A Search for Justice Led UFC's Makwan Amirkhani Back to Kurdish Roots

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterJuly 8, 2020

Makwan Amirkhani
Makwan AmirkhaniAxel Schmidt/Associated Press

Every school has cool kids. At Makwan Amirkhani's school, the cool kids were skinheads.

Or at least they dressed the part. Growing up Brown in Finland in a student body of about 500, Amirkhani saw a chance to fit in. So, he did as the Romans.

"All the boys had all these skinhead clothes; we called them pilot jackets," Amirkhani said. "They came and I said, 'Could you shave my head?' I was all bald. It was exactly the same as theirs. It was a sad story."

Fast-forward to last fall and UFC 244, where something happened right before Amirkhani was set to face fellow featherweight Shane Burgos. It wasn't easily noticeable, but there it was, hiding in plain sight, as announcer Bruce Buffer introduced Amirkhani to New York's Madison Square Garden.

"Fighting out of Turku, Finland, by way of Kurdistan."

The introduction is notable for various reasons, all of which have to do with the "Kurdistan" part.

First off, it's notable because, as you may be aware, Kurdistan is not a country. The Kurdish people—there are about 30 million of them—live in a region encompassing parts of Turkey, Syria, Iran, Iraq and Armenia. They have their own culture and heritage and food and movies and everything else, except a country and peace of mind and all those other crucial things a lot of other people don't think much about.

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Amirkhani (right) punches Shane Burgos.
Amirkhani (right) punches Shane Burgos.Josh Hedges/Getty Images

"I feel really proud of where I'm from and the Kurdish people," Amirkhani said in an exclusive interview. "[Kurdistan is emblematic of] a problem that affects every person on this planet. ... It becomes more and more important to have values and things. I have an opportunity to represent my nation and the world in sport. I'm not the only person who knows what the Kurdish people have done."

This Saturday at UFC 251, the 31-year-old Amirkhani (15-4, 5-2 UFC) will receive the same introduction before he faces featherweight Danny Henry (12-3, 1-2 UFC) at tragicomic Fight Island in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. If you notice it this time, maybe it will be more evident why Amirkhani, not to mention his legions of Kurdish fans, are so fired-up about it.

That brings us to the second reason this one word is so remarkable, at least in this context. Amirkhani is referencing the history of the Kurdish culture, particularly in the context of its relationship with the United States. And it's a fraught history—and one made far worse by the Trump administration.

As Black Lives Matter and similar movements gain steam, the Kurdish culture could serve as yet another touchstone in the move to address injustice. Old people like me might remember the Kurdish army, or Peshmerga, playing a key role in helping the United States win the Iraq War in 2003. The Kurdish people and its military have been assisting the United States and fighting brutal wars against very bad actors for a very long time, though that's another article

The real kicker is that their involvement with the U.S. barely scratches the surface. The Kurds have engaged in bloody wars for decades with neighbors like Turkey and Iraq. I don't pretend to be an expert on the history or culture of the Kurdish people, but suffice it to say this is a people that has been at war for its very existence for a very, very long time. If you take a second to remember all the things war entails, your heart can't help but go out to them.

Most recently, President Trump ordered a withdrawal of American troops from northern Syria, essentially leaving the Kurds there at the mercy of Turkey and Syria, the latter of which they were forced to align with—along with a Syrian ally called Russia—in order to survive. Turkey and Russia then carved up the Kurdistan area, and that's basically where we are today.

"Innocent people are dying everywhere," Amirkhani said. He understands why the Black Lives Matter has gained momentum of late. But he wishes the Kurdish people could also make their voices heard in such a way.

"I want to say we are all one, not just me or you," he added. "Everyone deserves to enjoy this life."

Amirkhani said the reception to his name-drop has been largely positive. Still, making such an explicit statement, especially in today's political climate, is not without risk. His dedication might help explain the third and maybe most interesting reason that introduction is notable. Amirkhani is Kurdish—but he wasn't raised that way. Amirkhani was Kurdish by birth but not always by choice.

Born to Kurdish parents, the family immigrated to Finland when Amirkhani was a boy, at which point his heritage receded into the shadows as he worked to blend in where he could, in a culture that's about as blended as a culture can possibly be. Think Dairy Queen soft-serve, no mix-ins, piled on a paper plate.

"I was one of the only foreign kids in the school," he recalled. "I got bullied a lot. One time a teacher was asking every student what their name was and then their [last] name. It comes to my turn, and I said my first name but not my second. The teacher said, 'No second name?' and gave me a Finnish name."

But as he grew and learned more about the people and world around him, as well as the famed valor of the Peshmerga, he decided there were better footsteps to follow. He's a vocal supporter of Kurdish culture and enjoys a fervent fanbase in the region and beyond. So when he takes to the cage Saturday and Buffer offers that introduction, just know plenty of people will be cheering, for several reasons, even if you can't see or hear them.

"I said, 'Makwan, you don't have enough money to [help], but what you can do is you can go on your own path,'" he said. "Even though we don't have a country, we have a say. I have a say. Maybe I won't be president or prime minister, but I can represent Kurdistan the way it's meant to be represented."

     

MMA" target="_blank">Scott Harris is an MMA and feature writer for Bleacher Report.

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