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Tracing the art of fighting in Pakistan

Some of Pakistan’s most renowned martial artists speak about the past, present and future of combat sports

By Nabil Tahir |
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PUBLISHED October 02, 2022

Pakistan's most popular sport may be cricket and the national sport may be hockey, but some that are gaining rapid popularity are various forms of martial arts. Practiced for multiple reasons such as self-defense, competition and physical, mental and spiritual development, many of these forms have a rich history, especially in the eastern part of the world.

Many countries adopted various styles of martial arts dating back from the 3rd millennium BC. In Pakistan too, there are several dates and names of people who claim to have brought martial arts to Pakistan. If we look for the person most famous for bringing martial arts to our, we would hear only one name: Ashraf Tai.

Since 1970, when Tai moved to Pakistan with his family, martial arts have grown in the country. Various styles have been introduced to us, including Bando, the Korean arts of Taekwondo and Tang Soo Doo, Jiu Jitsu in both its Japanese and Brazilian forms, Judo, Shotokan, Bushu-Ban, Toushi Kan and many more Kans, Dos and Jitsus. To top them off, many professional martial artists now believe that traditional combat sports like Malakhra and wrestling competitions known as dangal or kushti, are also part of the wider eastern martial arts tradition.

The Express Tribune talked to some of the country's top martial artists to find out when this sport arrived in Pakistan and where it stands now. You will be amazed to know about the talent and feel worried about the state of the sport. We are not sure when the Malakhra, the traditional ancient Sindhi form of wrestling, came, but it dates back 5000 years. But we know about Tai, who formally brought the sport to Pakistan and gave it a proper structure to give the athletes a platform to represent the country.

Muhammad Ashraf Tai

This is a name that everyone who has a slight interest in this sport would have heard of. But for those who don't, he was born in 1947 in a Burmese Muslim family that claims direct descent from the Hatim al-Tai. His family left Burma and migrated to East Pakistan after the government there nationalised everything, and all assets owned by the family were consequently taken away. However, during the events that led to the separation of East Pakistan, Tai moved to the Western wing in 1970 and settled in Karachi.

He describes his first days in Karachi as ‘looking for work’. He came across a person who happened to be a bodybuilder. Having achieved a black belt in the Bando style in Burma at the age of 16, it was here where Tai's interest in martial arts was sustained. Gradually, he began to teach martial arts to students at a park, which improved his financial situation and also promoted his reputation.

Tai is a martial arts grandmaster, a 10th-degree Dan (Black Belt), the 2-time Afro-Asian Martial Arts Champion (1978-1979), the nine-time Pakistan Karate Champion, and one of the most famous Grandmasters in Pakistan's history. He stayed unbeaten in 45 fights before losing the battle that forced him to give up his career.

Tai started Karate at the age of nine with Lee Show Shin. He got his black belt at the age of 16. He started participating in local tournaments, most of which were professional. Tai branched off into full-contact Karate and kickboxing. After compiling an impressive streak of knockout victories in Pakistan, Ashraf Tai competed in the 1978 Afro-Asia Martial Arts Championship.

He created a sensation by overpowering Stanley Michael of Malaysia in the finals to win the Afro-Asia Championship. Tai defeated Japan's Koha Yash a year later by a points decision. After emerging triumphant in a tournament staged in Sri Lanka in 1980, Tai took his undefeated kickboxing record of 45–0–0 (44 knockouts, 33 in the first round) into a title shot at reigning world light heavyweight kickboxing champion Don Wilson of the United States.

Tai travelled to Tokyo, Japan, to fight Wilson. In the first round, Ashraf Tai surprised Wilson by attacking from a traditional karate stance; Tai backed up the champion with a spinning back fist. However, in the second round, Don Wilson rebounded and knocked out Tai at 1:56 of the round. Following his defeat to Wilson, Tai retired from active competition.

As a martial arts pioneer in Pakistan, he laid the foundation of the Pakistan Karate Federation. He succeeded in having the body affiliated with the Pakistan Olympic Association and the Pakistan Sports Board.

