UFC lightweight Ramsey Nijem may have been born in California, but when he walks through the arena tunnel, out into the crowd, and towards the Octagon, it’s quite apparent that he’s fighting for some place else.
Draped in the black, white, green, and red flag of Palestine, Nijem has become a cultural and athletic ambassador for his father’s homeland. And now set to take part in Saturday’s UFC 177 main card, Nijem bears the torch and carries the message of 2.7-million Palestinians caught in the midst of a horrific international conflict, 66 years in the making.
But it’s not political or military hard power that Nijem wields inside the Octagon as he’s paid to brutalize opponents. Instead, he has transformed MMA into a soft power platform, using the sport of mixed martial arts to communicate with foreign publics.
Nijem, 26, is a first-generation American, the son of Palestinian immigrants from the West Bank. A former Division I wrestler at Utah Valley University, Nijem made the transition to MMA in 2008, eventually earning a spot in the thirteenth season of The Ultimate Fighter, where he placed second.
On an evening in June 2011, the night of his UFC debut at the TUF 13 finale, Nijem made his first cultural statement to the MMA world.
Despite suffering a first-round knockout loss to eventual tournament champion Tony Ferguson, Nijem silently spoke volumes before entering the Octagon, walking out to Orthodox Jewish reggae rapper Matisyahu, and his song “One Day.”
“All my life I've been waiting for / I've been praying for / For the people to say / That we don't wanna fight no more / There will be no more wars,” sings Matisyahu during the hook of “One Day.” The message of peace is poignant, and carries an even larger significance when endorsed by a Palestinian American, especially when juxtaposed with the ongoing tensions in Gaza.
Nijem understood the polarizing effect of his musical direction, but attempted his own form of diplomacy through sport and song. He also took a moment to reflect on the influence his heritage has on his fight game.
“Being Palestinian, I really think it helps me, you know, be the fighter I am,” offered Nijem during the pre-fight walkout video at the TUF 13 finale. “I’ve been to Palestine and I’ve been through the stops, and I’ve seen the guns, the walls, and… I’m grateful and blessed to actually be able to be fighting in a cage, in a controlled environment, and not for my life.”
The use of Matisyahu demonstrated Nijem’s compassion and cultural savvy; however, he would lose to Ferguson shortly thereafter.
Next came three consecutive victories over Daniel Downes, C.J. Keith, and Joe Proctor, but the streak would be followed by two straight losses, and suddenly Nijem found himself clinging to his UFC contract for dear life, as another defeat could result in immediate dismissal.
Getting the proverbial monkey off of his back with a January 2014 decision over Justin Edwards, Nijem would then prepare to make his debut in the Middle East, a showdown with the previously undefeated Beneil Dariush at Abu Dhabi’s du Arena.
The opportunity to fight in the Middle East presented another chance for Nijem to interact with a foreign public. And despite sharing similar Islamic roots with the United Arab Emirates crowd, Nijem needed a new message to connect with the masses.
Oddly enough, he found his cultural diplomacy initiative buried in the lyrics of an ‘Arab Idol’ winner…
Walking out to face Dariush at UFC Fight Night 39, Nijem electrified the crowd with his choice of Mohammed Assaf’s "Ali Al Keffiyeh" ("Raise Your Keffiyeh"), a Palestinian nationalist anthem. The crowd jumped out of their seats to watch Nijem’s walkout out, raising their heads in a collective moment of rejoice and solidarity.
“For beloved Palestine, my precious home, Arabs, home is precious / When they were united, a stone was the strongest of all / And, a prisoner's prayers, when could I find a relief?” melodizes Assaf.
The choice of song was merely meant as a way for Nijem to interact with the Abu Dhabi fan base. But it also provided him the opportunity to share traces of Palestinian culture with the foreign audience, tuning in via UFC Fight Pass.
Nijem would dispose of Dariush within the first five minutes of their encounter at UFN 39, unloading a barrage of hammer fists and close-range punches. However, sheer pugilism was not enough for Nijem, who had other things in mind.
“I’m here to bring a title to the Middle East… I’m gonna step up and win that title for the Middle East,” stated Njiem after his victory. “I’m ready to fight whoever. I believe I’m the best fifty-fiver in the world. And I want this to be violent. I want everybody out there to be scared at my weight class.”
His words may have been forceful, but his diplomacy remained inside the cage, where MMA was uniting countries and cultures.
The victory over Dariush would be Nijem’s fifth inside the Octagon, and a win over the undefeated Carlos Diego Ferreira at UFC 177 could be enough to solidify his worthiness of competing against a higher level of talent.
But regardless of the outcome on Saturday night, Ramsey Nijem has already found a way to make mixed martial arts about more than two men beating each other up inside a cage. He has taken sports and culture and combined the two into a diplomatic initiative and message centered on peace, ethnic identity, national and regional pride, and equality.
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