Can MMA help bring peace to Kabul?
The Snow Leopard Fighting Championship is Afghanistan’s first private MMA tournament. Its owner hopes that, by winning and losing with dignity, its warriors can shed the centuries-old tribal hate that has torn his country apart and almost claimed the lives of his family. Sean Williams visits Kabul to meet the man aiming to give Afghan tribalism a submission blow.
In a quiet suburb of Kabul, a school sports hall is surrounded by armed gunmen. Some wear Afghan Police-emblazoned flak jackets. Others are plain-clothed. Beyond them, the setting sun paints a penumbra around the jagged peaks of the distant Hindu Kush mountains. There is not much for the guards to see, save for a few children herding goats back home along a darkening street, where the flickering neon signs above a row of empty sweet shops are the neighbourhood’s only streetlights.
Inside the hall, though, the noise is deafening. Heavy rap music and the cheers of spectators clatter off its semi-circular tin roof like gunfire. They are here to see Afghanistan’s first private-run mixed martial arts (MMA) tournament.
A fighter emerges from backstage, to roars from the boisterous crowd. Wahed Nazhand is a local favourite, his 22-year-old body cut like sheet steel and a scowl fixed across his face. His challenger, the spry, curly haired and clean shaven Sami Rahimi enters the octagon to more cheers. The gunmen — there are dozens of them dotted about — look nervous, fingers clasped around the triggers of their weapons.
The music fades and the fight begins. Standing ringside, one man stands silently, glancing about hurriedly and nervously stroking his stubbly chin. He is more anxious than anybody that the show will go off with the sort of bang more reminiscent of a Vegas prize-fight than war-torn Afghanistan. His name is Kakail Nuristani, and he brought MMA to Kabul. It was his attempt to show that Afghanistan can offer something positive to its youth after decades of bloodshed.
He knows better than most: as the son of a flamboyant and well-known political figure, the violence almost took him too.
Akail Nuristani was born in 1983 in Chitral, Pakistan, the middle of eight children, to Khalil and Rona. The family had lived in Kabul, where Khalil ran a successful antiques business, until Soviet tanks rolled into town in 1979, staging a coup and killing those loyal to previous leader Mohammed Daoud Khan, who had been assassinated a year earlier by members of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA).
As a supporter of the previous regime, Khalil barely escaped in time, catching a plane to Germany then on to the United States. Rona travelled with the children to Pakistan. Along the way her group was hit by a Soviet airstrike. Two of her and Khalil’s daughters died.
Khalil, stout and wide-shouldered, knew nothing of the attack. He was a well-connected and influential Afghan who led anti-Soviet protests at the UN headquarters in Manhattan, becoming friends with the likes of Ted Kennedy and Muhammad Ali while doing so.
Their protests achieved little. Afghanistan’s war with the USSR, which raged until 1989, involved tactics that shocked the world. Soviet troops planted bombs in children’s toys. Mujahideen brigands tore down from mountainsides and committed bloody massacres against the occupying soldiers.
Khalil was originally from Nuristan, an atavistic province barely 70 miles from Kabul, but so remote that reaching it take several hours. None of the roads are paved and only four-by-fours may cross its brackish, antediluvian passes. Nuristan has a very distinct identity. It was the last Afghan province to adopt Islam, in 1895, having previously practiced an Indo-Iranian polytheistic religion, and the first to kick out the Soviets. Its people, who speak a variety of languages and dialects despite numbering just under 150,000, have a reputation for brawn.
Kakail Nuristani in his office
By the early 1980s Khalil had returned from New York. He had grown disillusioned with American politics, and rushed to Pakistan when he finally learned of the airstrike that had killed his daughters.
By then Rona had settled in Chitral, a small town near the Afghan border. When he joined her there, Khalil’s stock rose once more. His father, Abdullah, had been a treasurer to Mohammed Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan. Nuristan was a country away but its elders welcomed him as a celebrity. Khalil became the region’s foreign minister, hosting dignitaries in Chitral daily.
