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Revolutions & Impossible Dreams: An MMA promotion’s struggle for survival during the Egyptian uprising
Revolutions & Impossible Dreams: An MMA promotion’s struggle for survival during the Egyptian uprising

Prologue – Liberty, Equality & MMA

Under the bright Cairo lights, amidst chants for freedom, Khaled Abdel Hamid stood among his fellow citizens, dazed by his surroundings. He watched as Egyptians marched and protested for a brighter future, though followed silently, cautious of what was to come ahead. As the hours of celebration and peaceful protests turned to days of fighting and uncertainty, Khaled realized that his long-held dream to start an MMA promotion, the blueprint of which was already complete, would have to wait.

 

Prior to the 2011 Arab Spring, Tahrir Square stood as a conglomeration of unique Egyptian monuments, each with its own proud and painful memories: the National Museum, a watermelon pink building that housed a civilization and hosted three millenniums of mesmerizing Pharaonic artifacts; the statue of nationalist hero Omar Makram, a deputy under liberator Muhammad Ali, who resisted Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt; the Headquarters of the Arab League, where Egypt’s first president Gamal Abdel Nasser dreamt of Arab unity and radical policy changes; the downtown campus of the American University, once a palace erected for the proud Ottoman empire. From the Square, you could follow the spider’s web of paved paths to Qasr El-Einy Street -- one of the oldest routes in Cairo, built in the Napoleonic era --– to arrive at the Qasr al-Nil Bridge with a view overlooking the sparkling River Nile.

Yet in a matter of months, Tahrir Square was rendered unrecognizable: the Egyptian Museum was an agonizing reminder that Egypt’s finest days were behind her; the statue of Omar Makram was tarred and feathered with revolutionary posters and stickers of football clubs; street vendors occupied the square -- modern-day gypsies with tents instead of caravans, profiting off the constant foot traffic. They sold drinks in plastic bags and served deep fried street food on the steps that still showed the crusty remnants of blood spilled during the uprising.

Paris on the Nile – the remnants of 19th-century ruler Khedive Ismail’s grand plan for downtown Cairo -- was no more. All that remained was the agonizing reminder of what could have been.

 

 

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Egypt’s historic pivot began on January 25, 2011. Thousands of citizens swarmed the country’s streets to voice their discontent with President Mubarak’s regime. They serenaded the worn streets with songs of freedom, filled the polluted air with rhythmic reminders of past joys, and spoke of a brighter future for their children. Crowds funneled their way through the narrow downtown passageways, fusing into a single 15,000 strong collective to occupy Tahrir Square – a place that translates literally to “Center of Victory.” Hundreds packed the side streets, effectively sealing them off.

 

Khaled realized that his long-held dream to start an MMA promotion, the blueprint of which was already complete, would have to wait.

Khaled Abdel Hamid, an average citizen with an unusual passion for mixed martial arts, was there among the crowd. Yet on that day, unlike the many before and since, MMA didn’t even cross his mind. Instead, he took in the surrounding sights and listened to his countrymen voice their demands.

Surprised by the sheer number of protestors and their unusual tenacity, a nervous police force resorted to tear gas and rubber bullets, hoping to weaken the mob. Unknown to them, their reactionary violence would start a chain of events that would last nearly three weeks. Riots and protests swelled with each passing day, fueled by anger and a growing sense of desperation. The army was deployed to maintain peace but offered little support to either side.

 

By February 1, the ‘March of Millions’ gathered well over 2 million protesters in Cairo, with several hundred thousand others across the major cities. Fearmongering was the sitting government’s only response, and fear brought more violence.

 

 

Jonathan Rashad

Then came anarchy. Thugs on camelback hacked at peaceful protesters in Tahrir, prisoners serving life sentences were released onto the streets, wide scale looting was reported, and sexual predators ran unchecked as women were publicly harassed and assaulted in increasing numbers. Amidst the mass confusion, police forces, once the supposed protectors of the people, were nowhere to be found.

