Do MMA fighters who grow up in war-torn regions have a psychological edge when it comes to stepping into The Octagon?

Gegard Mousasi MMA

“In the Middle East, I think people are warriors by nature. They live their whole lives in conflict. I think that martial arts for them is something that suits them perfectly.”

Samy Al Jama, Brazilian Jordanian and founder of Source MMA, speaking to FIGHTLAND as part of their mini documentary entitled MMA in The Middle East.

Located in West Amman, in a 200-meter facility, Al Jama, a black belt in multiple disciplines, teaches the people of Jordan the art of MMA.

With mixed martial arts reaching the global masses through world renowned fighting promotions such as The UFC and Bellator, MMA gyms like Samy’s have been opening in recent years right across the United Arab Emirates.

In 2014, then thirty-two-year-old MMA fighter, Tam Khan, spoke to FIGHTLAND about the growth of the sport across Dubai.

“It’s developed tremendously,” He began, “I remember when I first arrived people didn’t know a single UFC fighter, it was a niche amongst a few hardcore fans and there were no MMA gyms, no events, no fights. When I started teaching and spreading the word and bringing the likes of Royce Gracie and Wanderlei Silva over, the buzz spread and more gyms followed suit, many more fighters were produced, and now it’s a popular sport.”

One of the benefits in the enrolment of children in an MMA facility in war torn Middle East is the distraction it provides from the daily conflict that rages in their region.

However, despite the number of reported negative side effects associated with growing up in a zone of conflict, is it possible that for those who aim for a career in MMA, learning to survive on high alert in such anxiety inducing surroundings lends them an edge when it comes to stepping into an Octagon?

Having grown up in Kabul when Civil war was strife, Afghan mixed martial artist and current UFC Welterweight Siyar Bahadurzada spoke to FIGHTLAND about his native countrymen and how the state of uncertainty attached to growing up in conflict prepared him for his career in MMA.

“I believe that The Afghan are one of the bravest people on the planet because of what they are going through,” He said, “They are so courageous. You feel like you are in a jungle and any second anything can happen – it’s the constant feeling that you have in The Octagon.”

While an athlete can prepare for a bout with an opponent by studying tape and devising a game plan, fighting another human being in a cage is undoubtedly an event that cannot be scripted.

Whether it is a wild overhand punch, a vicious unseen uppercut or a sudden takedown that results in a vicious ground and pound, your opponent’s ability to catch you by surprise is ever present.

Due to the unavoidable unknown in a fight, fighters who have never experienced such circumstances can often struggle to keep the innate fight or flight response under wraps when it comes to competition.

Case in point, former UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Rashad Evans famously recalls visiting Georges St Pierre in his hotel room prior to one of his UFC title bouts, only to find GSP a ball of nerves.

“I hate this. This is my last fight.” He stated to his teammate.  “I am done, I can’t stand this shit!”

Fighting out of The Netherlands, Bahdurzada ‘The Great’ credits his experience of war with his ability to switch off his emotions, his final words painting the picture of a sniper, targeting a victim on a kill list.

“In the Octagon I turn into a cold-blooded killer and that’s [because of] the war and the terrible things that I have lived through in Afghanistan. [They] have changed me to this kind of fierce animal that comes out in The Octagon and there is no mercy, there is no patience…everything that moves in front of me, I want to take it out as fast as possible.”

The innate resilience of the Afghan people is also something which he feels is with him when it comes to his ability to push forward in the cage.

“Any [other] kind of people would have folded in any country with three decades of war but Afghans still fight back to rebuild Afghanistan, so that says something about the culture about the people and about the mentality of the brave Afghans.”

Aside from mental strength, the physical strength of MMA participants across the UAE is something which Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black – belt Adam Kayoom, who runs the 23 Academy out of Bangkok, discovered on a recent trip to Kabul.

“They are tough people, they were really eager to train and eager to learn and they had a no quit attitude,” James Goyder reported for FIGHTLAND. “Some of these guys you would shake their hand or give them a hug and they are made out of granite. I’ve travelled to Japan, to the US and to Brazil to train martial arts and you meet some hard people, but physically I’ve never seen anything like these people.”

Taking a guess that many participants on the MMA circuit in the Middle East are also practising Muslims, I couldn’t help but wonder where religion fit into their desire to fight.

“I don’t find martial arts contradicts my faith,” Ramzi Nabulsi, one of the many students at Samy Al Jama’s Source MMA states. “It’s just a tool to do what I’m supposed to do which is support what is good and stop what is bad.”

UFC’s Siyar Bahadurzada is also at pains to point out that the aim of mixed martial arts in the Middle East is not to encourage further brutality, but to place Afghanistan back on the map in a more positive light.

“We love our heroes, our people, like me, who loves Afghanistan unconditionally and who will fight for Afghanistan and raise Afghan flag in a positive way… nothing with terrorist, because media has portrayed us like we are terrorists, but we are not terrorist, we are very hospitable people, we have a great culture, we have great personalities in the history…we are not the kind of Afghans that people have portrayed us in the last ten to fifteen years.”

In preparation for writing this piece, I came across a webpage stating the difference in definition between the terms ‘battle’ and ‘war.’

While often used interchangeably, I was to learn that these words have very different meanings.

War is defined as a ‘long term strategic altercation between two countries’, the primary components being of a political and societal nature.

A battle on the other hand is defined as a combat or physical altercation between two or more subjects which is much more immediate and shorter in length.

Sound familiar?

For me, this was further evidence of the connection between the fight for survival that MMA athletes based in conflict zones in the Middle East face on a daily basis, and the fight to win when it’s time for them to step into the cage.

This article first appeared on BJPenn.com on 1/22/2018.