Less than nine metres across the steel wire-fenced cage into which mixed martial arts fighter Abdul Azim Badakshi will step when he competes in Matrix Fight Night 13 in Noida on Saturday night can seem small.
Add a high-quality opponent such as the one Badakshi is scheduled to face in Korea’s Hae Jin Park, who holds a record of 10-3-0 with five wins coming by stoppage or submission, and that already small fighting area can begin to seem even more cramped.
The 27-year-old from Afghanistan, though, can’t wait for the cage doors to shut and the bell to ring. His fight with Park will be the Afghan’s first in over a year and a half. Indeed, the cage in Noida, he says, will feel far more roomy than the tiny 16-square-meter cell he shared with two other inmates in New Delhi’s Tihar Jail for over a year.
Few might have expected Badakshi’s career to take the detour it did last year. When he beat Fabricio Oliveira by a wide unanimous decision at Matrix Fight Night 8 last April, he had improved his record to 13-3-0 and seemed to be hitting his stride in his professional career. Originally from Kishum in the Afghan province of Badakshan, from where he gets his name, he has come a long way.
Not only was Badakshi headlining cards in the promotion helmed by the mother and sister of Bollywood star Tiger Shroff, he was also rated as one of the top featherweight (145 pound or 65.8kg) fighters in South Asia, Badakshi who has been residing in India since 2021, was seen as a prospect likely to make a name for himself in elite international promotions too.
All that came to a sudden halt just a month later. Following a post-fight fracas at Matrix Fight Night 9 in New Delhi, Badakshi was accused by fellow fighter Srikant Sekhar of sucker punching him and fracturing his jaw. An FIR was registered by the Delhi Police under Section 325/34 of the IPC (‘Punishment for Voluntarily Causing Grievous Hurt) on Sekhar’s complaint.
Badakshi found himself in New Delhi’s Tihar jail soon after. “When I came to India, I came with a lot of hope. India offered so much in terms of sports. I never thought I would face such a problem,” he admits.
It was a difficult time. Badakshi was alone in India. Having trained as a Sanda fighter in Kabul, he had been competing in India regularly since 2013 before shifting base to Mumbai for better opportunities in August 2021.
Just a month after his arrival, the Taliban took over his home country, leaving him stranded and cut off from his family. He had stayed behind on the advice of Matrix promotion co-owner Krishna Shroff.
But all the plans he had laid out for himself now seemed to count for nothing. While he had once planned on leading the charge of Afghan MMA talent in India, his alleged actions would result in Ayesha Shroff announcing a ban on Afghan born fighters in the promotion.
Instead of training in a well-equipped gym and then resting in his air-conditioned apartment in Bandra, Badakshi had to get used to life as an undertrial inmate in India’s biggest prison.
“I had no idea what prison would be like. I thought I would get a cell to myself, but at the start, I had to sleep in a large hall with some 130 other inmates. After a while, I was moved to a much smaller jail cell where there were just two people apart from me,” he says. “It was very small. It probably wasn’t bigger than four metres in each direction. It felt suffocating and claustrophobic.”
Badakshi says he tried to make the best of his situation. “I knew I had gone from a well respected MMA fighter to a common jail inmate. When I realised I was going to be in a jail cell, it was extremely difficult mentally. I thought to myself that although I was in an unfortunate situation, I had been put there by God. If this was God’s plan, then even though things were difficult, it was an opportunity to learn. It would give me a chance to better myself,” he says.
-Training in Prison-
Badakshi told himself that, despite his circumstances, he would have to prepare for when he eventually got out. “I knew that I would come out eventually. I knew that I would restart my MMA career. I would talk to myself and say I had to make sure my spirit didn’t break and I could keep my physical and mental energy high,” he says.
This was easier said than done. Inmates only got a small amount of time out of their cells, and there was, of course, no equipment inside. Badakshi decided to improvise.
“I couldn’t run because there was, of course, no space. All I relied on were push-ups, situps and shadow boxing. I also made some dumbbells using plastic water bottles. I’d ask the jailers for one-liter water bottles. I’d fill them up with water and tie eight of them together. That would weigh about seven or eight kilos, and I’d use that to do bicep curls,” he says.
Badakshi says he would train as much as he could. “My biggest concern in prison was that I shouldn’t let my body erode physically. So I trained as much as I could. I would get up in the morning at 630 am and then do push-ups. I didn’t try to do a number. I would never keep count. I would just keep going until I got tired. I would do a lot of situps after that. I would do this for two hours at a stretch,” he says.
He also took the time to work on his mental resilience. “I was allowed to keep a Quran with me and I would read it every day for positivity. I think I got a lot of spiritual energy from that also. That helped my mental well being as well,” says Badakshi.
Despite coming into prison with a bit of a name as a top athlete, Badakshi says he was never targeted by prisoners trying to earn a bit of credibility. Instead by keeping his head down and focusing on his fitness, he says he earned the respect of his fellow inmates.
“I wasn’t the only sportsperson in prison (Two-time Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar was also a fellow inmate in Delhi) but I didn’t try to make a big deal of it. I didn’t try to create any trouble. I followed whatever instructions the prison authorities gave me. I’ve also noticed that Indians are generally respectful towards foreigners, so I didn’t have much trouble. Later on, when the authorities and some of my cellmates saw me training, they also came to get fitness tips from me,” says Badakshi.
For the most part, though Badakshi says he kept to himself. “I have been asked if I interacted with other guys in prison like Sushil or others, but to be honest, I didn’t try to look for anyone. The prison has its own rules. It is a big place with a lot of restrictions. It’s hard to move around. You are generally restricted to a couple of conversations with a handful of people. I focused on my mental strength at that time,” he says.
Even as he tried to keep his spirits up in prison, Badakshi’s friends outside worked to release him. In June this year, it is learned that Sekhar withdrew his complaint, paving the way for Badakshi to be released.
While the release came too late in the day for Sekhar to compete in the 2023 Road to UFC competition, which might have seen him earn a contract in the Ultimate Fighting Championships, Badakshi’s simply grateful for the opportunity to restart his career.
“I had many people praying for me. I also had the support of my friends. I couldn’t have managed this by myself,” he says.
-The Return to the Cage-
The return hasn’t been easy. In his first few days outside prison, Badakshi says he wanted to ease himself into training. “By training however I could in prison I was able to stay strong but I had to slowly get my muscles loose so that I could return to training in the gym,” he says.
The next task was to get back into the cage. Ayesha Shroff cleared the deck for his return. “I think I was a little hasty when I announced that all Afghan fighters would be blacklisted from Matrix promotions. I should have waited until the details of the case were more clear,” she told Sportstar in an interaction.
Part of their leniency might also have to do with the fact that Badakshi remains one of the promotion’s biggest prospects. “He is one of the best fighters in his weight category in Asia,” Krishna Shroff told Sportstar.
While the expectation is for Badakshi to progress onto bigger things, the fact is he is taking a lot of risk on his comeback against a quality fighter like Park. Badakshi, however, believes he will be able to deal with it.
“My opponent is strong but that is the kind of fighter I want to test myself against. I will always challenge myself. I want to inspire those fans and supporters who stood by me all this while,” he says.
“When I was in prison I knew the complexity of what I faced but I wasn’t scared then and I’m not scared now. The only thing I fear is the judgment of God. During the time I was there in the cell, I learned how to be resilient. When I was in the cold dark room in prison, the only thing on my mind was when I would be able to come back. Now I have got that chance,” he says.
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