Yet despite the growing risks, rising death toll and gradual dissension to anarchy, the crowds in Tahrir Square continued to swell. Their demands only got louder with each passing day. By Friday, February 11 — known to Egyptians as the ‘Friday of Departure’ — demonstrators gathered in inconceivable numbers to witness the final moments of Mubarak’s 30-year reign. Newfound hope saw Egyptians dare to dream of the future ahead; and while many reveled in their good fortune and promising prospects, Khaled sensed that troubling times lay ahead.

A simple walk through Tahrir Square in the aftermath of a fortnight’s worth of protests and bloodshed was enough to validate his fears. Egypt would never be the same again.

 

 

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Fighters Forgotten

'Hope might disappear but will never pass away.' – Egyptian Revolution Slogan

Khaled grew up in a modest apartment, tucked away in one of many buildings occupying one of Cairo’s countless clustered streets. Hidden in his room, the 14-year-old sat mesmerized in front of his small television set, his finger constantly rewinding Kung Fu tapes in his VHS player.

If you watch closely enough, particularly as a gullible adolescent, you may see past the questionable acting and the cartoonish violence to the beauty of the choreographed fight sequences. Punches and kicks resounding off unsuspecting recipients like shrill gunfire. Animal spirits brought a supernatural mystique to the narratives; snakes, cranes, tigers, even dragons, were all key elements of Kung Fu cinema. Stone-carved specimens in absolute command of gravity, martial artists captured the imaginations of pimply adolescents across the world, and Khaled was no different.

Indeed, Khaled loved his ‘action films,’ and soon, with his brother’s encouragement, the two boys began taking martial arts classes at the local sporting club. Once the novelty wore off, however, the youngsters quickly thirsted for a more applicable martial art.

To be honest, we really didn’t get the feeling of ‘fighting’ from Kung Fu,” Khaled recalled. “We liked the action movies that came from it in the old days of video. It used to excite us and we liked watching it, but we thought the discipline was weird. It wasn’t what we were looking for.”

Disappointed but not discouraged, Khaled went in search of a sport that would get his blood pumping. He tried out several other martial arts before he settled on kickboxing. It was the only one that felt realistic to him. Unlike Kung Fu, kickboxing was much more of a full contact experience. It gave him a medium to learn the art of striking, and allowed him to discard the martial arts ideals that he found unwieldy.

 

 

Khaled (right)

Throughout his teenage years, Khaled worked on his kickboxing skills and claims to have won numerous junior-regional and junior-national titles by his 18th birthday. As Cairo had few kickboxing-specific gyms, the majority of amateur competitors who lived in the densely populated city collected under one roof. Out of sheer circumstance, Khaled found himself surrounded by Egypt’s most successful fighters. From military champions to international contenders, they all converged in the same handful of gyms under a single boxing and kickboxing federation. Through this federation, professional shows were regularly sanctioned and fighting began to flourish.

Looking back, Khaled refers to this time, which largely took place over the year 2002, as the “era of Egyptian pride.” Fighters that, in Khaled’s opinion, should have been in MMA instead traded punches and kicks in a handful of gyms across the city.

“It was the best time for fighting in Egypt.”

 

 

 

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Though combat sports were flourishing in the early 2000s a growing ideological clash between the entrenched traditions held by the boxers and the modern conventions of the rising tide of kickboxers led to a series of significant changes to the Egyptian boxing and kickboxing federation. Boxing wanted to maintain its role as the premier sport, while kickboxing was tired of being relegated to sideshow slots. This inter-organizational segregation quickly devolved to a bitter split between the two sports and, eventually, the collapse of the longstanding organizational structure. The regulatory body that oversaw Egypt’s most popular combat sports had come to an unceremonious end.

“It was a political move,” Khaled recalled. “From then on, everyone became their own entrepreneur and ran their own amateur shows.”

For years, Khaled watched from a distance as promoters sprouted up around Egypt, each with grand plans involving unsanctioned, amateur fights. Every two-bit businessman wanted to get in on on the latest kickboxing trend.

“I watched people conduct seminars and amateur events and wondered ‘are we ever going to become professional?’ I honestly got tired of it all. I was bothered with the system in Egypt and wanted to move on to a different sport.”

