When Mahamed Aly left Rio de Janeiro, he walked away from almost everything—his home, friends, family, and training partners—but he brought with him his determination to becoming a world champion.
“It was rough, man,” Mahamed said. “I could not communicate because I didn’t speak English, and the people were cold. It was different in Brazil, because kids were running in the streets, and making friends comes naturally when you’re young.”
The weekends in the U.S. were especially rough for Mahamed when he looked at social media and saw his friends in Brazil having fun without him.
“I would be alone the whole weekend,” Mahamed said. “But I did not have a plan B. My two options were to win or win. There were times I would cry at home because I was so lonely, but I didn’t have an option to quit. There was no other way. I had to keep going.”
That was the beginning of a four-year journey of intense training and competition that earned Mahamed world championship titles at purple and brown belt levels as he worked his way to the black belt division. When he finally reached the final seconds of the last black belt match of the world championships, Mahamed struggled to process what had just happened.
“At first, I did not understand what was going on,” Mahamed said. “Then I realized, ‘Oh, shit, I just won the worlds.’ I had been thinking about that for ten years, then suddenly, I got it. The only thing I can compare it to is the day my daughter was born. I don’t think the same way now, but in that moment, I felt like I could have died and I’d have been happy.”
Mahamed started Jiu-Jitsu when he was 15 years old. At that time, he never thought about winning championships. He had a lot of energy as a kid and was just looking for something fun to do. He tried kickboxing for a few months until a friend, who also did kickboxing, invited Mahamed to try MMA.
“I said, ‘Sure,’” Mahamed said when his friend asked him to roll, “because in my mind, I could beat this guy in kickboxing, so I thought I could beat him in whatever we did. Then he got me in a triangle choke, and I didn’t know what to do. That’s when I started training Jiu-Jitsu.”
Mahamed grew to love Jiu-Jitsu, but he kept training with no visions of becoming great.
“To be honest, I didn’t want to beat people. I just wanted to not get beat,” Mahamed said. “Then I started to learn how to defend, and every day I learned one new thing. Step-by-step, I got better. Then one day I won, then lost, and won again. I never wanted to be a legend. I just wanted to keep getting better and doing my thing.”
What began as an idle pastime eventually became Mahamed’s passion.
“I keep my demons away by doing Jiu-Jitsu,” Mahamed said. “When I found Jiu-Jitsu, for two or three hours a day, I would not think about violence or people doing bad shit. I would just think about improving. That’s where I found peace in my life.”
The poverty-stricken favelas of Brazil are very different from the U.S.
“I grew up in a very rough environment,” Mahamed said. “We would get one pair of shoes at Christmas, but my feet would grow, and I was stuck with those shoes the entire year. I wore the same grass-stained shoes to school, sports, and parties.”
Being poor was the only thing Mahamed knew, but poverty also came with more tragic consequences.
“If you don’t see people dying, death is a fear,” Mahamed said. “But when you see people dying, it’s a reality. I lived that reality.”
Mahamed saw lots of death at a very young age because of the crime and drugs in Rio’s favelas.
“My friend that introduced me to Jiu-Jitsu was a pretty talented kid, but he was doing stupid shit,” Mahamed said. “He won all the Jiu-Jitsu and Muy Thai tournaments, but he also tried to steal a bus. A cop was there and shot and killed him.”
Mahamed did not like the environment he grew up in, but he did not know anything else.
“When I was nine, my dad was killed and left in the road,” Mahamed said. “We don’t know exactly what happened, but my dad was a chauffeur, and it looks like somebody killed him to steal his car.”
It was devastating for Mahamed to lose his father at such a young age, but that also triggered a series of other challenges.
“It wasn’t just losing my dad,” Mahamed said. “Because when my dad died, I also lost my friends, my home, my privacy—basically, I lost everything.”
Mahamed’s mother and father had purchased the new car one week before it was stolen. Without her husband’s income, Mahamed’s mother was forced to sell their small home to pay off the loan for the new car that was stolen. That forced their family to move in with family members in another city.
“It was rough for all of us,” Mahamed said. “I was nine and didn’t have a dad anymore. My mom had to leave for work at 7:00 a.m. and came back at 9:00 p.m. We would be at home all day by ourselves learning how to live and protect ourselves. I had to work and try to make money. I had to become the man in the family because I didn’t have any other option.”
Mahamed explained that his reality was like that of most of the kids in Brazil.
“Brazil is kind of different than America,” Mahamed said. “I don’t know why, but most kids in Brazil don’t have a dad. At 13 years old, kids already have their own kids. They’re not adults in age, but they have adult responsibilities.”
All these bad things happened to Mahamed, but he never felt sorry for himself. He was too distracted trying to survive.
“I wanted to get out of there, but I didn’t know how,” Mahamed said. “I just didn’t want to die there.”
One day, former UFC light heavyweight champion Vitor Belfort showed up at the gym and struck up a conversation with Mahamed. Vitor commented on Mahamed’s size and skill and was surprised that he was only a 15-year-old blue belt. When Vitor learned that Mahamed wanted to fight in MMA, Vitor invited him to Las Vegas for his next fight.
