The decades-long conflict over control of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in Israel has long been a polarizing issue between Palestinians and Israelis. However, in the age of social media, the recent flare-up has created a lot of rifts worldwide. One outspoken Palestinian UFC fighter has gotten right in the middle of it, and he is using the 2014 conflict as an opportunity to grow as a person.
Ramsey Nijem has made a few different names for himself in the sport of mixed martial arts. He was first known as the crazy “Stripper Ramsey” on season 13 of The Ultimate Fighter reality show back in 2011. He came into the show with a 4-1 pro record, dominated all of his opponents along the way, until he lost in the finale to Tony Ferguson. On the show, he was only 22 years old and was known for bouncing around the house carrying on stripper-like antics involving thongs and things of that sort. That was then.
After his TUF appearance, Nijem entered into a UFC contract, and he quickly began to grow. One of the first things that fans quickly learned is that, while he may have been born in California, raised in Washington state, and went to college in Utah, he is a very proud Palestinian who just wants peace for all of his family members still in this conflicted region. In a previous interview, he stated that the fighting is political, but the local people are not like they are portrayed in the media. That being said, the recent conflict has really hit him hard.
“The whole thing is difficult, because you can’t do much about it,” said Nijem in an exclusive interview with Colorado MMA Examiner Dan Kuhl. “Being someone that does a lot about things – I’m a fighter by trade - my first reaction is always a defensive, fighting one. As a role model, I’m really looking to make a statement, so it’s really motivated me to go out there and change my image. I used to be the goofball on The Ultimate Fighter, but it’s really changed me to be more serious and be a more positive role model. Whether I like it or not, I was put in this role, because there are not a lot of Palestinian professional athletes, so I have to really step up my image.”
In reality, other than Nijem, one of the only other Palestinian-Americans in a major sport is Oday Aboushi, a young lineman for the New York Jets. Every other major Palestinian athlete is an Olympian. Nijem is truly a role model for his people, and, in his last fight, all eyes were on him as he faced Iranian-American Beneil Dariush in Abu Dhabi for UFC Fight Night 39.
Nijem entered the battle as the Arab-American representative on the Arabian Peninsula. Fighting an Iranian made it that much more important in the eyes of the fans. Nijem came out, fought hard, and finished Dariush by TKO near the end of the first round. Needless to say, the crowd went berserk.
“It was a great experience,” Nijem intimated. “Being over there, I had my focus at 100 percent. And, I was a true hometown hero. The crowd was going crazy that night, and it was fun to fight overseas. I really wanted to make a statement, and being the underdog in that fight really fired me up. It made me want to go out there and put on a performance.”
During the time of Nijem’s last fight in April, the recent conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas in the Gaza Strip and West Bank had not yet flared up. On July 8, things got nasty again, as Israeli Defense Forces and the Hamas militants started sharing rocket fire back and forth. A big dust-up was created in social media, with many people taking sides, and even UFC newcomer Noad Lahat, an Israeli, announced he was heading back to Israel to fight Hamas. This set Nijem off, and he called Lahat’s comments nothing more than a publicity stunt. However, Nijem is still a proud Palestinian role model, and that is a position that he embraces and uses in his quest for UFC gold.
“I’m not really worried about pressure,” Nijem explained. “A lot of people look at pressure as a bad thing. A lot of people are like, ‘added pressure this, and added pressure that,’ but I think of added pressure in a positive way. I need to go out there and make a statement. In my mind, pressure’s good. If I didn’t feel pressure, I don’t know if I’d train as hard. I feel pressure every fight, but, especially, in this fight. It’s fueled me to have the best camp I’ve ever had. I feel better than I’ve ever felt. I’m fighting better. I’m getting to the point that I’m a true professional of this sport. I can see things coming. You know, they always talk about those 10,000 hours, and I have those hours now. I can see a fight unfolding a lot easier.”
Nijem’s training took a huge step in a new direction last year. Since entering MMA, he had trained at The Pit Elevated in Orem, Utah and had done some cross-training with Tareq Azim’s Empower Gym in the heart of San Francisco. After his last loss in Aug. 2013, Nijem made the jump, full-circle, back to the San Francisco area and began training full time with Azim.
Since his move, Nijem has gone 2-0 with a decision win over fellow TUF veteran Justin Edwards in January, followed by his TKO of Dariush. As he has matured beyond the old Stripper Ramsey image, his training has gotten better too.
“I’m still at Empower with Tareq and Jake [Shields],” said the California native. “The only thing I’ve changed with training is to see how far we can push it. Each camp has gotten a lot harder – physically, mentally, emotionally, everything has gotten a lot harder. It’s not an easy task getting ready for a fight, so Tareq’s really pushing on me, and we’re seeing how far we can take this. I really believe I’m the best in the world. I want to take it to the next level.”
The next step for Nijem’s career comes this Saturday night at UFC 177 at the Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, Calif., only an hour and a half from his camp. This time, he will not be facing another Middle Easterner, but an undefeated Brazilian who lives in Texas.