By 2008, Khaled was a university graduate with the ability to practice law, though he lacked any interest in pursuing that career. Increasingly poor economic conditions and growing resentment among Egyptian youth had long worn away any white collar ambitions he may have once had. Lawyers were a dime a dozen in Cairo and government-employed ones were pitifully underpaid. The fight industry was his true passion, but there was little to yield from such infertile soil. If he was to survive in it, he had to bring in an entirely new product.

Enter mixed martial arts.

Khaled first encountered MMA in the same way he discovered Kung Fu movies: through his VHS player. Friends would huddle around his television set and gorge themselves unapologetically on the displays of violence. Though he had marvelled at the old Pride shows over the years, he had never given it much thought since it had no following in Egypt. Now, however, he was inclined to consider novel options. MMA was the only combat sport that had not fallen victim to the entrepreneurial curse that had withered boxing and kickboxing in Egypt, mainly because it did not exist. Khaled, ever so ambitious, decided to roll the dice.

And thus began a journey full of frustrating dead ends, sleepless nights, revolutionary obstacles, and stars that simply refused to align.

 

 

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The Search for Sunlight

“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” ― Vladimir Ilich Lenin

Egypt, despite its rich history and commanding culture, was a barren wasteland for prospective fighters before 2009.

Accordingly, the three years leading up to Khaled’s inaugural MMA show in Egypt were, in many ways, more difficult than those that followed. While boutique gyms and fitness centers offering overpriced fad lifestyles flourished in Egypt’s capital city, Khaled’s search for half decent combat sports-oriented gyms and talented fighters was like seeking an oasis in the desert.

That’s not to say there was nothing.

If you wanted to see a “no-holds-barred” fight in Egypt, you could search out one of the ‘underground’ gyms scattered sporadically throughout Cairo. One such place, a renegade fight club of sorts, had built a reasonably large roster of supposed fighters, big enough to host a show they called the Egyptian Free-Fight Championships. In his search for fighters to promote, Khaled attended an event and was struck dumb by what he saw.

Two large men dressed in baggy board shorts walked onto a wrestling mat surrounded by a handful of curious spectators. Men huddled close together, like children attending a high school soccer match. One played the Tablah, an Egyptian ‘Goblet Drum’, while others clapped rhythmically to add some atmosphere to the otherwise desolate gym.

“The event took place in something that could only be considered a chicken coop,” Khaled said, relaying a tone of disappointment. “It was disheartening to see the Egyptian flag over it.”

One of the contestants had boxing gloves on, while the other had elected to compete in a pair of regular shoes. The referee was casually attired in a t-shirt and jeans, as though he’d just stumbled in off the street. There were no fences or ropes, no ring, no cage around the combatants. Those in attendance seemed more entertained by their music and singsongs than whatever spectacle the violence offered.

“Not only did someone host this event, he recorded it as well and uploaded it to YouTube. Imagine the embarrassment: MMA Egypt in a banner, while fighters competed in a chicken coop. It looked like we had at least 15 years before we would catch up.”

 

 

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With no promotions to learn from, no gyms to turn to for knowledge, and no thriving source of fighters to tap into, Khaled became fully aware of just how dire the situation actually was. He would have to rent out space, start his own gym in Cairo, and bring in coaches and equipment himself.

Convinced that he had to invest all his time, effort, and income into his newfound project, Khaled quit his job as a lawyer — a part time position that he only took to appease his family — and invested all he earned into journeying across Egypt in search of talent.

This was the real challenge – an exasperating search for a ray of sunlight in a sky that had, thus far, only been cloudy.

Khaled travelled to all sorts of regions in Egypt – Alexandria, Mansoura and others – to find fighters and trainers. Well aware that his country had no shortage of posers – young men with inflated arms and egos – he was prepared for the frustrations ahead.

“These guys never even stepped into an MMA gym,” Khaled recalled, occasionally stopping to laugh at the memory. “They were training at regular commercial gyms. I started gathering these ambitious men and tried to help them find the right training. One week they were regular people, the next they were fighters. It was like watching ‘Never Back Down.’

