THERE will no doubt be plenty of boxers training hard and making sacrifices during the month of April and, for some, the month will be no different than the last. Yet, for others, particularly those observing Ramadan, the term ‘sacrifice’ takes on a whole new meaning.
The ninth month of the Islamic calendar, Ramadan is observed by Muslims as a month of fasting, prayer, reflection and community, and is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. It lasts 29 to 30 days, with Muslims fasting from dawn to sunset, and is considered obligatory for all adult Muslims not ill, travelling, elderly, breastfeeding, diabetic, or menstruating. As well as food and drink, Muslims will also refrain from tobacco, sexual relations, and sinful behaviour during the month of April and will typically spend their time devoted to prayer and recitation of the Quran.
As for those who box, the show – that is, training – must go on.
“A lot of it sounds crazy to someone who has never done it before but, to be fair, your body adapts and you grow to kind of enjoy it,” says 11-0 lightweight prospect Aqib Fiaz. “It’s not a case of enjoying the pain; it’s just it feels good for your soul. It’s a reset not for your body but your mind.
“As you go through the month, your body makes the changes it needs to make. Your body is a very clever thing. Kerry Kayes says it best. He says your body is a survival machine and will always find a way to survive.”
The benefits – or, as Fiaz says, the “reset” – arrive in time. However, for the majority of Muslim boxers training on empty, the early part of their fast tends to be a struggle, and requires both new levels of determination and often an alteration to their training schedule. “It’s hard,” said Shabaz Masoud, a 11-0 bantamweight. “You don’t eat from three o’clock in the morning to nine o’clock at night, so it’s very difficult. But I tweak my training. I train at eight [at night] for about an hour and then I’ll eat and train again. Then, at about half-twelve, I’ll go to our little boxing club here in Stoke-on-Trent. I go there at half-twelve or one o’clock and spend two hours there. I train through the night, come back, eat again, and go to sleep. I do that for 30 days.
“When you eat, you’ve got to be smart with it. If you don’t eat enough, or don’t eat the right stuff, you’ll be in trouble.
“As a kid, I remember actually sparring through Ramadan. But I couldn’t do that anymore. My body needs fuel for that and I don’t have enough of it during Ramadan.”
Sparring during Ramadan seems to be something of a contentious issue. One man who refuses to do it is flyweight Ijaz Ahmed, 10-2-3, who not only pares back sparring but won’t even set foot in the boxing gym throughout April. “Basically, in terms of training, I don’t go anywhere near the boxing gym the whole month,” he said. “It’s more about keeping the weight off in a normal gym – treadmill, cross-trainer, that sort of stuff.
“For 11 months I’m in the boxing gym at least three or four times a week. So, having that one month away from the gym does me good, mentally and physically. When you see those same four walls throughout the year you want to escape. But when you’re away from it, you then want to go back. If you’re always there you will never have that feeling.”
Ramadan, in the case of Ahmed, allows him to take stock, recharge, and essentially rediscover his love for being in a boxing gym around other boxers. It’s therefore both a mental reset and a cleansing. “If I spar, I spar at night,” said Fiaz. “This year, because it looks like I’ll be fighting right after Ramadan, I’ll probably have to spar at night once I’ve eaten and had a drink.
“It would be stupid to train early and then be dehydrated all day. It doesn’t really make sense. What I like to do is rest through the day, maybe go for a little walk and do my prayers, and then an hour or so before we can eat and drink I’ll do my cardio or a light circuit. It will be nothing too intense. After I’ve eaten, I’ll then do something a little more intense, whether it’s a hard pad session, a tougher circuit, or some weights.”
As well as the fasting hours, what can also make Ramadan problematic for some boxers is the gym environment and indeed the location in which they find themselves during this 30-day period. Muhammad Waseem, for instance, spent three years observing Ramadan while also training at the Mayweather gym in Las Vegas, a place otherwise known as Sin City.
“It’s a different city,” said the two-time IBF flyweight title challenger, laughing. “Las Vegas is a crazy place to spend your life and it was very tough for me. Also, the temperature was more than 45 degrees and the gym was very hot. But everything is about your brain and your mind. If your mind is strong, everything becomes easy. I was fasting and training and it was very normal for me. The only difficulty was that when I was sparring, I would never drink water. That was a little bit hard. But when training was finished, and I took a good shower, I was again feeling fresh.”
The fighters responsible for Waseem’s initial interest in boxing were Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson, pictures of whom, he says, can be found on the walls of any gym in Pakistan, whereas Masoud’s inspiration was “Prince” Naseem Hamed, whose knockout power and showmanship inspired him to take up boxing as a six-year-old.
