You just knew it, didn’t you? As soon as you found out that Mohammod Abdulazeez, the 24-year-old man who opened fire on two military installations in Chattanooga, Tennessee last week, had trained as an MMA fighter you knew the media would be buzzing about it. A foreign-born Muslim with an interest in radical Islam and an MMA fighter?! How perfect! Now we just need to neatly follow the narrative thread from one end to the other and the inexplicable will be explained.
And how lousy, again, for fans of MMA, who hold our collective breath every time something awful happens in America, half-expecting to hear that the person behind it was a mixed martial artist who, in addition to everything else he’s done, is making the rest of the world even more suspicious of MMA than they already were.
Mohammod Abdulazeez won his one and only MMA fight on July 18, 2009, in Chattanooga, beating Timmy Hall by TKO. A former varsity high school wrestler, Abdulazeez took Hall down repeatedly and beat him up on the ground. The fight was called when Hall didn’t answer the bell for round three.
Abdulazeez’s father, Youssuf, with whom Abdulazeez had a troubled, even violent relationship, disapproved of his son’s involvement in MMA. He said it was not an appropriate activity for a Muslim.
Abdulazeez’s coaches and teammates say he would bring his prayer rug to the gym and go into the coach’s office at 6 o’clock to pray before returning to the ring.
For a short time back in the early 1980s, the media was enamored with an FBI theory that the Unabomber was a college student with a love of fantasy role-playing games. Some reported that his crimes might have been part of an elaborate game of Dungeons & Dragons. They even identified a group of engineering students who role-played in their spare time as prime suspects. When one member of the group showed up at FBI headquarters dressed in a chicken suit, however, the FBI and the media turned their attention elsewhere.
In the scramble to find someone or something in pop culture to blame for the high school shooting rampage in Columbine, Colorado (Marilyn Manson, perhaps? The Basketball Diaries?), the strangest argument may have been made by Jerald Block, a psychiatrist then living in Portland, Oregon. Block claimed it wasn’t first-person-shooter video games like Doom that had screwed up the brains of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, as many at the time were saying, but rather their parents taking those games away from them. Block told The Denver Post that Harris and Klebold “relied on the virtual world of computer games to express their rage and to spend time, and cutting them off in 1998 sent them into crisis.”
“How do you pull them out without triggering homicidal or suicidal behavior?” Block wondered.
Abdulazeez’s former MMA coach Scott Schrader: “He seemed like the all-American kid.”
From The New York Times:
“Chet Blalock, former owner of a mixed martial arts gym in Chattanooga where Mr. Abdulazeez trained, said Mr. Abdulazeez would allow himself to be choked while fighting until he lost consciousness. Several times, he recalled, the young man would be out cold, revive himself, then take a brief breather before continuing to train.
‘It’s a bit on the extreme side, even for mixed martial arts,’ Mr. Blalock said. He now thinks that Mr. Abdulazeez may have been testing his threshold for pain.”
During an interview with Chris Swecker, former assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division, conducted on the day of the Chattanooga shootings, CNN anchor Erin Burnett asked what he thought about Abdulazeez’s interest in MMA. Swecker said that the “[f]irst thing that comes to mind is I recall one of the Tsarnaev brothers was a mixed martial arts or was into mixed martial arts as well."
Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the mastermind behind the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, wasn’t actually a mixed martial artist. He was a boxer who trained occasionally at the Wai Kru MMA gym in Boston. But boxing doesn’t have the same kind of morbid ring to it that MMA does, and reporters pushed the MMA angle for weeks after the massacre.
Wai Kru gym owner John Allan said that a federal agent investigating the Boston attacks told him that the ability to fight like a mixed martial artist would be a boon to someone looking to carry out a terrorist attack. "Wouldn't you go to the best gym and train yourself to be a human weapon?" Allan recalls the agent asking him.
There are now thousands of stories about Abdulazeez’s interest in mixed martial arts online, many of them written by people who clearly couldn’t be bothered to know anything about the sport. On the day of the attack, The New York Times called Abdulazeez (1-0) a “hardened” MMA fighter. The Independent Journal Review reported that he was “enrolled in a local Mixed Martial Arts league [italics mine].” And with a straight face, CNN anchor Don Lemon asked one of his guests if there was a connection between an interest in MMA and an interest in jihadism.
A representative of the Abdulazeez family told reporters that Mohammod had suffered for years from depression, maybe even bipolar disorder, and that he’d had problems with alcohol abuse and possibly prescription painkillers. At the time of the attacks, Abdulazeez was facing bankruptcy and possible jail time as a result of a drunken-driving charge.
When authorities examined Abdulazeez’s computer this week they found material connected to Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born radical Muslim cleric who was killed by an American drone strike in Yemen in 2011.
Abdulazeez also once fought in a cage on a summer night in Tennessee.
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