Having received numerous awards in various continents of the world during his illustrious career, he was declared the International Grand Master of the Year in 2000 by the US International Grandmasters Council, an institution based in the United States. In 2003, Ashraf Tai was awarded the Pride of Performance by President General Pervez Musharraf for his contribution to Karate in Pakistan. In 2012, Ashraf Tai was again awarded the Pride of Performance by President Asif Ali Zardari for his contribution to Karate.

Tai's Bando Karate Centre, founded by him in 1971, has already trained thousands of martial artists. The branches of his centres have not only been functioning with great success all over the country, but the students taught by him have also been operating the centres named after him in quite a few countries like the United States, England, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, France, the Netherlands and Bangladesh.

The pioneer of Bando in Pakistan, Tai holds the distinction of claiming the highest degree (10th Dan) in the martial arts history of the country. Only a handful of martial artists have matched his feat worldwide.

Developing stage and big names

Apart from Tai, many of his students, some who were inspired by him or Bruce Lee, began practicing Bando, Taekwondo and other styles. Locally, Judo and Shotokan were brought by Sensei Naveed Mehmood. He is the founder of SKIF Pakistan (Shotokan Karate Schools Pakistan) and responsible for promoting this style of Martial Arts in Pakistan.

If we talk about the Japanese style, such as Kokusan, Inamullah Khan has played a vital role in the promotion of this style of martial art in the country and still training many students.

In traditional sports like Kushti, we have a huge name attached to our country. Ghulam Mohammad Baksh Butt, popularly known as 'The Great Gama', is considered a god figure among wrestlers, but in Pakistan, people rarely know about him.

Modern martial arts scene

Although Pakistan has a rich history in the traditional sport after the pioneers brought different martial arts styles to Pakistan. The upcoming martial artist adopted more styles under modern martial arts, such as Judo, Ju-Jitsu, Wushu, Karate, and a new form of wrestling affiliated with the Pakistan Olympic Association and participated in international competitions.

Pakistan has won several medals in these sports, and these are the ones that have the most athletes in Pakistan, with many academies.

Other styles that have been gaining popularity in Pakistan are boxing, kickboxing, Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-jitsu and mixed martial arts (MMA). "These styles have been gaining popularity. They have caught much attention, but it all began with MMA. The others came out of this and have gained attention with the videos being posted on the social media in this digital age," said one of the top MMA athletes in Pakistan and the founder of the style Ehtisham Karim along with Ali Sultan.

MMA has no government backing, and there is no official federation or sports body that recognises this combat sport, but it has become an industry itself. "It has revolutionised the concept of martial arts or combat sport and has done something another style couldn't have in all these years. The MMA reached the common masses," said Karim.

Karim took the step to bring MMA to Pakistan 15 years back, and now it has reached the level where more and more people are interested in joining and watching. Apart from Karim, who runs one of the top MMA academies Fight Fortress Islamabad, two other names have played an essential role in combat-sport promotion.

Pakistani-American professional mixed martial artist Bashir Ahmed from Faisalabad, known as the 'God-father of MMA Pakistan', did a lot of work before signing ONE Championship, after which he had to leave the country. He is the founder of Shaheen Academy, which is making more MMA fighters.

The third name is Master Jalil Ahmed from Gujar Khan, the founder of team Aikido. Jalil's Martial Arts Academy teaches a combination of disciplines. Still, it is currently focusing on a style that Master Jalil has made called "Aikido" or "The Way of the Clean Hearted Warrior" (as Pak means pure or free from fault in Urdu). He mainly focuses on grappling aspects of Martial Arts, a trait rarely found in Pakistani Martial Arts clubs, particularly those lying outside the three major cosmopolitan areas of Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad.

His students regularly grapple spar while training in other aspects of the fight game. Master Jalil has 15 years of experience in Martial Arts and has introduced several martial arts styles, including Karate, Budo Kaido and Gracie Jiu-Jitsu.

