In April 2013, Bashir Ahmad stood bleeding in a cage before a 12,000-person stadium crowd in Kallan, Singapore. Having defeated his Thai opponent, the mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter draped the green-and-white Pakistani flag across his shoulders and hoisted his gloved hands as the stadium – along with a 500-million-person Asian TV audience – cheered for Pakistan's first national MMA champion.
The accolade was made all the more precedent-breaking considering Ahmad's true identity: just a few years earlier, he had served in Iraq as a U.S. soldier. As relations between the U.S. and Pakistan remain strained due to drone strikes, Taliban attacks, and lingering resentment over the unauthorized commando raid on Osama bin Laden, Ahmad has become the unlikeliest of national heroes – an American soldier turned MMA champion. "I've gotten Facebook messages asking how I could be a part of the U.S. army and support the killing of Muslims," he says. "Does it get to me? No. My whole life has been a paradox."
Born in Lahore in 1983, Ahmad moved as a child with his family to Great Falls, Virginia. In 2002, he joined the National Guard to fund his tuition at Virginia Commonwealth University – thinking he'd only spend one weekend a month doing military drills. "When I first got there and asked if they'd served in Afghanistan, they laughed and said 'We can't even make it to the highway without getting lost,'" Ahmad says. Yet nine months after the beginning of the Iraq war, in 2003, Ahmad was deployed to work as a medic on a bomb disposal unit in Mosul – a stronghold of the Sunni insurgency. "Have you seen the movie Hurt Locker?" he says. "That was my day-to-day life. We'd drive five times a day to wherever in the city there was a suspected IED or car bomb."
Over time, Ahmad became increasingly troubled about fighting fellow Muslims. "The atmosphere and undercurrent was we're going to kill some Muslims, kill some Arabs," he says. "Guys talked about killing Hajjis all the time. Obviously that would make any Muslim uncomfortable." Feeling alienated on base, Ahmad spent much of his downtime working out and reading books like Malcolm X's autobiography. One day while hitting the speed bag, he thought about Muhammad Ali's refusal to fight in Vietnam and began converging his growing interest in MMA with politics. "I thought of it as fighting the system through combat sports," he says.
In 2006, Ahmad returned to the Washington D.C. area and began studying global affairs at George Mason University while also taking jiujitsu lessons at a local YMCA with a former Special Forces operator. "He spoke Japanese, was into samurai culture, and had swords in his house," Ahmad says. "He was my Mr. Miyagi." Seeing the UFC's rise in the U.S., Ahmad thought the sport could thrive in Pakistan and decided to establish it in his ancestral homeland – much to the dismay of his parents, who had emigrated to give Ahmad a better life. "They were thinking, 'What the hell are you doing? You've had your fun and now you're going to get a job and get married,'" he says. "They definitely had the traditional desi parents outlook on life."
Despite an ongoing wave of Pakistani Taliban attacks across Pakistan, Ahmad moved to Lahore in 2008 with a grand vision to found MMA as a national sport – but no real roadmap for executing it. He befriended his Pakistani grandmother's driver Afzal and offered him a job as his right-hand man and interpreter. The pair built Pakistan's first dedicated MMA gym in his one-bedroom apartment and slept on the mats at night. It was an unimaginable arrangement for most Pakistanis, whose country still maintains a rigid social hierarchy disapproving of friendship between social classes. Soliciting fighters through his PakMMA Facebook page, Ahmad quickly realized most of the men had no clue about technique. "Their only prior training had been from watching Chuck Norris and Steven Segal movies," Ahmad says. "They'd come wearing ninja outfits and were like, 'What the hell? You're hitting us in the face?'"
Ahmad eventually saved enough money to rent a proper gym space and build South Asia's first MMA cage. He christened the gym Shaheen ("Falcon") MMA at first, but soon realized young fighters – with 2/3 of its population under 30, Pakistan is one of the world's youngest countries – were looking for something new and rechristened his venture Synergy MMA. "From a business standpoint, I realized I had to eliminate the desi element," he says, "Young people here want something that's western and flashy."
As Ahmad trained more fighters, his work began gaining attention. In October 2013, Ahmad finally launched his own fight promotion, Fighters' Alliance, with money from Pakistani investors and partnerships with corporate brands. In addition to his own televised fights, Ahmad's growing roster of homegrown contenders helped build Pakistan's MMA reputation just as the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) began marketing its own MMA fights more in Asia. In 2010, the UFC's parent company sold a 10-percent minority stake to an investment arm of the Abu Dhabi government – a clear indication of its long-term commitment to corner the Asian and Middle Eastern MMA market. Yet Ahmad isn't worried by the looming competition. "The UFC isn't going to come to Pakistan every weekend," he says, "you still need the small promotions to build fighters up."
Despite his rising star in Pakistan, Ahmad says his time there has shown him how essentially American he remains. "When I came here I was like, 'oh I'll fit right in'," Ahmad says. "No, I was definitely different – a foreigner." Pakistan's pervasive anti-American rhetoric and uncritical nationalism irritated him. "It's so mixed up, it's so ridiculous," he says about the country's political climate. "There are Pakistanis whose whole family is in the U.S. and they want a visa, yet they hate America." One of Ahmad's proudest achievements, beyond the fame and growing success of MMA in Pakistan, is having created something that erases, however modestly, Pakistan's social divides. "These two young waiters at a roadside restaurant told me their lives had changed," Ahmad says. "Guys who would usually order them around were now the same people looking up to them and saying, 'This guy fights for my gym.'"
Ahmad is now splitting his time between Virginia and Pakistan while courting Pakistani expatriates to help fund his league – and admits to not feeling quite at home in either country. "The TSA held me for seven hours at Reagan airport, but then only questioned me for a couple of minutes," Ahmad says, "I expected it but was still like 'Screw you, I'm a vet.'"