Sayif Saud understands the necessity of a good start to a fight. Launching a comeback when down one round is difficult even with the best game plan and conditioning. This is a message he conveys to his fighters at Octagon MMA in Dallas.
It is also that ideal that drove Saud to launch and serve as president of the MMA Youth Foundation (MMAYF), a charity group that combines mixed martial arts and community activism to help disadvantaged youth come back strong, no matter how far behind they are. Currently, his charity and staff are working largely in the Dallas-Forth Worth area, but the grounds are being cleared to proliferate MMAYF nationally.
Saud benefited from the virtues of martial arts his entire life. From the moment he could wobble his way across a room on two feet, he was submerged in numerous styles. "My father had a Judo and Shorin-Ryu Karate school. My brother and I used to go with him every day."
Accomplishments came early and often for the pre-teen martial artist. “I started competing at a very young age as well, winning state Judo titles at ages six and seven,” Saud said. “My father opened up a second dojo,which was only karate based and I started focusing more on that aspect of my training. From ages 12-17 I won four national titles in Karate in United States Karate-do Kai and P.K.C. (Professional Karate Commission)."
Saud would train as a champion body builder for half a decade while at Indiana University. While in law school, his prior martial arts training and athleticism were recognized, and he was introduced to the world of mixed martial arts. He was offered an opportunity to train at what was then, a small, discriminant club for martial artists located in Albuquerque. He was then introduced to the incomparable Greg Jackson.
“This was 2006 and things were just starting to pick up steam in the mainstream with UFC, but it still wasn’t even close to where it is today. I got in my truck and drove from Indianapolis to Albuquerque.” Saud recalled his introduction to Jackson’s realm. “I remember walking into Greg's gym-- it was only a coupl
e of weeks he had been at the location he is at now. I remember his office wasn't even painted yet.”
That year, Coach Jackson began accumulating global talent and young prospects. His trainers were Olympians and titleholders. “The team grew so much in the three years I was there. It was amazing how much changed in that period of time. There were so many guys coming from all over to train and it was great,” Saud said.
Arguably, it wasn’t until a Rashad Evans won his title in 2008 that the New Mexico secret was officially out to MMA fandom. Through all of it, Saud was there honing his game and competing professionally. It was normal to train with the absolute best in the world. “Everyday, there is a new talent like that coming in through the doors making that team unequivocally the strongest in the world. There are so many good guys in the room with so much knowledge, that it is like having a Harvard education in fighting.”
Talent was in surplus. Olympic wrestler Mike Van Arsdale gave symposiums of take downs and positioning, Mike Winklejohn lectured in striking and clinching, and Greg Jackson, the dean of the cage, rounded out the education of his students by implanting in them strategies fitting of Alexander the Great.
It was perhaps, his time around such a large collection of fighters in Albuquerque that lead Saud to realize the commonalities that most fighters shared. He recognized most came from difficult situations that defined them as fighters. They understood that the only way to get through and succeed was to fight.
“MMAYF was born out of the things I experienced personally and from the many friends that I have been blessed enough to meet through MMA,” Saud explained. “Fighters are some of the toughest people in the world, but also some of the biggest hearted people you will ever meet. I feel a young person could derive character, integrity and discipline through training.”
He relates this back to his experience at Jackson’s, “Greg used to help out so many kids that would come in the gym, no matter what their situation he always treated them kindly.”
Other fighters typically feel the same way about giving back. “Joe Stevenson was just at my gym a few weeks ago and we were discussing how he is helping out a group of kid's in his gym in Victorville, CA. I was talking with my buddy “Mo” [Lawal] and bouncing ideas around about what we could do to organize a nonprofit. Guy Mezger has been doing this for a long time as well. The list goes on and on.”
Fighters like Lawal exemplify the organization’s goals. Lawal lived a difficult life with his single mother in East Plano, Texas through high school, but sports like wrestling kept him grounded and on the path to a success.
Though MMA is likely very far from becoming an regular after-school program, the MMAYF offers the unprecedented opportunity of winning scholarships to train at participating gyms to train in martial arts such as kickboxing and Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and MMA.
Oak Cliff resident Nelson Barrera, 16, is the organization’s first scholarship winner. The sophomore at the Dallas CAN Academy earned his scholarship through academic excellence and a written essay that became his ticket to free lessons in wrestling with Olympic silver medalist Jamill Kelly and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu with four-time world champion Bruno Bastos at Octagon.
“Our vision is to give kids an opportunity to learn the discipline, work ethic and achievement that can come from training,” Saud explained. “A lot of young people have a lot of energy and this gives them an outlet to channel that energy through training and possibly competition and achieve in that process. I know MMA has saved a lot of guy's lives. Training can provide a structure and a balance that can turn one's life around.”
In February, Saud teamed up with Scott Strough, who is an 8th grade teacher and coach at the Dallas KIPP Academy-- one of a chain of free, public charter schools geared for low-income students. Together, they provided a two-hour seminar to talk about self-defense and bullying.
This past Saturday, the MMAYF teamed up with Deion Sanders’ Sportsbuddies, a Big Brothers Big Sisters program to welcome five students and their mentors into Octagon MMA for a seminar. The event was a more hands on, including basic MMA technique training and instruction on how to defend against a bully without causing any real harm.
One participant, Carolyn Adams, expressed her enthusiasm for the event. “My little brother Keyshawn and I had an awesome time working out with each of the instructors,” Adams Said. “ I was so excited to see the glow in his eyes.”
Interest in MMAYF is waxing faster than expected. Promotions such as Strikeforce are offering assistance in the form of pro-fighters. Saud has made appearances on MMAJunkie Radio and Tapout Radio. And Saud’s list of those to thank is quickly compounding.
‘We want to send out a big thank you to Crooklyn at Tapout and Gorgeous George at Junkie for giving us some press. US Combat sports has stepped up and announced it is going to donate to us as well. "
The BBBS event was a huge success for us. We were excited to work with such a well established non-for profit. I want to thank Greg Seal, Grant Meek, Ray Wright, Neil Ewing, Matt Hobar, Ryan Kimura, and David Colletti for taking the time to help coach these kids and Mike Binney for his efforts in putting this event together. We recieved some great feedback and will have another event with BBBS this year. I just want to keep on growing the organization and making as many partners out there as [possible].”
Saud realizes his work is far from over, and urges those with an interest in mixed martial arts and community volunteerism to inquire about what they can do.
“Anyone that is out there making [a] change and working, feel free to contact us and let us know. We have several events planned though out the year with some big names, so stay tuned. Check out our web site at www.mmayf.org
for the latest news, press and contact info. Thanks to all of our sponsors, we appreciate you!’
The philanthropist fighter is off to a quick start and is putting his MMA lineage to good use. Saud and his partners recognize that there are certain fights that everyone one can win, and MMAYF plans to set all of its participants up for success.
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Pictured: Sayif Saud, Grant Meek, Ray Wright, Neil Ewing, Matt Hobar and Ryan Kimura provided a free seminar for these students and their Big Brothers and Big Sisters.