Pakistan sports has a new ‘unicorn’—first woman MMA fighter Anita Karim

MMA is a growing sport in Pakistan, and the first professional female fighter Anita Karim is an exception. Karim recently won her fight against Australia’s Uyen Ha with a unanimous decision under Fairtex Fight Promotion at Lumpinee Stadium in Bangkok, Thailand. The 25-year-old beat her opponent in all three rounds of the bantamweight fight.

Karim told ThePrint, “I want women in my country to think that if one girl from Pakistan can do this much, coming out of the same area, other girls can too.” On a national level, there is almost zero recognition for MMA and no regulatory body for the sport despite having roots in Pakistan for over 15 years.

Anita’s coach, Ehtisham Karim, said in an interview that women—from housewives to law enforcement officers—came for MMA training before Anita. But he would always caution them: “There is no future in this sport. If men can’t make it professionally, for women it’s near impossible.” But Anita turned out to be a ‘unicorn’ who persisted.

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‘Ab dangal hoga’

Karim’s story might bring to mind the story of Indian sisters Babita and Geeta Phogat, made even more popular through the movie Dangal (2018), where the Haryana-born wrestlers competed with boys in their preliminary training. While the Phogat sisters had each other to train with, Karim only had the option of training with her brother and other male competitors.

In an interview with The Tribune, Karim said that she didn’t like that women were expected to ‘stay within their limits’. “The bodies of the women in our region are trained to do hard work. From an early age, we carry a lot of load on our backs and climb up the hills. A woman carries around 20 to 30 kilogrammes of wood, crop and other necessities for many kilometres. This makes our muscles adapted to hard work,” she said.

Born in Hunza valley of Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan region, Karim took up her MMA training under Uloomi Karim Shaheen, Ehtesham Karim and Ali Sultan, who are also founders of “Fight Fortress”—an MMA gym and research setup established in 2008.

Karim reportedly chose MMA over higher studies, and, in 2019, won the ONE Warrior Series (OWS), defeating Gita Suharsono from Indonesia. A year later, she beat Marie Rummer of Estonia in the same event.

Karim’s win has been widely lauded on social media. A Twitter user shared an image of Anita with her brother Uloomi Karim and wrote how encouraging and emotional it was to see the two on stage together.

Ehtesham Karim also shared a message on Twitter hailing his student’s win.

Anita’s parents have been supportive of their daughter’s journey even in the face of criticism. “Even when I lost, they supported me and with my wins they’re over the moon,” she said.

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A long way ahead

While Karim is being hailed as ‘Pakitan’s daughter’ for ‘making her country proud’, stereotypes continue to follow her. “People talk about me wearing shorts during the fights but I have no other option. But then there are so many people who understand that that is the need of the sport and a ‘uniform’ when we go to fight,” she said.

The going was tough for Karim as she could only play a few professional matches in Pakistan due to a lack of competitions, facilities, and other female professional fighters. She lost her debut international match before winning the ONE Warrior Series in 2019.

Karim said, “There are multiple challenges for becoming a professional athlete like getting quality training, getting a growing environment, financial management/difficulties for nutrition and travel.”

Ehtisham also highlighted Anita’s struggles but also the fact that she managed to overcome them. He said, “ Imagine how tough it must have been for Anita who landed in Singapore directly from her hometown and had to face criticism and stereotypes while fighting. I told her to focus on her game plan, and that eventually worked.”

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A ray of hope

Karim is the country’s first female MMA fighter but others have emerged too. From Eman Khan, known as ‘Falcon’ to Munaar Sultana, an advocate, women are taking up the sport despite the obstacles.

Eman has pointed out how the sport is also beneficial for other aspects of life, even if it is not taken up professionally. She said in an interview with Bol News, “I want to see a shift in the attitude regarding their health and safety among women in Pakistan. Training kickboxing helped me move better, made me feel stronger physically as well as mentally.”

Ehtisham says that out of 100 students at his academy, 30-35 are now women. Some of them even want to take up the sport professionally. And that, in itself, might be a ray of hope for both the sport and for female professional MMA fighters in the country.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

Source: The Print