In New York, Khalil had fallen prey to Western vices: he was a heavy drinker, and parties at the Nuristani home lasted long into the night. As a child Kakail would deal cards and serve drinks, enthralled at how his raffish father held court. “I’ve always been inspired by my father,” Kakail tells me on my fortnight-long visit to Afghanistan. “He has basically made me the way I am today. I can’t be my father, but I want to, I am trying to. My father has inspired me like no other, and, apart from him, I don’t believe in role models.”
When Kakail was four years old, Khalil moved the family from Chitral to Peshawar, a sprawling Pakistani city of almost a million people — many of whom were Afghan refugees fleeing the war. Kakail and his younger brothers, Aman and Khalid, spoke Urdu. But tribalism ruled: they were bullied constantly.
Martial arts became their way to fight back. Kakail loved tai chi and taekwondo, and obsessed over Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan movies. “The bullies kept coming back,” he tells me, as we eat dinner and watched cricket at his apartment in downtown Kabul. “It was a one-person war against the gang. And I kept beating them.”
Years later, having moved to Kabul from Pakistan with a young family of his own, Kakail turned once more to martial arts. The US-led invasion of Afghanistan was almost 15 years old, and flagging. Government was failing and the Taliban was regaining ground.
Kakail, whose jobs included management at Etisalat Afghanistan and consulting for NGOs and the US Army, found solace at a Kabul gym, training national MMA champion Rohullah Mohammadi. The only official help for fighters came from the corrupt National Olympic Committee, a wing of the government. Kakail believed he could change that, and tap into the huge potential that MMA offers to a new market.
MMA is big business. The UFC, its richest brand, sold in July last year for $4 billion (Dhs14.7bn). It is also a heavily desiccated industry. Since 1993, when the phrase “mixed martial arts” was coined by American television critic Howard Rosenberg, dozens of franchises have appeared worldwide, paying retainers to box-office fighters and staging their own, independent tournaments.
Kakail wants to replicate that model. There is a sector of Afghanistan that is fitness mad. Body-builders adorn giant billboards all over Kabul. Gyms stand on every main street. Baz Mohammad Mubariz and Siyar Bahadurzada, who have each had international MMA bouts, are national icons. But domestically they have nowhere to fight. So, at the end of 2015, Kakail founded the Snow Leopard Fighting Championship — named after the endangered Afghan wildcat — with help from his Kabul-based brothers and cousins.
Private enterprise is a tough business anywhere. In Afghanistan it’s a minefield. Countless officials demanded bribes at first (the country is ranked 169th of 175 nations on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index); Kakail claims he has not paid a single one. Even the SLFC octagon had to be built entirely from scratch, by a builder friend of Kakail’s.
Kakail is strong and squat, with deep brown eyes and thinning, black hair. He is soft-spoken but clear in making his point, fluent in English, and never averts his gaze. He switches between traditional salwar kameez and check shirts, the sleeves rolled high, which makes him look ready to do business. Throughout my visit he is the epitome of Afghan hospitality, and most nights end at his home, eating great piles of rice, curry and traditional Nuristani walnut bread.
He needs the energy. The first three days in Kabul, neither he nor I sleep much beyond a couple of hours a night. Kakail hurtles from meeting to meeting, driven by a heavyweight fighter, nicknamed ‘Hulk’ by the SLFC group, who huddled over his steering wheel like a strongman in a clown car.
Above all other concerns is security: 3,498 Afghan civilians were killed in terror attacks in 2016, an increase of three percent on 2015. As well as the threat posed by Taliban soldiers, ISIS is active in some corners of the country. Public events are prime targets for terror. Any slip-up could be fatal.
Kakail has hired 50 guards — one for every 11 spectators — from private firms, the Afghan Police and a local anti-terror unit for the SLFC fight that I watched — and he is still worried. “We didn’t leave any stone unturned, but it’s always a concern in Afghanistan,” he tells me the night before the event. “I’m never at ease until everyone gets back to their homes.”
