Military vet Beverly Roach spreads her creed of hope all over the fighting world
Friday night lights in Lahore
There’s no electricity in the slums of Charar Pindh, Pakistan.
At this depressed inner city area in Lahore City, smack in the middle of the Defense Housing Authority—one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods—it gets dark quick when there’s no power in most of the houses. But tonight is a Friday and the lights are still on in one part of the shanties, at least.
Walk along Ghazi Road and head to Noorani Masjid, then cross the length of Charrar Pindh Park, beyond the sugar cane juice vendors all the way to the back of the park, and you’ll hear leather gloves slapping on skin, cries of pain and encouragement mixed with the heavy breathing. The sounds of martial training resonate throughout the modest space, above the droning hum of the generators.
A mixed martial arts (MMA) dojo for the underprivileged youth, Shaheen MMA was founded in 2015 by US military veteran Bashir Ahmad. A Pakistani-American who grew up in Virginia, Ahmad is famous for being the “Godfather of Pakistani MMA.” He rose to prominence in Asian MMA when he made a victorious debut at ONE Championship against Thai sensation Shannon Wiratchai on April 5, 2013.
After a storied military career, he moved, back to his home country, and with a vision to empower and guide the marginalized youth of the city to a better future, he sought to break the cycle of poverty and provide better lives for the kids who would commonly just beg or loiter the streets of the district.
“This is where we hope to inspire and motivate kids and teens to be the best version of themselves as role models and leaders,” said Ahmad, having since retired from fighting and now an executive at the same league where once he donned four ounce-gloves.
“Some come from poor but stable homes, and too many others have lives more like a stray animal than someone’s child.”
Ubiquitous and emblazoned on a tarp all along one wall of Shaheen MMA is the double D logo of the Diesel Diva brand in black and red.
The pain of discipline or the pain of regret
Beverly Roach is the founder of the Diesel Diva brand. An amalgam of sports management philanthropy, sports gear and apparel, and a philosophical ethos, it carries the motto and the message of “Peace Through Sports.”
In the fighting and mixed martial arts community, Roach’s Diesel Diva brand has sponsored many up-and-coming fighters, as well as dojos and gyms. This “Peace Through Sports” message has also been endorsed by MMA superstars like the UFC’s Thiago “Sledgehammer” Santos, ONE Championship’s Adriano Moraes, and Bellator MMA’s Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino. She’s also occasionally stepped out of the combat sports world to help out players in basketball (Beyond Hoops Africa with James Kamau) and a hijabi powerlifter.
A big part of Diesel Diva’s philanthropy is the sponsorship and development of martial arts dojos specifically in impoverished areas. And Shaheen MMA is one of those gyms.
“Shaheen MMA is, if you will, a Diesel Diva gym,” said Roach, speaking to MANTLE on Skype during the COVID-19 community quarantine in Manila, where she has now been based for a few years.
“I try to help them out as much as I can because I really believe it’s a place where the kids can go,” she continued. “They are off the streets. They’re learning teamwork. They’re learning professionalism. They’re learning conflict resolution and typically, they’re learning work ethic. There’s so many good things that happen at that gym.”
At Shaheen MMA, the young boys and girls who would typically be roaming the streets can come in and be fed while training for free. Since the gym has a generator, the kids can also do their homework.
In 2015, the Asian Development Bank estimated that approximately a quarter of the Pakistani population lived below the national poverty line. In line with this, Ahmad also soon realized that that MMA in Pakistan can actually help turn impressionable boys and girls from being potentially recruited into the ranks of religious zealots and terror militants. That for the youth who have nothing, it’s more than just a sport, rather a lifeline that fends off the lure of extremism—a hard-bitten reality round these parts.
“The reality is that someone can start up a mixed martial arts gym and train future Taliban soldiers,” said Ahmad in a recent interview.
The Diesel Diva Tribe
“What I am is a patron of the sport of MMA,” said Roach.
Now 62 years old, Roach is a former captain in the Canadian military and has been deployed in some pretty bad places. At conflict zones like Afghanistan, Sudan, Iran, and the former West Germany, she’s been at the frontline of what academics might term in a catchy turn of phrase as women in non-traditional roles.