“I always went to the gym with my father and watched videos of Prince Naseem,” he said. “He was my favourite fighter and is one of the reasons I started boxing, so it’s a blessing when people now compare my style to his.
“I had a pair of cheetah-skin boxing gloves as a kid and was obsessed with Naz. I loved his fight with Steve Robinson so much.”
If Waseem, 12-2, had Ali, and Masoud had Hamed, the door-opener for Fiaz was Bolton’s Amir Khan, who did a lot for British-Muslims when, as Great Britain’s sole boxing representative, he flew the Union Jack at the 2004 Olympic Games. This impact then only became greater, of course, when Khan turned professional and started winning world titles, the sight of which soothed the concerns of Muslim parents previously conflicted about the sport of boxing.
“I think it was more fear,” Fiaz said. “Our parents were obviously scared of us fighting and that barrier was always there. But Amir Khan, for me, was one of the biggest turning points. He showed our parents that it’s not all about being hurt and hurting others. It’s not about the dark side of all that. It’s actually a great sport to be involved in and a great way to spread the word of our religion.
“My brother, for example, is an amateur coach and he trains a girl called ‘The Hijabi Boxer’. That’s her nickname. She’s a Muslim girl who has just got into boxing and had her first amateur fight. She absolutely loves the sport and the eyes on her are massive. Everyone is invested in her and she’s only had one amateur fight.
“It’s good because our daughters, our sisters, and our mothers – not just the males – are understanding more about the sport. They don’t have to be fighters, or fight, but boxing is a way of life, just like Islam, in my opinion. Without boxing I don’t know where I’d be. It changes lives for the better.”
It stands to reason that Muslim men and women would excel in boxing, especially given that both their religion and their sport make many of the same demands of them and deliver some of the same rewards. They share core values; values like respect and discipline. They also offer structure and routine.
“I’m very proud being a Muslim and I’m as successful as I am because of my religion,” said Ahmed. “If I wasn’t so disciplined and strong in my beliefs, I don’t think I would have made it as a boxer. Islam has made me the man I am today.”
“It’s very important to me and my boxing,” Waseem agreed. “Boxing is a very good sport if you do it positively. We are Muslims and we have our beliefs. We pray five times a day, don’t drink, and don’t smoke. When you box, you can’t do these things as well. Life is very happy in this way.”
“I live a very clean and healthy lifestyle because I’m a God-fearing man,” said Masoud. “I’m very into my faith and it keeps me grounded and away from a lot of trouble and negative things. You need that structure in life, let alone in boxing, but it definitely helps with the boxing. I find people who have some sort of faith – and it doesn’t matter what that faith is – always seem to have more structure to their life.”
Structure is one thing. But sometimes, such is life, people need religion or at least some type of faith as a life raft; something to hold on to; a symbol of hope. This was, sadly, a reality Aqib Fiaz came to terms with last year when, during the Covid-19 pandemic, he tragically lost both his mother and best friend within a couple of days.
“My faith is what kept me in check and kept me in line,” Fiaz said. “It kept me believing that something good is always around the corner and that whatever happens is for the best because God has a greater plan for us.
“It wasn’t easy, though. It wasn’t all positive mindset. There were times when I struggled a lot. I was probably borderline depressed. My mum was my biggest fan, she did everything for me, and my best friend was my best friend.
“Because of Covid, too, I wasn’t able to go see her or anything. It was horrible. The last fight I had, in Eddie’s (Hearn) garden, I was boxing while my mum was in hospital in a coma. It was very difficult and my faith in Allah kept me strong and helped me not only get through it but understand what was going on. We have faith in the afterlife and heaven and I have faith that I will one day reunite with my mum and my best friend.”
Every boxer has a structural framework they either knowingly or unknowingly follow to help them through life. They are creatures of habit, after all, and more often than not rely on their discipline and their routine and some form of faith to overcome what is an otherwise scary, lonely and absurd lifestyle. Some will have a two-pronged approach to it, and put their trust in their religion and a belief that their destiny is already written, whereas others will use just one, preferring to label it a way of life – or sport – rather than a religion. In the end, though, they’re one and the same. Boxing is as much a religion as any other.
“Talk to any fighter and they’ll all have a similar mindset as far as respect, discipline, and structure,” said Fiaz. “For some people who don’t have faith or religion, boxing is their religion. We have our five daily prayers that provide structure and discipline, but I also have my two or three sessions a day that provide the same thing.”