“I used them and tried to get some of the fighters that I used to know from my kickboxing days nearly a decade ago.”

However, by the time Khaled went searching for his former fellow kickboxers, most had already moved on. Some had married and settled down, gotten soft and doughy, gone out and gotten real jobs or moved away. A few had even died. There was only one man that Khaled knew that was still around and still training: Mahmoud Salama – a former Egyptian kickboxing champion.

 

 

Egyptian Top Team

“Turned out he was still in the gym and active like nothing changed. The only one remaining from the old guard who ever made it onto our shows.”

Far from an expert in the sport, Khaled would spend a portion of his time on the mats with the fighters he hunted down, as he was equally curious to learn the intricacies of MMA as he was to promote it to a wider audience in Egypt.

“Khaled is an intelligent and creative human being when it comes to his work,” said Hisham Hiba, a member of Khaled’s fight roster and ONE Championships fighter. “While the sport is one that we expected to grow exponentially, it still required an exceptional amount of work just to get off the ground. Khaled is the only person I know who was able to put together the team and work to make this a successful venture.”

Having compiled his league of unusual challengers, Khaled had to figure out how to transform them into MMA fighters. He sought out the handful of jiu-jitsu competitors in Egypt to meet his grappling needs. Wrestling, once a staple in Egyptian sporting clubs and gyms, was almost obsolete. To this day, it remains his team’s Achilles heel.

Nevertheless, midway through 2010, Khaled began to prepare for his inaugural show. He started social media pages, handed out leaflets, and conducted seminars to educate fans across Cairo. In his spare time, he cold-called notable Egyptian corporations to summon much-needed finances. Somehow, he convinced enough people to invest in him to set the wheels in motion.

While all this was happening, he overlooked other messages spreading around Egypt; inspiring Facebook messages and emails reaching out to all corners – an instruction sheet with a single mission statement:

On January 25, 2011, Egypt will be free again.

 

 

Jonathan Rashad

 

 

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Impossible Dreams

“The Revolution introduced me to art, and in turn, art introduced me to the Revolution!” ― Albert Einstein

Between January 25 and February 11, approximately 850 Egyptian civilians were killed, while another 6,500 were injured. The uprising left the country in shambles, and the months that followed were filled with political tension and social turmoil.

Once former President Hosni Mubarak was removed from his seat as Egypt’s modern-day-Pharaoh, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) assumed control of the republic’s governmental affairs. They promised to help the country through the transitional period and into its first democratically elected leadership. And while Egyptians seemingly had confidence in the military’s ability to provide stability during this volatile period, they failed to account for the political parties who had long been banished from Egypt and were not about to pass up the chance to fill the power vacuum. The Muslim Brotherhood, severely quelled and mistreated under the Mubarak regime, began to plot their religious takeover.

And as political unrest brewed, Egypt’s wealthiest investors almost simultaneously began to lose trust in the Egyptian economy and opted to invest their money elsewhere. The combination unleashed a downward spiral of employment, income, and prospective opportunities for the youth who had bled to set their country free.

 

 

Egyptian Army Asserts Authority After Fall Of Mubarak Regime

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

These difficult economic conditions weren’t the first obstacle in Khaled’s path, but they threatened to crush him. After gathering a fruitful list of sponsors and partners back in 2010, he had to endure an endless stream of phone calls from companies retracting pledges and retreating from previous financial agreements.

“Everything took a turn for the worse. We lost all the big sponsors we had acquired ahead of the first show and all the major companies froze up entirely. We even had a one-show broadcast deal. No one wanted to invest in anything at all in case the situation got worse.”

The situation was dire.

“Sadly, [Khaled] was fighting from a thousand directions, as the problems only got worse,” Hiba explained. “The revolution flooded Egypt with a weak economy and terrible social conditions that delayed the rise of MMA in Egypt. It is the main reason as to why his shows do not resemble the international ones fans are used to. The country simply does not have the conditions to allow the tournaments to flourish, or for investors to show confidence in the product.”

“No one wanted to invest in anything at all in case the situation got worse.”

