Whether a fighter is born or made may be one of the sharper bones of contention in the combat sports world, but Iranian-born lightweight Behrang Yousefi (8-7) —who will meet Tim Smith (14-11) this Friday at Unified MMA 41 in Edmonton, Alta.—makes a strong case for acclimation.
Having last competed in mid-2018, Yousefi, 34, said he has a personal history, as well as a great deal of veneration, for his welcome-back challenger in Smith, whose own prolonged absence and subsequent return to the sport is something he draws inspiration from.
“He’s a grizzled veteran. He’s been around the block, he’s fought the who’s who in local martial arts and Canadian martial arts—Chris Horodecki, Shane Campbell, the list goes on. He’s been in there with really scary competition, so I don’t think he’ll be scared of me going into this. You know, he was a champ for a reason for a long time,” said Yousefi in an interview with MMA Empire.
“We were training partners for a few years and I declined the fight from another promotion several times, then I discovered that it’s Tim who actually wants the matchup. At some point back then he fell off and no longer trained there (at Kamikaze Punishment), and that was the last time I can recall ever seeing him. Since then I’ve declined the fight multiple times, for good money; I just didn’t want to be the dude to derail Tim because I knew he had his life back together, but he’s the one who wants to fight me.”
Now that the fight is in ink, Yousefi said he expects a fast-paced, explosive chess match with his former training partner, and is grateful, if a little daunted as usual, for another chance to test the reptilian aspect of his psyche.
“I think it’s a good matchup and it’s going to be an honour to share the ring with someone who’s seen the very best in Canada,” he said.
“You know, he’s fought the very best, as have I, so it’s going to be a pleasure getting to know him better and sending him off. I think this will be his last fight, so it’s going to be an honour. He’s a good man, a good dad and he has a good heart. He means well.”
A comeback years in the making is a big moment for any fighter cursed or privileged enough to undertake it, but Yousefi said the months and weeks that have led him here have been chaotic and a struggle in their own right, owing mostly to a Canadian summer pervaded by forest fires.
“I moved two months ago from Red Deer to British Columbia, and had a place lined up, but the wildfires displaced so many f**king people I lost it to a family, so I ended up having to live out of my car. I have a carpentry job, and fortunately the guy used to be an ex-fighter too, so a week ago they emptied out the single trailer in the back that was filled with items for storage—though it has a bathroom and a fridge and sink—and I moved in here temporarily because it’s not insulated at all. So when winter comes I’ve got to find something else and go,” Yousefi said.
“I’ve been living like Jack f**king Dempsey. I’m underweight by five pounds. I don’t really cut weight; I walk the weight I fight, really. And I’m not the same fighter I was many years ago, nor is Tim. My will to hurt my fellow man has dissipated. I’m not nearly as mad as I used to be and you know, to what end are these means? I don’t want to give a man a concussion for a paycheque but I find myself institutionalized to this kind of behaviour and this feeling. It’s like the nerve-wracking thing about it all reminds me of growing up and makes me nostalgic. Walking to school or walking home, and being confronted…by everybody.”
Originally from the port city of Bandar Abbas, the cerebral and sardonic Yousefi said the years-long odyssey he and his family endured to start life afresh in Canada sewed conflict into the very fabric of his identity, despite a deep-seated antipathy for physical violence itself.
“Multiple times in life I was involved in martial arts involuntarily,” said Yousefi.
“When I was young in Iran my dad put us in karate and gymnastics, and I found karate to be way too hard and just…violent. I didn’t like it and just stuck to gymnastics. Then when I was seven we moved abruptly to Sweden, and then Germany, and in Germany I found myself on the receiving end of ass whoopings by a group of kids habitually. Like, every weekend.”
In what was supposed to be a brief stopover en route to their intended destination of Canada, Yousefi and his family were instead detained in a German refugee camp for a full year, and remained in the country for the next three in a small, rural town where he and his brother had committed tormenters, and no means to escape them.
“Eventually, my mother put us in judo, somehow barely being able to speak German, and lo and behold the kids that were whooping our ass, the same skinheads that were chasing my brother and I, were in judo. So now we had scheduled, supervised beatings: you knew, two times a week, that you were going to go into this class and catch an ass whooping,” he said.
“Ironically, you think how frustrated they are as well, right? They only know what they know based on dinner talk at the dinner table and they’re now being forced to work with this brown child they were chasing down the street on the weekend. You know what I mean? They had to teach me stuff while the instructor was watching, making sure they weren’t out of line. It was an interesting time being exposed to martial arts because as I grew up I continually found myself on the receiving end of things, but when I discovered exercise and martial arts I developed self-respect and self-love.”