News Fasting Fighters: How Ramadan shapes the training regimes of MMA’s Muslim stars

The holy month of Ramadan, a time dedicated to fasting, prayer, reflection, and community, is of great significance to Muslims worldwide. For those who are mixed martial arts athletes, it influences their daily routines in a profound manner.

To gain insights into how elite fighters balance celebrating their faith and managing their careers, we spoke with individuals from some of the top organizations around the globe.

Muhammad Mokaev, fresh from his 12th consecutive professional victory — a unanimous decision over Alex Perez earlier this month — is a star in the UFC’s flyweight division. Currently ranked seventh, he is on the cusp of a title shot.

“My routine is simple,” he told Arab News. “We train for one- to one-and-a-half hours before iftar, then break our fast, visit the mosque around midnight, stay awake until 4 a.m. or slightly before, have a pre-sunrise meal, and then wake up at 11 a.m. But the most important aspect is focusing on performing good deeds and seeking opportunities to aid charities because good deeds are multiplied,” he emphasized.

Mokaev highlights the benefits of fasting, extolled by sports scientists, as a period for enhanced recovery from the physical demands of MMA.

“I believe fasting benefits us as athletes by enhancing our health; it cleanses our system without the need for dieting or weight cuts, allowing our bodies to relax, rest and recuperate,” he explained. “We train rigorously, so it’s crucial. Additionally, fasting alters our mindset; we become more focused, generous, and contemplative of ways to assist those in need. It fosters a deeper connection with our inner selves.”

Choosing to prioritize his faith, Mokaev made the decision to skip UFC 300 on April 14.

“Ramadan surpasses all else,” asserted the 23-year-old. “I speak not only for myself but for all Muslim fighters; it holds precedence over competition because our victories are ultimately granted by the Almighty. I’ve received countless blessings; hence, I cannot disregard this obligation for personal gain.”

Mokaev’s journey from Buynaksk, Dagestan, to England is a tale of resilience. Despite facing personal challenges, including the loss of his mother, and living in a refugee camp on just 5 pounds sterling ($6.36) per day, he remains steadfast in his pursuit of a UFC title.

“Regardless of victories or defeats, maintaining authenticity is paramount. You can hold championship belts, but if devoid of respect and affection, they hold no value,” he said.

Shamil Gasanov, who competes in ONE Championship, adopts a relaxed stance toward Ramadan, considering it akin to the challenges inherent in his sport.

“For fighters, Ramadan isn’t overly arduous as we’re accustomed to weight-loss regimens and dietary restrictions,” said the No. 5-ranked featherweight. “I mainly stay home, visit the mosque, and engage in light training in the evenings during Ramadan. It offers complete rejuvenation for my body, and importantly, strengthens my spiritual connection.”

Gasanov, dubbed “The Cobra,” aspires to secure dual world titles, driven by a promise made to his mother.

Shamil Gasanov, who competes in ONE Championship, considers Ramadan akin to the challenges inherent in his sport. (Supplied)

In the Professional Fighter’s League, Biaggio Ali Walsh, Muhammad Ali’s grandson, echoes the sentiment of Ramadan bring a spiritual journey that enhances personal growth, despite the physical and mental challenges of fasting and training.

“It’s not normal,” said Walsh. “You’re fasting while also training and usually you can drink water but during the fast, you can’t. It’s tough mentally and physically but we all do it for the same reason; to get closer with God.”

Coming off a unanimous decision win over Emmanuel Palacio in his professional debut in Riyadh in February, Walsh acknowledges the unique challenge Ramadan presents, both physically and spiritually. Despite the hardships, he finds solace in the deeper spiritual connection fostered during this time.

Baiggio Ali Walsh, Muhammad Ali’s grandson, of PFL says Ramadan brings a spiritual journey that enhances personal growth. (Supplied)

Having a fight camp in Ramadan poses unique challenges, as experienced by Mohamed Said Maalem, slated to headline at Brave CF 81. With the fight approaching on April 20, Maalem confronts the daunting task of balancing physical preparation with spiritual obligations.

“The biggest challenge is that I have a fight against a big name like Erko Jun, so I need to work very hard,” he said.

“It’s too hard to prepare for a fight during Ramadan. You are tired and weak and another thing that is difficult is that you can’t find training partners to go hard with you. That’s a main concern for this camp.”

Maalem believes that fighting, like most sport at the highest level, comes down to mentality and strength of will. If an athlete can endure a fight camp while also being deprived of daily sustenance, he will have a mental edge over his opponent.

“Religion strengthens the heart, fostering resilience and patience, essential attributes in the pursuit of victory. I become like a lion. Eventually, my resistance becomes 10 times bigger, my patience increases times 100, even though my anger sometimes also goes up in numbers,” he said, laughing.

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