With no stability, Khaled had to resort to unconventional methods to host his first event. Given that the financial well had dried up before he ever got to tap the source and fill his bucket, he decided to move the inaugural show to an on-campus location at Cairo University, the second oldest institution of higher learning in the country. Constructed in 1908 and sitting on the West Bank of the Nile, the institute harbored notable alumni, from renowned Egyptian actors and deposed presidents, right down to the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Cairo University, like many good academic institutions, had also been home to popular protests and student activists for decades. The January 2011 uprising was the latest chapter in this long history, and it kept trouble right at Khaled’s door.

 

 

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In its first year of existence, EFC held six events, five of which took place at Cairo University. The small amphitheater that hosted shows, lectures, and sporting events, was home to Egypt’s first consistent string of MMA events. As legitimate talent was hard to come by in the beginning, the shows stood as a testament to the will of the competitors, rather than the skill they had to offer.

Some fighters performed admirably. Others were embarrassing. Neither group was seen by more than a hundred people at a time, distracted as the country was by the riots and protests happening outside the theatre walls.

For a while, the late 2011 parliamentary elections were the primary concern. They saw Egypt’s formerly banished Islamic parties win an overwhelming and deeply concerning majority. By the first quarter of 2012, rallies and protests centered not on the former government, but on the upcoming Presidential elections.

“Every Friday was some sort of protest. The Friday of Rage, the Friday of Redemption, the Friday of Remembrance – all sorts of weird names. When we finally decided to go ahead with the shows, I had to operate around these protests, so I did my shows on Thursdays and Saturdays.

“I was so stubborn during that period. I was going to bring MMA to Egypt if it was the last thing I did. If I even thought to rest, I knew everything would collapse.”

EFC remained on a lifeline, fighting for its existence, both inside and outside the ring.

“If you check our Sherdog page, you’ll notice that a fair amount of our shows actually took place during key times in the revolution. I think at one point, we actually had an event happen during a large-scale protest outside.”

Khaled struggled to recount the aforementioned exact date and event. There were far too many protests to remember.

“Things like that were not planned,” Khaled explained. “I would schedule the date ahead of time, but something political would happen, and people would get outraged and take to the streets around the time of the shows. All sorts of things – group gatherings, military rushing the streets, police interference, religious protests – it happened regularly.”

It was also a period that saw the Egyptian people’s revolutionary honeymoon come to a bitter end. Unemployment rates remained woefully unacceptable, dreams of social mobility and economic prosperity were violently shattered, and ambitions of newfound freedoms proved bitterly naïve.

All of this trickled down to Khaled.

He once envisioned crowds of excitable Egyptian MMA fans and arenas filled with palpable atmosphere. Instead, he found himself stuck in the revolutionary backlash and its accompanying instability and financial paranoia.

“I really believed that we could operate as a promotion outside of the political and social sphere and the revolutionary environment. That was impossible.”

 

 

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Survival of the Wisest

“A revolution is not a bed of roses. A revolution is a struggle between the future and the past.” ― Fidel Castro

On the one-year anniversary of the day pro-Mubarak protesters stormed Tahrir Square on camelback, Egypt was dealt another politically-motivated counter-revolutionary blow.

This time the setting was a football pitch.

Port Said, a Mediterranean city 200 kilometers Northeast of Cairo, became the location for one of Egypt’s bloodiest massacres in recent memory. The Port-Said Stadium, which had hosted the 1997 FIFA U-17 World Championship, 2006 African Cup of Nations, and the 2009 FIFA U-20 World Cup, became the site of calamity.

On February 1, 2012, riots broke out following a match between El Ahly (Egypt’s most popular football club) and El Masry, who took home a 3-1 win against the favored side.

74 people were killed that day. Some were beaten to death; some were stabbed; others were trampled.

Following their victory, El Masry fans stormed the pitch, overwhelming officials and El Ahly players and coaches. While the team managed to flee to their locker rooms and to relative safety, many fans and bewildered audience members were not as lucky. Many were trampled as they attempted to exit the building – but the gates had been sealed shut, enclosing the fighting from the outside world and ensuring its tragic fallout.

