UFC fighter Ramsey Nijem has been at the forefront of headlines for major moves he’s made in and out of the ring. The Palestinian-American mixed martial artist is scheduled to kick ass on July 25 at UFC Fight Night after recovering from a major blow to the elbow last August.
The man is definitely not timid when it comes to speaking the ugly truth about the important issues in our society, but is still optimistic in his ability to make a difference politically, socially and personally.
I sat down with Nijem (well, I sat, he was doing squats) to discuss everything from empowering women to police brutality to his favorite Arab dish, with some side commentary from his brother Adam because… siblings.
You’ve been pro since 2008, but your career didn’t start off in fighting. How did you make the transition from wrestling in college to MMA fighting in the UFC?
The transition was pretty easy. I enjoy fighting; I always have, so it was fun for me. I thought it was more profitable than wrestling in college and I needed money to put me through college. I was making money and I enjoyed it, so I stuck with it.
If you could step into the ring with anyone dead or alive, athlete or not, who would it be?
I don’t really know. It would be fun to get paid a lot of money to beat up some homophobic, racist, politician like Donald Trump… alright, Donald Trump. He would be funny to beat, because I would rip off his hair as I’d beat his ass. I’d be breathing on him because he probably thinks my Arab blood and sweat is going to infect him with disease or something racist like that. I wouldn’t just knock him out, I’d make him drink my sweat. You know when you’re on top of someone and you make your sweat drip in their mouth? Yeah, I’d do that.
UFC fighter Rounda Rousey has been blowing up in and out of the ring. Do you think her popularity is changing the way people perceive females in sports, especially in sports like MMA?
She’s doing a really good job and she’s backed it up; she’s a whole character. She brings in huge pay previews, brings in a lot of girls. I’ve heard tons of girls tell me that their lesbian crush is Rounda Rousey. She’s bringing in a whole market that wasn’t there before. And she’s a bad ass! I think she’s inspiring more girls to train, so when these girls are dealing with a guy who’s trying to get aggressive, they can just beat his ass.
You had to push yourself to be able to attend college, why was college so important to you, if you had this professional career along the way?
People automatically assume I’m a dumbass because I fight. I’m a fighter by profession, Middle Eastern looking, so a lot of people are surprised. When I tell people I have a college degree, usually their response is, ‘What?! YOU have a college degree??’ It was just really important to me because I started college and I wanted to finish it. I was on the Dean’s List in school.
Adam: He’s a nerd!
Yeah, I was up until two in the morning last night reading. I believe it gives me more credibility as a human being in the society I live in and it gives me more depth.
Since your body is essentially your career (like a model) you take particular care of it. What does a typical day in the life of Ramsey Nijem look like in terms of diet, training and discipline it takes to keep yourself in fighting shape?
My day is 24 hours of training and resting. I set a goal, and that goal is to be the best fighter in the world; 24 hours, seven days a week, I’m working towards that goal. I wake up in the morning and the first thing I’m doing is hydrating, making my food, getting enough sleep, running, and it’s not easy. Just like anything in life, you have to work hard.
Maklouba or mensaf?
Maklouba, Maklouba all day! #TeamMaklouba I love eggplant!
Any favorite moves?
Moves? Dance moves? It’s hard to say what’s the best move, because the best move is any move that works in each moment. You never really do the same thing. It’s not a regular sport – it’s martial arts. I don’t have a pull up J that I hit all the time. My jab is different every time, for every situation and every single fight. Whatever feels right is my favorite.
A few weeks before Fight Night, your opponent Erik Koch was forced out of the lightweight contest and you’ll now be fighting Andrew Holbrook. Did you have to go back to the drawing board and reassess your strategy?
Every time I fight, I’m going in putting the best Ramsey Nijem in there. If I concern myself too much with other people, I’m only getting good for one fight. I want to be able to beat the best. I believe I’m better than this guy in a lot of different places and I want to put him in that position. My approach to the fight is about being in the moment and not having a singular approach.
So you’ve been pretty outspoken about a lot of issues, from attacks on Gaza to the Black Lives Matter Movement.
I’m an outspoken person and maybe that’s why I do it; but it’s just ridiculous that people want to believe their own lies. Some people believe anything or that one way is the right way, but they didn’t come up with those thoughts on their own. So, I like to challenge that.