Carlos Diego Ferreira grew up in Manaus, Brazil, playing soccer and practicing Brazilian jiu-jitsu and capoeira. When he was 23 years old, at the advice of his BJJ coach, he moved to the United States to pursue a fighting career. While he was building up his current 10-0 record in pro MMA, he also captured BJJ gold in the Texas State Championships, IBJJF and Europa.
In February 2013, Ferreira began gathering his MMA gold when he captured the STFC welterweight title. He followed that up by securing the Legacy Fighting Championship lightweight strap in November. However, outside of his UFC debut win in June, he remains largely unknown to the mainstream UFC fan. But, make no mistake; Nijem will take on whomever he has to in his climb to the top.
“I wanted to fight on Aug. 30 and most of the big-named fighters were taken,” said Nijem. “And, it’s not like I’m taking Carlos lightly, but he’s just not really known in the UFC. He’s been fighting in Legacy, and he’s got great grappling, but a lot of people don’t really know who he is. In the UFC, he doesn’t really have a name yet, and he’s got one win over Colton Smith, who is a [TUF] winner. Whoever the UFC puts in front of me, that’s who I fight. I don’t really have a choice. If I put on another show and really make another statement, like I plan on doing, I will solidify myself as one of the top 155-pounders and, hopefully, get a bigger name who will put me closer to title contention.”
At this point, a win over the former Legacy champ should certainly thrust Nijem into a title run, and this isn’t the first opportunity he’s had to hand someone his first loss in the Octagon.
Since the TUF 13 finale, Nijem has bested C.J. Keith and Dariush in their first defeats, but he was unsuccessful in providing a first loss to Myles Jury and James Vick. Ferreira marks the fifth time the Palestinian-American has faced an undefeated opponent in nine UFC outings. He’s looking forward to coming out on the right end of this affair.
“For some reason, I always face undefeated people,” Nijem joked. “That’s my thing, I guess. I’m the zero snatcher.
“I feel that I am better than him everywhere. If I was fighting him in a jiu-jitsu match, he’d probably beat me, but this is not a jiu-jitsu match. If he takes it to the ground and tries to grapple with me, I’m going to punch him in the face really, really hard, and it’s going to completely change the jiu-jitsu game. Dariush was a good jiu-jitsu guy, but as soon as we got to the ground and I got my hands on him, it was a different match-up. Stylistically, I’m so much bigger than he is. He’s five-foot-eight, he’s a little muscle dude, a little muscle guy, and I’m an experienced fighter. I have more fights in the UFC than he does total. I know he comes from a jiu-jitsu background and has a ton of jiu-jitsu fights, but I come from a wrestling background, and I have thousands of wrestling matches.”
All of Ferreira’s six finishes have come by way of submission. BJJ is, by far, his strong suit, and Nijem has tapped out twice in his career. The last time was as recently as a year ago to Vick. However, with a larger frame, phenomenal wrestling skills, and guys like Jake Shields in his training camp, he is more confident than ever facing a BJJ expert like Ferreira.
Nijem is the type of guy that always has a plan for how he’s going to spend his post-fight downtime. Living in Utah and growing up as an Eagle Scout in Washington, he often had plans to go mountain biking or whitewater rafting in the weeks following his fights. However, for the fight with Ferreira, he’s so much more focused than he ever has been, that he hasn’t really sat down and made any concrete plans. But, he still has an idea of what he might be looking to do.
“For some reason, I really want to go to Mexico and lay on the beach,” Nijem contemplated. “After my last fight, in Abu Dhabi, it was nice to go down to Dubai and relax in the sun. That was nice. The only way I’ll get to do that again is to go somewhere.”
Ramsey Nijem may be maturing as he enters his late twenties, but he is still an outdoor-loving kid at heart. On Saturday night, though, he will be looking to end the streak of the undefeated Carlos Diego Ferreira. No matter what antics happen outside the ring, he is a completely different being when the cage door closes. Unlike Lahat, who wants to go to Israel and fight people with guns, Nijem prefers to do his fighting in the ring, where he can be more dangerous than ever, while promoting peace in his ancestral homeland.
“Every fight I have, I’m just getting more violent. I really want to establish myself as a top [lightweight]. Last time, I had to make a statement. I had to tell everybody I’m good and I’m here to fight. This time, I’m going to come out and look for an impressive win. After that, I’m here for one thing, and that’s the title. That’s all I care about, and that’s what I’m looking for. Everything else doesn’t matter. I don’t care who I need to beat to get there, but I’ll beat whoever I need to get there.”
Nijem would like to thank his coaches and training partners at Empower Gym, especially Tareq Azim and his brother Adam. He would also like to thank all of his family and friends who support him. In addition, he thanks his sponsors Dethrone, Smart Stop Storage, Hayabusa, Training Mask, and Sqor. Follow Ramsey on Twitter: @RamseyNijem