74 people were killed that day. Some were beaten to death by clubs and sticks; some were stabbed; others were trampled. There were only three clear causes of death: concussions, brain hemorrhages, and fatal knife wounds.

According to various reports, 73 culprits, including nine police officers, were arrested and put on trial for their actions. By 2015, 26 had been acquitted of all charges, while 11 were sentenced to death. Others received life sentences. Many, including foreign media sources, believed the attack was politically motivated in response to El Ahly’s well-organized ‘Ultras’ supporters. The soccer fans’ presence and exceptional influence during the revolution could not be denied. The massacre was considered an old score settled by the remnants of Mubarak’s former regime.

 

 

Demonstrations In Cairo Follow Football Stadium Deaths

Photo by Ed Giles/Getty Images

Khaled was determined not to be the next victim of a sporting massacre. Gripped with paranoia and a deep-set fear that everything could be taken away from him at any instant, Khaled erred on the side of caution when administering EFC. He refused to be reactionary. He was not going to wait until the sitting government decided that his promotion was a potential risk to national security — a tendency they had when they did not understand, or did not want to encourage, an activity going on in the public sphere.

Cage fighting was definitely something that they didn’t understand.

Stained with the stigma of barbarism, Khaled decided that the odds were already far too stacked against him to take any risks, and banned all forms of political discussion amongst his team.

“I made sure that no one with the organization ever mentioned politics. If anyone discussed politics, I would kick them off my team or keep them away from the promotion. They would be banned for life.”

It was not an easy task. Revolutionary discussion had become a bourgeois trend and Egyptians were far too used to voicing opinions, whether between puffs of a shisha at a coffee shop or in a rant on Facebook. That overwhelming sense of entitlement – the incessant urge to voice one’s opinion no matter its importance -- was exactly what Khaled tried to erase from his fighters.

“I used to tell everyone: here is sport and here is politics. If you play sports, you don’t talk about politics. You are a fighter. Your job is to fight. What do you have to do with politics? I wanted no association with politics.”

“I made sure that no one with the organization ever mentioned politics. If anyone discussed politics, I would kick them off my team...”

All of this sounds like the paranoid actions of a jaded businessman, but Khaled knew that he was being watched. All the youth groups and sporting events were. Freedom of speech was not a right in Egypt; it was a privilege delicately handed out by those in power.

“I was strict because our national security will see such comment, check out where the fighter trains or competes, and then give them hell. I never scared them into anything. Everyone has a right to say what they want, but they also have to understand the difficult situation we are in.”

If Khaled’s fighters ever questioned his decision to segregate EFC from the swelling political sphere, their concern was swiftly undercut when national security paid a surprise visit to one of their shows.

 

 

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On October 31st, 2013, Khaled managed to negotiate a new venue for his 11th event. Located several kilometers away from Tahrir Square, Khaled assumed that the El Azbakeya Sporting Club would be free of rioting or potential protestors. He was right, but he had failed to consider the attention he would draw to himself and his promotion by moving to an entirely new location.

Curious spectators lined up to attend this ‘fighting show.’ They crammed the streets around the entrance and quickly garnered unwanted attention. Midway through the evening’s fights, Khaled noticed a murmur travel through the crowd like a chill up his spine. He knew what that meant: Police.

They arrived in a gust of moustaches, barrel chests, and two-way radios. Dressed in black pants, white button up shirts, and black jumpers with stripes to signify rank, the security force carved its way through the crowd until they reached the ring. Then they caught sight of Khaled, and approached him with dastardly authoritativeness.

“They asked me what was going on. I explained that it is an MMA event. They asked, ‘So this isn’t a street fight?’ I told them that it was all sport. They weren’t convinced that it wasn’t a gathering to be suspicious about so I even invited them to join and watch in the front row.”

The moment of truth: Either the falcon would scoop up its prey and kill it, or Khaled would keep the officers too distracted to arrest him.

“They took me up on the offer.”

