DUBAI: Abdul Kareem Al-Selwady is restless. Specifically, restless to fight again.
The MMA fighter, nicknamed the “Pride of Palestine” is stuck at his Dallas, Texas home, training on his own and, like the rest of the world, waiting for the nightmare that is the coronavirus crisis to pass.
“I was supposed to be fighting soon, I hadn’t announced anything because it wasn’t official but then all of a sudden the coronavirus crisis come up and that’s going to postpone things for god knows how long,” Al-Selwady said. “We’re now in complete lockdown, all the gyms are closed, and I’m just trying to adapt and figure my way around things.”
It could be some time, but when the time comes, he’ll be ready to fight.
Indeed, throughout his life, it seems Al-Selwady was always ready for a fight.
“As a kid I was always athletic, and I did very well in all of the sports, but really inside I always wanted to fight, that was my thing. I’d always get in trouble in school, with fighting,” the 24-year-old said.
“I was never bad, never a bully. My problems in school was that I’d always hit the bully, I’d always fight but there were always certain rules that I was raised with by my father. You can never bully anyone; you can never be the one that starts a problem.”
Born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, he moved to Jordan in 2009 at the age of 14 before finishing high-school and graduating university near his extended family. After that he moved back to the US, where he currently lives in Dallas, close to his two sisters and his in-laws.
No one would really mess with me, but I’d see people mess with my friends and that’s how my fights stated at school, I’d always defend the weaker person
Abdul Kareem Al-Selwady
His upbringing in the US had instilled with him a tough, but fair, mentality.
“No one would really mess with me, but I’d see people mess with my friends and that’s how my fights stated at school, I’d always defend the weaker person,” Al-Selwady said.
“I begged my parents to put me into martial arts, boxing, karate classes. They never did, they said I was already too rough, and they worried I’d in end up causing problems at school.”
Once in Jordan, he took matters into his own hands. Without the knowledge of his parents, each day he would visit a boxing gym.
BBC Arabic documentary featuring Abdul Kareem El-Selwady
“Until one day I told my dad I’ve been training at boxing for a while and I have a championship fight the following day, the Jordan National Championships. I asked if he’d come and watch?” Al-Selwady said.
“So he was like, ‘go tomorrow by yourself, but if you win your qualifying matches, I’ll come to the final’. That was a big motivation for me, I went there and won my fight. He came, he watched and I won. Since then he’s been beside me, honestly just supporting me because each fight after that, each tournament was bigger.”
At 15, Al-Selwady was already making the news in local newspapers and magazines and, as an amateur, winning major junior tournaments like the Arab National Championships. He quickly rose through the MMA ranks, and became the youngest ever Desert Force featherweight champion at 17.
“Alhamdulilah I grew a big following,” he said. “As for Palestine, I was always passionate for my people, for my land, and even though I was born and raised in the States I never considered myself an American, I always considered myself a Palestinian, you know, one day we’re going to go and live in our homeland. I was raised with that.”
Today Al-Selwady fights with greater scrutiny, especially by his army of fans in Palestine and Jordan.
“For me it was personal,” he said. “I’m a Palestinian and I want to show the world what we are capable of doing. Later on, I started getting so many messages and attention from Palestinians, from people in Palestine, saying thank you for doing this, it means a lot to us. One time I got very emotional because I was told ‘every punch that you throw, Palestine throws, with every win you get, all of Palestine wins’. A whole nation was standing behind me. That gave me even more motivation to train harder, to fight more.”
In 2018, and in front of UFC champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, Al-Selwady became Brave Combat Federation Lightweight World Champion after technical knockout victory over Brazilian Lucas Martins at Brave 18 in Bahrain.
“I went to Palestine after my world championship fight, with my title, and that was something unforgettable,” he said. “Until now, I’ve never experienced so much love and satisfaction in my life.”
Al-Selwady was starting to make waves in the MMA arena, and BBC Arabic filmed a documentary that followed him as he prepared to defend his title last year against another Brazilian, Luan Santiago Carvalho, at Brave 23. While the film brought him to a new audience, it would not have a happy ending.
“I lost my fight, my title defense,” Al-Selwady, with a career record of 10-3-0, said.
“I wasn’t too hard on myself, because I was prepared, I did everything I can but it just didn’t go as planned. But really, I never knew how much I meant to my people until I lost that fight. The amount of support was maybe more than when I won. When I lost, I felt every Palestinian was there for me, saying ‘don’t worry about it, it happens, we fall every day and we get back up’. It proved to me how much I meant to them.”
I’m just preparing hard, so when this over, I can fight again and get back in the ring
Abdul Kareem Al-Selwady
Al-Selwady was already active on social media, and though he feels the documentary has raised his profile further, he believes it has given his followers greater understanding of his journey.
“Even people that I would see every day didn’t know much about my life until they watched it,” he said.
“Yes, I did receive new followers, new fans who loved it and found it inspiring. Which made me happy, I try to live to help people, to inspire people, in my way.”
Being a role model is something that Al-Selwady never expected when he started his career, but now that it has been bestowed on him, he is aware of not letting anyone down.
“You never know who you’re impacting but then you get feedback from someone saying ‘I really needed Ito hear that today,’ or ‘you really helped me chase my dream’,” he said.
“Some people will say they started training and getting in shape because of something I said. As nice as that is, being a role model becomes responsibility, that you always have to be on point. You don’t want to make mistakes.”
In the documentary, the influence of Muhammad Ali on El-Selwady is obvious, and the fighter credits his father with instilling in him the ethos of the boxer known as “The Greatest”, as well as other iconic martial arts figures like Bruce Lee, in him.
“I used to watch boxing with my dad, watch movies, and that’s also part of why I got into fighting at a young age,” Al-Selwady added.
“These were like icons for me growing up, I always wanted to be like Muhammad Ali, like Bruce Lee, and hearing Ali in press conferences, this guy was filled with confidence, and he had the hard work and the skills to back it up. I always wanted to be like that.”
But for now, as the world shelters from the spread of the coronavirus, all he can do is sit and wait. And train by himself.
“I’m just preparing hard, so when this over, I can fight again and get back in the ring,” he said. “My goals are to enter the UFC, which is the biggest MMA organization in the world, and to be the champion there.”