That conversation led to Mahamed connecting with the legendary Nogueira brothers. Eventually, Mahamed left his mother’s home and moved into the Nogueira fight team’s house and began training for professional cage fights.
“It was awesome,” Mahamed said, “because for the first time in my life I was training with people who were bigger than me. I also got to see that famous people are people just like us.”
Mahamed respected the way guys like Rodrigo “Minotauro” Nogueira, a former UFC and Pride champion, carried themselves and treated people.
“He’s super famous,” Mahamed said, “but he treated people right. Those guys walk around the gym with bare feet. They don’t care about expensive stuff, because they just want to keep improving.”
Mahamed was reluctant to say it, but he admired how humble the Nogueiras were.
“I don’t like the word humble,” Mahamed said. “I think humble is when you think you’re just like everybody else, and I don’t think that’s true. When I’m fighting, I don’t see myself like other people. I don’t want to be average, ever. When I say that, some people get offended, they think I’m cocky, but if you want to be a world champion, you can’t believe that everyone is just like you.”
Mahamed explained that outside the competition mats, he feels differently; but as a high-level competitor, he’s dedicated to becoming the best he can.
For Mahamed to get to the U.S., he had to step outside his comfort zone.
“I’m still very shy,” Mahamed said. “I don’t know about Americans, but in Brazil, there are a lot of hungry people. When people are hungry, if somebody comes out with food, everyone jumps on the food because they’re trying to eat to survive. I realized that every time an opportunity would show up, I would be the last one to get it because I was shy. I was afraid of people, so I just shut my mouth.”
Mahamed could not get to the U.S. on his own, but he was not confident enough to share his goals with the people who could help him achieve them. Jiu-Jitsu helped Mahamed develop courage that enabled him to overcome his introversion.
“I didn’t have money to pay for the world championships,” Mahamed said, “but I would not ask anybody because I was too shy. People saw that I was dedicated, and they wanted to help, so I had to learn to say thank you and show appreciation.”
Eventually, Mahamed’s instructors started asking him to lead portions of classes, and that forced him to talk in front of the group.
“That’s how it started,” Mahamed said. “That’s when I forced myself to learn to talk to people.”
It took Mahamed a couple of tries before his U.S. visa was approved, but eventually he competed in his first world championship in the U.S.
“It was a crazy experience. I didn’t have money, so I never thought I’d be able to go to the U.S. to compete in the worlds,” Mahamed said. “I made it to the semifinals, but with thirty seconds left, I lost my focus. I lost, but it was a great experience because I fought really well.”
On this trip, Mahamed met Lloyd Irvin, and not long afterward, Lloyd helped Mahamed move to the U.S., where he joined their fight team.
“He’s a great guy and has helped me a lot,” Mahamed said. “He’s very focused, and when he wants something, he’s going to do everything to get it, just like me. As a coach, he wanted a black belt world title, so he would wake up every day and work for it, and it paid off.”
Mahamed explained what he believes separates those who achieve high levels and those who don’t.
“Desire is not enough,” Mahamed said. “It’s more about discipline than desire. Many people want to do a lot of things, but they don’t have the discipline to do what it takes.”
Mahamed believes that he was disciplined in Jiu-Jitsu because of how much he loves the sport.
“I’m not disciplined to do anything else,” Mahamed said. “I did shitty in school because I did not value education. I didn’t want to sit in class and read, and when you don’t appreciate it, there’s no love. Without love, there’s no passion, but when you find something you love, you’re willing to overcome all obstacles.”
Mahamed compared Jiu-Jitsu to raising kids. Raising children is hard, but because you love them, you’re willing to do whatever it takes.
The discipline that brought Mahamed to a world championship also came with some pain.
“I went through two years of pure stress in my life,” Mahamed said. “It became stressful when it became my job. When I started winning, I didn’t want to lose, and the more I won, the more stressed I became. I wanted to make everything perfect. I wanted to be the best. When I won, I didn’t celebrate my victories, because in my mind, I was already the best. I was supposed to win. When I lost, I felt like a piece of shit and life became miserable.”
Mahamed noticed that he was living the same life as the regular guy who goes to work every day and hates his job. What used to be his love and passion had become hell.
“I think you should try to be the best you can,” Mahamed said, “but it’s a problem when you’re obsessed about perfection. We all know that perfection doesn’t exist, but we keep looking for it until one day you wake up and realize you’re living a miserable life.”
Mahamed is grateful for the success he has had and is excited about continuing to excel in Jiu-Jitsu competition, but now he hopes to also use Jiu-Jitsu for something bigger than himself.
“Because I came from a very rough background, I’ve always wanted to give back,” Mahamed said. “When I moved to the United States, I felt selfish. I felt like I was doing all of it for me. I’ve always wanted to do more for others, but I wasn’t in a position to do so, but now I’m getting there. Now the goal is bigger than me. I want to make people’s lives better by giving back to the kids in Brazil. That’s the way I approach life now.”
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