Fighting and martial arts has been her life and, after her career as a soldier, she left the service for a new calling as a security consultant for various organizations, all the while keeping her skills sharp by practicing martial arts and training at local gyms wherever she went. As a certified instructor for the Gracie Women Empowered program and the Street Smart program (designed out of Cape Town, South Africa) she’s also a go-to name for women’s security and self-defense seminars all over Europe and Asia.
“They are off the streets. They’re learning teamwork. They’re learning professionalism. They’re learning conflict resolution and typically, they’re learning work ethic. There’s so many good things that happen at that gym.”
With 75 countries visited and having lived for extended periods in eight countries, Roach now calls Manila her home where she works security and crisis management for a UN-affiliate. Having collected a formidable and extensive network of contacts throughout her travels, she started the Diesel Diva brand in 2011 to spread the benefits of martial arts and sports.
One of the biggest success stories coming out of Pakistani MMA is that of Anita “Arm Collector” Karim, the first female Pakistani MMA fighter.
Karim trains out of Team Fight Fortress in Islamabad, where Roach has also been a constant student (and prior to Anita, often the lone woman), so Karim was a perfect fit for the Diesel Diva brand. Roach helped with sponsorships for Karim and also connected her to specialist gyms in places like Thailand.
Karim’s rise has so far been meteoric and unprecedented, even for a country without a big MMA fan base. A recent endorsement by Pepsi is proof of her cross-market stardom.
“Pakistan has got a lot of really good MMA fighters now and I don’t say this because of the Diesel Diva deal,” said Roach, “that was because they were already on that road, but there were just some barriers to cross. Still these guys when I first met them, you know, they were all fighting at little beatdowns in Pakistan. And now their cousin, Anita, is in ONE Warrior Series.”
So far it looks like Bashir Ahmad’s and Roach’s vision of nurturing the seed of MMA in Pakistan has already borne fruit. Aside from the rousing success of Karim, there’s also 21-year old Irfan Ahmad—once an asthmatic sickly child, now the team captain of Team Shaheen, running the gym in Bashir Ahmad’s name—a rising star in his own right, having also won at Rich Franklin’s ONE Warrior Series.
For Roach, both Anita Karim and Irfin Ahmad are real success stories, but success comes in different ways in different places.
“Sometimes somebody just doesn’t have a chance and helping them out a little bit, they suddenly get there,” Roach explained.
Roach had her first boxing (for charity) match at 60. She joined her first Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu competition at 58.
She graduated at the Royal Military College of Canada with honors, then took up a Masters of Science in Security Management from the American Military University. After her years of service, one of her first jobs out of it was as a security specialist in Kabul, Afghanistan.
As a veteran, her experiences in conflict and in combat support roles had allowed her the kind of experience very few might possess in their lives. And that goes even for her fellow soldiers and security operators.
Many of her colleagues in the security trade would go: “Oh my god, you were a security specialist in Afghanistan and you’re a woman? How could that happen? How were you able to do your job?”
Roach would reply: “It actually made my job easier. Usually, my Afghan counterparts, whether it was police or military, they were curious about this woman who was a security advisor. And then they would meet me and then they’d find out I was legit. I was able to speak their language in professional security. I was in the army for this many years so I know everything. The point was by treating people respectfully and respecting their life experience, their cultural experience, and understanding that their journey is different, I’m able to maneuver and navigate through those things.”
Because of her attitude and openness, Roach would earn their trust and thereby gain unprecedented access to the households of her local counterparts, something that men would never be able to do in a Muslim country.
“I would get invited to their home and meet their wives, their daughters, their sisters,” narrated Roach. One of my male counterparts never could do that. They would never be in their home. They might be invited to their home but they would never meet their family. But since I’m a woman I could meet everybody! So, meeting the family engenders a level of trust that’s different.”
“I tend not to bring my ego into play,” she continued. “I respect that the nationals around me have they’ve been fighting this war—or whatever it is and wherever I am—a lot longer than me. They might do things differently than me but I want to understand why. I respected them and so for me there was inclusion in terms of planning. So I had very, very good working relationships in Afghanistan.”
A cowgirl from the favela
A second tier of the Diesel Diva thrust is to sponsor professional fighters who need a bit of push to get to the next level of the fighting game.
One of Roach’s biggest success stories comes from another marginalized area, 13,835 kilometers away from Lahore City, in the slums of Cidade de Deus (the City of God), deep in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.