The next day is fight night. Thankfully, it will be incendiary only in a sporting sense. And it will settle far more than the fights in the octagon.
It is over 15 years since the US invaded Afghanistan in late 2001, and the country is becoming progressively more unstable. Bombs and suicide attacks strike regularly. The opium trade, which finances the Taliban, is booming. Youth unemployment is at 40 percent, which pushes young men towards terror.
Kabul is on lockdown: each day new concrete blast walls cleave neighbourhoods into choking rat-runs. US and Nato bases are so fortified that one evening, sitting at a rooftop Nato café, all I could see were the tips of Kabul’s surrounding hills. “There’s no interaction at all now,” one military worker tells me.
Pulsing through this conflict in Afghanistan, and all the ones that have gone before it, is the issue of tribalism. Dozens of tribes have existed in the region since well before the foundation of the Afghan state. Fourteen languages are recognised by the country’s national anthem.
Kakail knows Afghanistan’s tribalism well. Since his father’s death in 2007 he has taken on some leadership responsibilities in Nuristan. That has angered local warlords — not least a tyrant named Mullah Sadiq, affiliated with the outlawed Hezb-e-Islami militant group — who has threatened Kakail with death more than once. (Nuristan is “a terrible mess; an anarchic kind of place,” David Katz, a former US state department official, later tells me. Several other people admit that by day a government flag flies but by night the Taliban runs the show.)
That threat, however, became real in 2002, when eight terrorists burst into Kakail’s Nuristani home at night looking for his father, who had hosted a Canadian diplomat the previous night. Khalil wasn’t there, and the men eventually left, but not before the house was looted and Kakail was smashed in the face with a rifle butt. It was a close brush with death and as such that night stayed with him, he told me. It’s the reason he wants the SLFC to become a place where men of all tribes can come together under the banner of sport and settle differences in the octagon.
Tribalism has already deeply affected many of Kakail’s fighters. Wahed Nazhand, Olympian and handsome with a fecund smile, is one of Afghanistan’s best MMA prospects. He is from Panjshir, a province two hours northeast of Kabul, where snow-capped mountains plunge downwards into rufous hills and white-water rivers.
One day during my trip we make the trek to Nazhand’s family home, another three hours from Kabul. Carrion of the Soviet War still lays strewn, rusting in the sun. At one river-bend we reach a small football stadium. “The Nou Camp holds 90,000?” my driver asks, pointing at the steep-sloped valley. “This holds 700,000,” he jokes of the vast, empty expanses around the ground.
Nazhand’s village is so far off the beaten track that it doesn’t even have an official name, and is not much more than a cluster of shipping containers and mudbrick shelters acting as homes and tea rooms. His family home is perched above them, looking out on the mountains. It is completely isolated. But from a young age, Nazhand wanted to be a star. He practiced fighting every day, becoming an ace kick boxer. “I loved playing with fire,” he tells me of his youth.
Aged 20, Nazhand was selected to represent Afghanistan at an international MMA tournament in Italy. It was his big moment. But before the fight, police stormed his father’s store, a bookshop, and found a gun. They arrested him, he says, because of his tribe. “Because I am Panjshiri they never gave me a chance,” he says.
Even in prison Nazhand taught other inmates to fight. I first meet him at the weigh-in for his fight. He has no diplomas and no work opportunities. The SLFC is his only hope at success.
“For him it’s more financial than the others, who are doing it for pride,” Kakail tells me that day. “There are others who can afford to lose. It is life and death for him.” Nazhand has Panjshir tattooed on his chest. He wanted his fighting name to be Wahed Panjshiri, but Kakail wouldn’t allow any reference to tribal background. “We can’t accept that,” he says. “We don’t have last names with ethnicity here.”
Revenge is a key component of the Pashtun code, a centuries-old canon that, for many Afghans, circumvents civil law. Kakail wants to break it. It is why he has paired Nazhand with Rahimi, an ethnic Pashtun.