That’s why I really believe that Black lives DO matter! I’ve had similar prejudices against me as Black people do. For example, the other day a cop came over to our house because there was a noise complaint – mind you, we didn’t have any music on. As I was walking towards him, he reached back for his gun. There’s a continuing pattern of a high percentage of Black people being sent to jail. I’ve seen my dad get handcuffed for ridiculous shit. So I, of course, have grown up with a different feeling towards the police than most white people who’ve never seen their parents get arrested.
I grew up in North Washington [in the U.S.]. I was the only Arab kid in school other than my brother. My whole life I’ve been the butt of the joke about ‘being a terrorist’. Since 9/11, it’s been different being an Arab-American. It doesn’t matter that I was born here, speak the language, am a citizen and educated here; I can only go so far because of my social upbringing, the color of my skin, my background and name. Going through the airport for me is a fucking task.
I had a [U.S.] Supreme Court judge come talk to one of my classes in college and she said one of the most powerful things I heard: ‘Every time you have a thought or are dealing with a situation, imagine how’d you think about it if you didn’t know what race you were going to be born.’
So there’s quite a few Arabs in mainstream media, but not many of them are as outspoken. From a spotlight standpoint, why do you think others are not as vocal?
Because it’s scary; I’ve had my life threatened many, many times. When I post these things, there aren’t people just disagreeing with me, it’s people sending me hate mail saying, ‘I’m going to find you and kill you’ – which is probably the worst mistake they could make. And maybe that’s why; they’re scared and it really is a scary thing.
It boggles my mind when people are a part of that and have the ability to make a difference, but they’re too scared. Humans have so much fear and I just don’t let fear make any of my decisions. If something is wrong, it doesn’t really matter if I fear the repercussions. I believe if everyone spoke their truth, everything would be different.
It gets pretty ugly during fights, how long does it typically take you to heal?
Once I got hit during a fight and slept for three days straight.
After my last fight, it took me 11 months to recover. Sometimes, I’ve been able to fight three days later, like on the Ultimate Fighter. It all depends; sometimes it’s going to be fast, other times it’s going to be long.
Your younger brother Adam is also a lightweight MMA fighter and making quite a name for himself with a 2-1-0 record. Is there ever a chance you would step into the ring with him?
You want to see us fight, you can pay to watch us train. We beat the shit out of each other all time, and we go way harder at training. We’re on the same team, we’re literally brothers.
Adam: We’re the only team we got! We’re like the guys from Step Brothers. We go to interviews together.
You’re the only Arab in the American UFC. Have you experienced any hardships in the league because of your ethnicity?
Maybe, maybe not. The UFC likes diversity and culture in the league. They promote it, so on my playing card it says I’m from Palestine and it has a Palestinian flag. Any hardships I’ve dealt with is because the type of demographic the UFC brings in can be racist folks in America. But when I fight in other countries, I’ve had great support; I have really good following in places like Germany and UAE.
You were in season 13 of ‘The Ultimate Fighter’. Was there anything you were surprised to experience before or after being on a reality show?
Every reality TV show is fake, TV is all fake. There’s still real human emotions going on, but everything is so controlled. It really makes you question everything you watch. I could watch them change a whole story and make it into something else, so just imagine what a news outlet can do. The magic of camera. But that’s just my response to it; some other people might like it because it makes them more famous. I don’t really fucking care, I don’t want to be famous.
It’s mostly just people harassing you, trying to take pictures and it’s kind of annoying. When I have a fan come up and talk to me, I enjoy that; but then you get a lot of people that are like, ‘Wait, who’s that?’ then they want to take pictures with you just because I was on a TV show. That’s fucking stupid.
What sort of weight does your identity hold for you when you step into the ring?
It definitely has fed into the chip on my shoulder that helps me train and get ready for a fight when times are hard. If anything, it’s motivating because there aren’t a lot of Palestinian athletes in the world and in fewer major leagues; it’s just me and Oday Abosuhi. It motivates me to get out there, put on good performances, fight really tough and train really hard.
It pushes me to not cheat myself in training, because then I feel like I’m cheating a lot of other people. A lot of people want my dream and I feel more of an obligation to chase my dreams because I am capable of doing it. I have cousins that live in the West Bank who don’t have the ability to chase their dreams; they barely have the ability to survive. That obligation I feel is a positive one.