 

 

EFC Egypt

Relieved but far from relaxed, Khaled led the police general over to the front row and cleared off a section for the officers to sit and watch. Though awkward at first, they loosened their collars and showed hints of enjoyment when they witnessed a knockout in the following fight. It was a particularly brutal one, but it didn’t faze them. They were men who were used to inflicting violence.

The general grew more enthusiastic with each passing minute. He watched attentively and asked Khaled numerous questions. He stayed for an hour before one of his officers requested his presence elsewhere. The squad collected themselves and exited. Khaled, and the crowd with him, breathed a collective sigh of relief.

“In all honestly, national security generally respects those who respect them and mind their own business. This is the good thing about it. It was one of those occasions that I’ll never forget.”

Unfortunately for him, this experience with government authority was more the exception than the rule.

 

 

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What Could Have Been

“The first lesson a revolutionary must learn is that he is a doomed man.” ― Huey P. Newton

In an industry littered with failed ventures, Khaled trotted on with a half-hearted smile, reinventing himself and his promotion with each passing year. To stay afloat, he began to coach and manage Egyptian fighters who competed on international shows in India, the United States, and across South East Asia. The remainder of his time was spent hosting regular events despite the hopeless longing for a TV deal that never surfaced. As Khaled made superficial adjustments to his shows like introducing Western-inspired circular cages and improved graphics packages, his heart ached as he remembered a time when EFC was set to be broadcast to tens of millions of Egyptians on public television. It was a painful memory, worn down by four years of bitter, endless struggles.

As Khaled recalled, opportunity crept during EFC’s first venture outside Cairo University in 2012. The promotion had steadily grown ever since he moved his events away from Friday protests, and what began as a handful of spectators eventually swelled into hundreds of fans per show. Their social media reach also grew exponentially, which helped them sign a deal with Melody Sports to broadcast several of their upcoming shows.

It was a breakthrough. Less than two years removed from the January uprising, Khaled finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel. His promotion was going to get the attention that it deserved, and all his work would finally be validated.

“It was the first time that one of our events was on public television, or television at all. All of Egypt got to see the show and it was a historic moment. It was one of my proudest moments. It was unreal.”

If only it had lasted longer than a moment.

The June 2012 presidential elections saw the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi ascend to the country’s highest governmental position. Fundamentalism masquerading as a moderate Islamic political party had hijacked the revolution, and they were determined to maintain their newfound grip on power. They shut down television stations that opposed them and bullied others into submission. Among those that fell victim to the closures was Melody Sports’ parent company. While the Brotherhood lasted no more than a year in power, the sports channel never returned.

“At that point, anyone would have gotten a stroke.”

Anyone but Khaled.

 

 

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Change is an inevitable component of the human experience. It manifests through physical transformation, internal struggles, and personal strife, and through outward reflections and reverberations of the surrounding environment. Change brings evolution and progress, regression and destruction. It flowers from political causes, economic turmoil, and societal desperation.

By its very nature, change in a revolution will be swift, and often violent and uncompromising. In Khaled Abdel Hamid’s case, revolution freed his personal inhibitions but nearly killed his professional ambitions.

Nearly five years removed from the lowest point in his promotional endeavor, Khaled is able to reflect on the hopelessness of his ambition, doomed before it ever started. Egypt’s tense socio-political climate and fragile economy made for a cruel business environment. His company wasn’t the only one to suffer, though promoting a niche concept that normalized regulated violence to a conservative society certainly didn’t help his case.

“By its very nature, change in a revolution will be swift, and often violent and uncompromising.”

Yet in spite of the far-ranging obstacles that limited his potential, Khaled still managed to carve out a small market for his product. Stuck in a country where freedom of expression is nonexistent and dissidents are punished for daring to oppose the military dictatorship, Khaled found that the best way to survive was to remain as silent about his politics.

“Politics is a double-edged sword and you can never grab a single side without getting cut. Politics has its people and it is all about perspective. My career is in MMA and that is what I understand. I set out to start the first MMA promotion in Egypt and I believe I have achieved that.”

Khaled had found his silver lining and achieved his impossible dream, if only for a moment in time.

 

**All quotes have been translated from Arabic and edited for clarity by Karim Zidan.