As the UFC’s only Afghan-born fighter, Siyar Bahadurzada is determined to inspire multiple nations of fans.
Zuffa understands the connection between combat on the battlefield and combat in the cage, and it has heavily promoted the sacrifices made by soldiers-turned-fighters like UFC middleweight Brian Stann and Strikeforce middleweight Tim Kennedy. Both served in the U.S. Armed Forces, and both are extremely popular with fans.
The trouble for Siyar Bahadurzada is that he’s Afghani, and describing his life and his homeland draws attention to Al-Qaeda and the War on Terrorism. That’s a challenge for Siyar, who is a fighter with incredible stand-up and a real opportunity to make a run in the UFC welterweight division. The problem is how to sell someone who comes from a place that many Americans relate to negatively. It’s a geopolitical misunderstanding that Siyar acknowledges and wants to amend.
“We Afghans fight as hard against terrorism as European countries and America,” says Siyar from his adopted homeland of the Netherlands. “You see the news—we all suffer from these terrorists attacks, but the thing is, many terrorists come from Pakistan and other places and use Afghanistan as a place for their wars. I think that I can be a way for people to change their minds about the Afghan people.”
The Afghan government fell into the hands of the Taliban in the mid-1980s, during the failed invasion by the Soviet Union. That wartime government instilled enormous turmoil in the capital city of Kabul, where Siyar was born in 1984. The government eventually became intolerable and dangerous to those not in the fold, and it forced citizens like Siyar’s father to fl ee with his family or face deadly reprisals.
“There were some issues between my dad and the regime, and it’s all politically sensitive,” says Siyar. “We had to leave Afghanistan, otherwise, it would have cost us our lives.”
His family relocated to the Netherlands, where Siyar began training kickboxing and MMA. He also graduated with a degree in economics from the prestigious Arnhem Business School in Amsterdam. Both his fighting and investing skills paid off at his UFC debut.
Were it not for the smelling salts, Paulo Thiago might still be unconscious. The Brazilian military police officer drew UFC newcomer Siyar at UFC on Fuel TV 2 in Switzerland in April. Unknown to many fight fans, as well as his opponent, Siyar ended Thiago’s night with a brutal KO in 42 seconds. That punch earned him a lot of new fans—and a $50,000 bonus check for Knockout of the Night.
Siyar, whose overall MMA record stands at an impressive 21-4-1,has fought throughout Europe and Asia, including in Shooto and Sengoku. He has twice defended his Shooto Middleweight Title, and he has 11 knockouts and six submissions on his record. In addition, he has won six of his last seven fights by (T)KO.
Siyar’s next fight is on the main card at UFC 149 on July 21 in Calgary, Canada, where he faces hometown hero Chris Clements. The Canadian fighter is 1-0 in the UFC, with a stand-and-trade style that Siyar finds appealing. To him, a man who wants to throw down in the Octagon improves the likelihood that he will earn a highlight-reel knockout—and change more minds about what Afghanistan has to offer.
“If he wants to brawl with me, I will show fans my kickboxing techniques,” he says. “I like to think that Clements is a warrior, and one man will stand and one man will fall. I think if he fights with me, we can make this Fight of the Year.”
If Siyar beats Clements, he will follow it up by making his first trip back to Afghanistan since fl eeing the country 13 years ago.
“Now, I’m very well liked in Afghanistan,” he says. “They celebrated my birthday on national television in April, because it was three days after my first UFC fight.”
The country had planned a celebration, but Siyar says he was unable to attend because he had to stay in the Netherlands and train for his upcoming fight with Clements. “I wanted to go. I could have met the President, and there were going to be thousands of people at the airport to greet me when I landed. But training was more important.” The Afghani people are following Siyar’s progress and looking to him for some much-needed inspiration for kids, both on the streets of Kabul and in the countryside.
“I want to be an inspiration for the people of Afghanistan,” he says. “I want them to see that they have an athlete who is good at what he does. There are kids that look up to me, and I want to give them hope and show them the way—show them that they can make it out of the city and into a better life.”
Siyar hopes that with winning comes forgiveness. He believes that the American audience will respond to him positively once they get to know him. The restorative powers of fi ghting and their reparation of tenuous international relationships was on display in his last fight before signing with the UFC. Siyar had to fight in Moscow, home to thousands of former Soviet soldiers, who were part of the invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. The fight was a bloody affair (with a teammate and close friend, no less), but it ended with a knockout for Siyar in the second round. Siyar says that on the way out of the ring that night, the power of his warrior spirit became obvious.
“After the fight, I stepped out of the ring, and the Russian dudes were kissing my hand and telling me, ‘You are a warrior,’” says Siyar. “Then another Russian guy said that he fought for a long time in Afghanistan, and he gave me the gold chain from around his neck.”
Siyar believes that he could do the same in America—that he can show this country that the Afghan people aren’t terrorists, and that they stand for something more. He thinks that his courage in the cage and his desire to fight with a full heart will be enough to make him as beloved in Las Vegas as he is in Kabul.
“We are not about terrorism in Afghanistan,” he says. “We are about being hospitable. We are about being loyal and trustworthy. When I fight, I will show the world my Afghan heart.”