As you’re about to walk into a ring what are the thoughts going through your head?
100% positivity, you can’t have any doubt. You can’t be asking yourself, Aam I really ready for this?’ No matter what, I’m going to go out, and say ‘I’m going to fuck this guy up’. That’s what’s going through your head. It’s like a dream – like going down the rabbit hole, you never know what’s going to happen. You can go out and have one of your best performances or one of your worst performances. You can win in 10 seconds or lose in 10 seconds. You’re going to have a war you’re not going to remember or a war that’s going to keep you up at night for a couple of weeks.
So it’s a crazy fucking thing, not knowing what’s going to happen. You break hands, and blow out elbows. I’ve broken nose, my feet have been completely swollen leaving fights. My most recent fight was close to being my last fight; had the surgery not gone right, my elbow would’ve never been the same. You never know what fight is your last fight, that’s why I walk out appreciative of each one.
I’m not going to lie I’m surprised you’re a really good interviewee. Have you ever been prepped by a PR team because you’re really well versed in your answers?
Adam: He’s the interview guy!
I have a college degree in Business Management with an emphasis on Marketing. In marketing, you study a lot of human psychology; I know what people want to hear. My last interview they were just asking me about my religious and political views.
You come from a unique background, your father is Palestinian Muslim, and your mom is white Mormon. What have you experienced as a result of your identity?
It’s funny when people ask me where my dad is from and I tell people I’m from al Amari, they’re like, ‘*gasp* No wonder you fight! Palestinians from al Amari are born with rocks in their hands!’
But I grew up with my mom. So I don’t speak Arabic, don’t know a lot of Arab customs and I don’t follow any. Right off the bat, people are like, ‘You’re not a real Arab because you don’t speak Arabic’ but how the fuck am I not a real Arab? I had to experience the same racism. I’m stuck in the middle.
I’m not Muslim. I’ll tell people that I am Muslim because my dad is Muslim, so technically I am. But do I practice? No. I was raised more Mormon than Muslim. When I was growing up, I went to church and mosque. I learned they all have their tools to bring you to spirituality. My temple is martial arts and I worship whatever brings you closer to the inner light in yourself, that’s my religion.
I’m thinking about the shit you’re saying and I’m thinking do you really not care to go on the record with all of this?
I don’t care. My name was “Stripper Ramsey” on The Ultimate Fighter. Can you even tarnish my name more?
Are there any political/social issues you’re passionate about and would like to see the Arab community address more?
People need to get educated! One of the biggest issues I see with first generation Americans is being a little lazy. Their parents make it and they want to spoil their kids, so they grow up with this lifestyle where they don’t have to work hard for anything. Your parents are spoiling you to get you to ground one.
A lot of parents come to America, work their asses off 14 hour days just to give their kids the life they never had and, as their children, we should not take advantage of that. We have to take that and use that platform to make a difference for our own people.
We have to learn how to play the game. At the end, we’re stuck in a very shitty situation, especially Palestinians; most of us don’t have our homes, we don’t have many natural rights. So a lot of us start from ground zero. Our parents came to America as refugees. They didn’t have savings accounts, trust funds or an inheritance.
No matter what, we have to stick together and gain political influence; power is in numbers. A lot of Arabs watch the news all day long but they don’t want to do something about what’s going on. We have to play in the system, we really have to make a difference and try hard. We got to get off our asses, get to Congress; we have to have politicians running for public office, we need to be able to influence change.
It’s so easy for people in America to side with Israel because we buy so much shit from them. And yeah we have a comfortable life, but does that mean it’s right? I don’t believe that we should be exploiting any resources from any group of people.
Be an educated consumer, we’re stuck in this consumer lifestyle no matter what. So buy products that are not from Israel, which is hard, but you have to make the genuine effort if that’s something you believe.
I’m very open-minded and my dad taught us that. I’m no different than everyone else, you got to find what you’re passionate about and do that. Everyone in history who has ever made a difference is just like everybody else. Get out there and make a fucking difference with your life, don’t just die!
WE SAID THIS: Don’t miss I Will Not Write About Gaza.