"In all these years, Bashir, Jalil and we have been doing advocacy through seminars and training all over Pakistan. It took time to grow, but now it's big and gaining more popularity with time. MMA is the combination of all things," said Karim, whose sister Anita Karim, an MMA fighter, has won international fights and trains with them at the academy.

Another name to be mentioned is Ahmed 'Wolverine' Mujtaba of Quetta, one of the brightest martial arts stars to emerge from Pakistan. Armed with an impressive record, almost all Mujtaba's wins since he debuted in 2013 have come from stoppage, proving his exciting and effective style.


Pakistan's top jiu-jitsu athlete Abu Hurraira Dhanani, who has been involved in martial arts for 18 years, talked about the rapid popularity of MMA. "I have been working on martial arts for a long time and my masters even longer, but it has not gained the attraction that MMA has been able to get," he said.

"People are bored of watching the other styles of martial art, and since they saw MMA, which is a full-contact sport or real fight where the athletes bleed, is what attracts people. It is human nature that they have liked these types of fights not today but since the era of Gladiators when the fights were won by knocking down the opponent. So when people saw this, they were glued to it," he explained.

He added that people have started following MMA competitions like UFC and One Champions. "Since the Russian-Muslim MMA athlete Khabib Nurmagomedov won multiple fights and stayed unbeaten, this sport gained more popularity worldwide and in Pakistan too. He added that this has attracted many players and that the future of MMA in Pakistan is bright," he added.

Talking about the sport that he practices – Ju-Jitsu, he said that when people come to see my fight, they are not interested, saying that it is not even a real fight. "So this is what people want to see – MMA."

Potential wasted

Since martial arts was introduced in Pakistan and the body was made by Ashraf Tai, who won 45 fights, followed by modern martial artists, Pakistan has gained a lot of attention. Not just male but female athletes joined the sport and won medals for the country. But these efforts are only carried out by the players themselves, and the authorities play no role in promoting these sports.

Hurraira believes it is due to the lack of knowledge about the sport or the athletes' efforts before representing the country on the international stage and bringing back the medal. "The promotion is distant; they are not even working on developing the sport. The academies making the players are not run or supported by the government. The players do it all on their own. The players do everything from training to marketing themselves to getting sponsors. They post the videos on social media so that they could get sponsors to participate in the international events," said the gold medalist at the Asian Beach Games in 2014 in Ju-Jitsu.

He stated that the corruption and incompetent people sitting in the ministries are the reason for the downfall of martial arts and other sports. "There was a time when our players led the Asian continent and won gold medals at the international level. Now they have to struggle for the bronze medal," said Hurraira, who has multiple Asian medals, including gold and silver medals in Asian Championships in 2010 and 2012.

Pakistan has not only been producing the players for themselves but has trained the countries that are now leading the tournaments. "Ju-Jitsu is a sport that has given gold media at the Asian level, but players are forced to do everything on their own. Then how can you expect to grow? It will only go downwards," said the player who gave a breakthrough performance for any Pakistani at the World Championship in 2015, where he took the silver medal. "I had trained teams like Thailand when they visited Pakistan in 2012. We were on the top back then, the Thailand team lost fights to us, and today they are not only winning the World Games but the Asian Games, Beach Games, and Indoor Games. Their government invested in them and supported them as they knew they could get a medal."

"Meanwhile, our players who were getting medals, the government wasn't supporting even then. They don't know anything about the importance of the games or the sport, as most incompetent people are given the Sports Ministry, and what they do is only corruption," he said.

He added that it feels sad when they don't get the provincial or city games on the ground, but it is shown that it was held on paper. "They just inaugurate the games, and then nothing is done afterwards," said the players who have winnings at the 2016 Asian Championship and the 2017 Asian Indoor Games.

Suggesting the way for the revival of this sport in the country, he said that a committee should be made of professional players who advise the ministry on sports matters. "We are doing so much but making efforts on the individual level and winning medals. If we get support from the government with proper exercise, training, diet, and nutrition, winning a medal at the Olympics is not a big thing," he said while concluding that the sport of Martial Arts has a rich history in which the players are carrying on. Still, the government should also play its due part.