The favela of Cidade de Deus started out as public housing on marshy flatlands in Rio’s Western suburbs. Now at around 38,000 people living in an area of about half a square mile, it’s become the most infamous slum in the city, partly due to the Oscar-winning 2002 film of the same name co-directed by Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund, that depicted the slums as a haven for narcotics and drug lords, gangs carving out turfs across small areas, and an absurd number of guns for said criminal organizations.
“I tend not to bring my ego into play,” she continued. “I respect that the nationals around me have they’ve been fighting this war—or whatever it is and wherever I am—a lot longer than me. They might do things differently than me but I want to understand why.
From the streets of this favela, Duda “Cowboyzinha” Santana was discovered by UFC light heavyweight contender Thiago “Marreta” Santos (recently, he fought champion Jon Jones in an amazing war).
A former military paratrooper in Brazil’s military, Santos was also born and raised in the Cidade de Deus. Just like the single mother Santana, he dreamt of bigger things and a better life out of the narrow streets of the favela. Because of this, he started a social project at his Rio-based Tata Fight Team, where local kids could take martial arts lessons for free, just like at Shaheen Academy in Lahore. Santos had witnessed first-hand the seduction of criminal life and how negative influences find fertile ground in impressionable youth, especially in a place like the favela where opportunities are scarce.
Santana got recognized for her potential and was invited to train regularly at Tata Fight Team. By this time Roach and Santos were already friends and so when Santana came into the picture, Santos’ manager Alex Davis (also a friend of Roach’s), suggested that Santana be taken into the tribe of the Diesel Diva.
Roach said, “Duda was out on the streets and getting into fights and Marreta said, ‘Come to social project and train at the social project.’ And he recognized that she was actually very talented, so she got invited to train at Tata Fight Team with him.”
Problem was, Tata Fight Team in Barra da Tijuca was 9.5 kilometers away from where Santana lived in Cidade de Deus. “Alex Davis came to me and said: ‘You know, she has a really hard time getting to Tata Fight team because it’s quite a distance from the City of God.’ What she really needs is a bicycle,” said Roach.
So Roach bought her a bike. And eventually Santana got a UFC contract.
Duda Santana made her UFC debut against fellow bantamweight Bea Malecki in 2019 at UFC Fight Night 153. The 23-year-old single mother from the favela who used to brawl on the streets had made it to the biggest MMA stage in the world, pedaling her way through the city to train as a pro.
“It’s not the direct linkage, but it’s part of the linkage,” Roach elatedly said. “Part of it was that she was with people who really helped her to train, people who recognize her talent. But like I say, again, the ‘Peace through Sports’ movement had a little part of making that all happen. When they get into the UFC okay, now that they’re there they don’t need me.”
Faith, hope, and peace
Now with an approximate of 40 fighters from around 20 different countries sponsored, Diesel Diva is a force to be reckoned with at a grassroots level when it comes to getting fighters with talent and promise off the ground.
From the local leagues and all the way to the big promotions with international shows like ONE Championship in Asia and the UFC in North America, Roach is ecstatic at how the Diesel Diva tribe has grown through the years.
“My brand is small but I engage with athletes, it’s really because I’m in a good position to help them,” said Roach.
“These are not big sponsorships, but it’s the guys who are at the lowest level right now that need it most. Usually, I will look at their social media and see what message they’re sending,” she continued. “Then if everything looks good, do they actually need me? Sometimes if it’s just that they need gear or some shirts and they’re willing to wear the gear, I’m happy for that too. I’m also more than happy to have people who I think represent well to wear the brand. It’s not always people coming out and asking for money. It’s not always about a month or three of sponsorship.”
While the lockdown on COVID-19 has cancelled all of Roach’s self-defense seminars for women as well as nearly all the forthcoming MMA events that her sponsored fighters are competing in, she welcomes the chance to resume the mission of Diesel Diva, imbuing the grassroots fighters and potential champions of tomorrow with a new hope, the kind of faith in yourself that leads to great acts, and the prevailing calm that goes hand-in-hand with a life lived in meaning and truth.
To donate to Shaheen MMA Academy, go to their GoFundMe.
Karl R. De Mesa is a journalist and writer who co-hosts the fight culture podcast DSTRY.MNL and the dark arts and entertainment podcast Kill the Lights. His latest book is Radiant Void, a collection of essays and non-fiction available from Visprint Inc.