arrived at the location, she was nowhere to be found. Still, he went, because he felt he should help a woman in need.
It’s an open question whether MMA star-power, and the worship of MMA combatants, is really the best thing for a country still facing an active war. Nazhand balks at such criticism. He says he and other fighters are simply doing what other athletes have done after years of training and dedication.
“It’s not just Afghanistan. Dagestan is not in a much better state, but they have a national champion,” he says referring to Khabib Nurmagomedov.
“This has nothing to do with insecurity and wanton violence. We are two professional fighters who practice and train. In the end we hug and embrace. This is as much about two people coming together in a common pursuit and leaving their tensions in the octagon.”
Karim Zidan, a journalist who has covered MMA for more than a decade, says MMA is less about violence than outsiders believe. “People forget that MMA is about discipline. They shake hands before the match. When the bell rings and the round ends, they go to their respective corners. When the match comes to an end, they shake hands once again,” Zidan says.
As Rasooli and Nazhand see it, they are each fighting for peace.