On the same bill for fight night is Hussain Bakhsh Safary, a talented Hazara, who will fight a Tajik. (Just after I leave Kabul, a group of Hazara tribe members are victims of a bomb that explodes at a rally, killing 97 people.) Elsewhere, Kakail pairs an Uzbek with a Turkmen.
Hussain Bakhsh Safary practices in his backyard, in a home close to Kabul's highly fortified airport
Kakail has spent several weeks before the show lecturing each fighter on the SLFC’s ethics. His mission is for Afghans to win and lose with dignity. “Losing is not a part of the Afghan culture,” he tells me. “The [national] media always portrays the Afghans as this big mountain that will not fall.”
He describes how most of the fighters have seen difficult, harsh times and get stressed or depressed when they lose. “Fighting, being strong and fierce, is a defence mechanism they have developed from a very young age. Plus Afghan society puts so much pressure on you to honour your tribe that it becomes a matter of life and death.”
Kakail wants to change the culture so that they understand that sport is not matter of life and death. “The best among you is the one who accepts his defeat and acknowledges the other person’s superiority,” he says.
He finishes by admitting that this mind-shift will be a long journey. Instigating social change in Afghanistan is no swift task.
It is 3pm on the day of the tournament, and things aren’t going to plan. Spectators have been stuck in Kabul’s chronic traffic, and the fighters cannot even take to the octagon.
Nothing in Afghanistan can be taken for granted — not even gloves, which Kakail has had to source from Pakistan, and which are the wrong size. With hours to go before the event begins, he is running from room to room, searching for more.
As show time nears, the audience members who have made it on time are becoming restless. A large LED screen loops promo videos of brutal UFC bouts. An hour later Kakail finds some more gloves, and the crowd is in place. Some dignitaries and media have made it too, though many stayed away, due to security concerns. Kakail is visibly rattled for the first time since we met.
Backstage, the fighters are practicing their holds, praying or wrapping their hands. Nazhand is breathing hard. He is nervous, but confident. I ask him how he will do against Rahimi, who is sitting nearby. “A knockout in the first round,” he says, grinning. When I ask him how important the fight is to him personally, his mood shifts. The smile drops. “It’s the most important day,” he says. “It’s going to determine all my practicing, my future.”
His and Rahimi’s is the third fight on the card. It’s a savage contest, and by the end of the three rounds both men’s faces are soaked in blood. It is closer than anyone had expected but Nazhand, his eyes black and face peppered with bruises, is handed the win.
Kakail, still ringside, looks at me and smiles. “That was a crazy-ass fight right there,” he says, his voice excited, happy and relieved for the first time all day. “Any league in the world — even the UFC — would buy that right away.”
Three more fights follow (Hulk gets knocked out in the third round) until, several hours later, the crowd files out, the screen is switched off and the music fades. Eventually, only a few labourers remain. As they dismantle the lighting rigs and the octagon, Kakail sits alone, exhausted but happy, surveying the empty room.
“I’m elated,” he tells me. “All the fights were exceptional quality.” The SLFC is Kakail’s chance to change Afghanistan. It’s also an opportunity to follow in his father’s footsteps and create a legacy for his family, his tribe and for himself. Politics was his inheritance but sport has become his calling. If he were still alive Khalil would “be picking the small things I messed-up on,” Kakail says. “But deep down he’d be really proud of this.”
Since I left Kabul, Kakail has staged his second event, which was screened live on Afghan television. Now he wants to take his fighters abroad, to show the world that Afghan men are proud warriors — not insurgents.
“I don’t think I’ve reached my pinnacle; it’s just another step towards what I’m aiming at,” he tells me over the phone. “I’ll get there. But I need to get bigger, better. I saw a lot of people here, boys shouting and getting emotional, trying to start fights with the security guards. But as soon as they saw me they stopped…”
He pauses, perhaps thinking about his past, his father and his place in today’s Afghanistan. “That is respect,” he continues, a note of pride in his voice. “That’s an achievement.”