The rising British fighter talks about the art of combat, his Hulk-like character and how his faith helps him compete. He spoke to Omar Shahid.
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Khalid Ismail, 34, is a beast when he’s in the cage. On YouTube, you will find videos of him wrestling his opponents to the ground, before leaping on them and hitting them with his iron fists. It comes as no surprise that (even the best of) challengers often refuse to fight him, fearing they may encounter the full force of Ismail, also known as “Lion in the Desert”.
Khalid is a British-Moroccan fighter who practises Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), a full-contact sport that takes its origins from other combat sports and martial arts. He began his MMA career in 2010, before which he competed in jujitsu, kickboxing and wrestling. Fighting however, comes at a price. Due to a series of injuries, he has only been able to fight three times in the fiercely competitive UCMMA league, based in the UK. He won all three times.
Many of his fans now want him to take the next step: to compete in the world-renowned Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) – the largest MMA competition in the world, based in the US – which he hopes to do soon.
A sharp entrepreneur, Ismail has also opened two popular gyms in London where he trains for fights as well as coaches aspiring fighters. Following the success of this pursuit, he now plans to open 10 more gyms within the next 10 years. He’s never been the quiet type, so it comes as no surprise that Ismail uses his popularity to voice strong opinions on global conflicts, such as the atrocities taking place in Gaza.
Despite his large, muscular appearance and the aggression he displays inside the cage, Ismail is calm, friendly and welcoming. It’s the night before Eid ul-Fitr and we meet in one of his gyms – where he has come tonight to train two of his fighters. We sit in the gym’s cafe, as he sips a pre-workout energy drink.
Tell us a bit about your upbringing and how you got into fighting.
I was born in East London to Moroccan parents and spent a lot of time in Meknes, Morocco, growing up. When I was five, my mum got me into training, because I suffered from asthma, so she went a bit sport-crazy and got me into everything. I played virtually every sport: football, cricket, karate – I had a big passion for all types of sport. When I was young, I saw people like Jackie Chan. Bruce Lee’s films were very popular and Jean-Claude Van Damme was also on the scene. That all inspired me and, because I was an aggressive child, it fit my personality.
So how aggressive do you need to be to do martial arts?
My mum said she would lock me in the bathroom when I was naughty and she would hear thudding for half an hour. When she opened the door, she would see massive red marks on my head. I would just sit there and headbutt the wall. But when I started training, it allowed me to take that aggression out. At first I didn’t know how to channel that aggression, but martial arts became my release.
When you have that release, you tend not to be aggressive outside of the sport, or on the road. I fight guys who are 20 stone [127 kg], so having that bravado gets it out of your system.
When you fight, do you go in to hurt someone, to channel aggression, because you love the sport or a combination of all this?
One of the main reasons I started learning how to fight was to defend myself, defend my friends and family. I also wanted to see how martial arts worked. You have the combat element but it’s also an expression of yourself. You might have an aggressive character – and you’ll see that in the way I fight, it’s an aggressive style – but outside the ring it’s not like that. The ring is the domain where you can express yourself and can be free. Be who you want to be. People like Mike Tyson, Muhammad Ali, they are polite outside the ring, but inside [the ring] they let their natural self out.
Do you feel like a different person inside the ring?
It’s a bit like Hulk. He is always battling himself. Who is the real person? Is he the man or the beast? The truth is, you’re a combination of both. In the cage, I’m free to do what I want to do, so I think it makes me a better person outside the cage. Professional fighting makes you a better person. People always say to me, “You don’t seem like a fighter”.
How does fighting fit in with your beliefs and philosophy in life?
Islamically, you have to control your aggression and be a disciplined human being. For example, right now it’s 11.30pm and it’s Eid tomorrow. We’re going to train until 2am. You need discipline to do this. People who want to start training with me, I tell them to meet at 5.30am, again at 5pm and after a few days, they say how hard they are finding it. But what do you expect?
It’s not easy to get to Jannah [Paradise]. So this whole element of wanting to be a champion, it all ties in with our religion. The Prophet, peace be upon him, also encouraged wrestling, to train and to run, so it all fits perfectly together with what I do.
During Ramadan, I fast the whole day without food or water and then at night, I will train. This is more than any other fighter would do – what guy would fast all day then come to the gym in the evening to train? This mentally makes you stronger than your opponents.
What is your diet like?
People always ask me what my diet is. I ask them, what do you think you should be eating? They say fruits, vegetables, rice, potatoes. That’s exactly it. There’s no secret to it. Just try to eat four to five good meals a day and cut out too many carbs – you can have some carbs after training.
How do your family feel about you fighting?
They were always happy for me to do sports, but not fighting. I remember when I was younger, I used to sneak out the house to compete and come back with lumps on my head, which I would hide from my parents. Naturally, mums don’t want their children to get hurt, especially in a sport like this, where a guy can be punching your head over and over again. It’s not really a normal career.
There are videos of you training where you carry a bucket with you, just in case you vomit. Isn’t that a bit extreme?
I don’t train like that all the time, but sometimes I have to, especially when I’m preparing for a fight. There are times when the guy is hitting you repeatedly and you need to defend yourself, it’s as if your life depends on it. So the way I look at it is, I’d prefer to vomit.
For more on Khalid, visit his Facebook page