Born in Afghanistan, there is no prouder Afghan, but after spending 18 years in Holland, Bahadurzada has equal space in his heart for the place that saved him and his family.
“Holland means a lot to me,” he said. Holland was a second chance. And I believe in second chances. And just like I believe in my second chance when I came to Holland, I made something out of it, academically and athletically.
“I went out there and I tried my best,” the 33-year-old continues. “I worked hard at university and I have my bachelors degree in International Business and Languages. I speak six languages fluently and can also write them. Athletically, I had the talent and the work ethic to get into the UFC. And this is the message I'm sending out to the other refugees who are coming to the European countries for a second chance: When you get that second chance, you better use it.”
Leaving a war-ravaged nation for the Netherlands was a ray of hope for Bahadurzada, but unlike many refugees, when he arrived in his new home at 15, he wasn’t a child simply adjusting to new surroundings.
“Age wise, I was a boy,” he said. “Mentally, I was a man. I was a man when I was like 10 years old. I have seen things that people in the military see at age 18 or 20 and they need psychiatrists to talk about it. And I saw all those things as a little kid. And it had an impact on me. I grew up way too fast for my age. I walked over motionless bodies as a child, on the streets I saw people dying, I've seen people covered in blood, body parts on the street.”
He pauses, seemingly reliving it all again in his head. Those are visions that never get totally erased, and while that can eat many up, Bahadurzada used his early years as motivation – not just for himself, but to eventually be an example for others.
“It has changed me ever since, but it's also given me the motivation to get somewhere,” he said. “When I was in Afghanistan, I had no hope. I didn't have any inspiration, somebody to look up to. There were inspirations in other cultures, but not in Afghan culture who understood me, understood my background and who understood my culture. This has given me a lot of motivation to be an inspiration for those people back home.”
For most, the recognition for that inspiration are some positive messages, posts on social media, and things of that nature. And Bahadurzada gets all that. But his influence became more tangible when he returned to his country several times over the years.
“When I became the Shooto champion in 2007 and I went back, I saw that hundreds of people started training in MMA,” he said. “In 2008 and 2010 when I went back, it was thousands. In 2016, it was tens of thousands.”
That’s a source of pride that keeps Bahadurzada motivated like no world championship could.
“It helps the youth stay away from drugs, it keeps them from being manipulated by people and blowing themselves up,” he said. “This is something I'm really positive and very happy about because I'm reaching out to my people through my talent and it's changing them and leading them to a positive path. This is more important to me than any kind of money the UFC can give me.”
But to keep inspiring the youth of his nation, he keeps fighting, and after being limited to one fight since December of 2013 due to various injuries, he will attempt to follow up his March 2016 win over Brandon Thatch with another victory over Wilkinson. The confident fighter who holds the equally confident nickname of “The Great” can’t wait to be back in action.
“I took some time off, I enjoyed my life, and now I'm back and I want to kick some ass,” he said. “I miss that rush. Once that door closes behind you, you hear the click, and it's giving you the green light to hunt. And I'll play a little bit around with him (Wilkinson), just like a lion plays with its prey, and whenever I feel like I should finish it, I'll go for it. That's what I missed the most.”
Playing around? Is the same guy who blasted out Paulo Thiago in 42 seconds in his UFC debut mellowing out?
“I'm a righteous guy,” he said. “I want to treat them all equally. I want to finish them all.”
Bahadurzada’s confidence, ability to deliver a witty soundbite, and his greater goal for his people makes him one of the most intriguing figures in the UFC today. But he doesn’t want to just be a character on the roster. He wants so much more than that, and now he feels that the time is finally right to tackle those goals.
“I had my goals so big but I wasn't ready to achieve those goals,” he admits. “I wasn't that person yet. I really believe I'm destined for greatness. If I wasn't, I wouldn't have pursued my career this far, and at this point, I'm still hungry. I'm as hungry as I was 15 years ago. The only change is that I've become a smarter fighter. And all these setbacks have prepared me and built me into the man who is going to be able to achieve those goals. And the start is going to be on September 2.”