There has never been a UFC champion of British-Asian heritage – but Faisal Malik hopes to change that.
Newly signed to European MMA circuit Cage Warriors and with a 5-0 win record in the sport, the 27-year-old comes from a Pakistani background and dreams of one day headlining a UFC title fight in Lahore.
Once overweight and caught up with the wrong crowd, he is a rising star waiting for his first Cage Warriors fight – but is already confident of adding his name to the list of more than 100 fighters to have progressed from the promotion into the UFC.
“It’s clearly the path I want to take,” he tells BBC Sport. “It’s a step up, but it’s a step up that I wanted for quite a while.
“I’m ready to jump into Cage Warriors and show what I’m made of. Since I went pro, I’ve finished all my fights in one minute. I’m looking to keep that going.”
Where did it all begin?
Malik trained in boxing until he was 15, and started to learn Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu at 16.
He developed a fearsome reputation and says he was so prolific in tournaments that coaches of other fighters would wait outside for him.
“They’d be like: ‘Show us your ID. Who are you? You can’t be doing this’,” he says.
“Pretty much from 16-19 I didn’t concede a point.”
It was also a period of his life when he could have got into trouble – until he discovered MMA.
“My older brother and a couple of friends were like ‘why are you wasting time on the road when you can channel that energy into a sport?'” he says.
From there, he came across the UFC.
“I was Googling places to learn,” he says. “My brother found a place and so did my friends. So I went, tapped out millions of times and I was like ‘damn, I need to learn this.’
“When I was about 22, I went pro. My whole life is dedicated to MMA because this is not a joke.”
Having a good role model helps too – Malik’s grandfather enjoyed notable success in combat sports.
“He was wrestling back in Pakistan, in Kashmir,” says Malik. “That’s always been a motivation and I still believe that it’s genetics.
“He was a champion so I always grew up hearing stories. He did inspire me.”
Faisal also grew up watching former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson, but it is the two men painted behind him as he sits in his gym that give inspiration now.
“In MMA it’s George St-Pierre and Khabib Nurmagomedov,” he says. “That’s why I’ve got them in my gym. My biggest inspiration are these two and how they approach defining themselves as a human being, the way they carry themselves – in the cage and outside.”
Being a British-Pakistani Muslim
One of Malik’s big goals is to take the UFC to Pakistan.
“That’s where my roots are,” he says. “So just to go back there… imagine how crazy that would be.
“By promoting MMA in Pakistan it will promote the whole MMA scene and guys will start coming through.”
Malik’s faith – as well as his heritage – is also very important to him.
“That’s the first thing, sport comes after,” he says.
“Everything happens for a reason. I’m just grateful that I came off the road, I’m into the gym and I believe that that’s a blessing from Allah.”
Malik says his family were initially anxious about his fighting, but are supportive of him.
“What they didn’t like was when I started to get more and more serious, but my dad always had my back,” he says.
“At first they thought I’m just doing this to lose weight because I was overweight until about 19 – about 110 kg,” says Malik, who now fights at bantamweight, eats better and lives a healthier lifestyle.
“They support me. They don’t like me getting punched in the face, but they always back me.”
Opening a gym
Malik is still early in his career but already has plans to open a gym in Luton and offer free sessions for underprivileged young people to get into MMA.
“MMA is fairly new and around where I’m from there’s not really a gym,” he says.
“I’ve got seven coaches for different disciplines. I want to bring everything in-house so those kids won’t need to travel up and down the country.”
Malik says his goal is to show “anything is possible”.
“I was overweight and I was from the streets and now I’m a professional fighter, 5-0 and on the verge of firing into the UFC Insha’Allah,” he says.
“I want to help the kids suffering with mental health, even adults. I believe physical fitness is the number one medicine.
“My goal from the gym is pretty much to create high-level fighters, I’m talking UFC world champion.
“I want to show that if I can do it, they can do it too, and I want to help as much as I can along the way.”
An Animal uncaged
So how would Malik describe himself in one word?
“Animal,” he says.
“I reckon in about two to three fights I’ll be in the UFC – it could happen. There’s so much more to my game than anyone’s ever seen because I’ve been smashing through this lot in one minute.
“I’ve seen the champion in Cage Warriors, I’ve seen all these guys. I’ll smoke him.
“I’ve got to stay humble and not waste my time. But it will come soon. I’ll be ready.”