A New Fight

Young men in war-torn Afghanistan are putting away their soccer balls and cricket bats to pick up a pair of fighting gloves as mixed martial arts gains in popularity.

In war-torn Afghanistan, where poverty and economics tear apart the country on a daily basis, young men are looking past historically played sports like soccer and cricket. Instead, they are opting for the self-defense and encouragement they get from the burgeoning sport of mixed martial arts.

Within Afghanistan, there was no place to fight until 2015, when Kakail Nuristani joined forces with his family members -- including brother Amanullah, CEO of TeaHouse Consulting -- to build a new venture, the Snow Leopard Fighting Championship.

Housed in a custom-built gym with a professional fighting cage, the Snow Leopard Fighting Championship is Afghanistan's first private MMA tournament. It hosts the fights and supports eager fighters who pay a small membership fee to take daily classes.

Afghan men are seriously into fitness, going to small gyms all over Kabul. Some fighters started training as kickboxers, wrestlers and traditional boxers, and now they get to use all of their talents to learn MMA. Seeing Afghans like Siyar Bahadurzada and Baz Mohammad Mubariz make their way into a multibillion-dollar global promotion like the UFC, fighters hope the sport can succeed locally and bring about change to a region where anything positive can make a major impact.

A team from Paktia province, 90 miles outside of Kabul, arrives to try out for the amateur fight at the Snow Leopard Fighting Championship gym. Thirty fighters from all around Afghanistan converged on Kabul to compete for a spot at the amateur gym.

Atiq Khairi, 18, trains alongside many others in the SLFC gym. Before training was able to begin, fighters were put through rigorous physical testing; 10 people were removed from competition because they could not meet the physical requirements.

Afghan men are shown different wrestling moves and positions during training. Many of these men have some fighting experience, but had not been able to learn from coaches with as much knowledge as the members of the SLFC.

Fighters shadow box and do cardio workouts around an octagon that was custom-built for the Snow Leopard Fighting Championship gym.

Fighters leap into the air as they warm up for their next training session.

Faiz Gardez, a 23-year-old from Paktia province, looks into the camera after he arrives to try out for the amateur fight club.

Samir Mukhlis, 23, is considered a rising star on the road to becoming a professional fighter. He came to the sport because of kickboxing and has won a number of amateur fights. "I hope to be one of the best fighters in the country," he says, "to raise the Afghan flag with pride."

During a quiet moment before his afternoon training session, a man prays and looks to clear his mind and ready himself. Many of the men in the tryouts and training sessions are devout Muslims who pray five times per day.

Shireen Aqaa Mohamedi, 22, stares into the ring as he prepares himself for his fight at the SLFC gym.

Eighteen-year-old Aziz Zafari, from the war-torn province of Maidan Wardak, warms up in a small storage room before fighting.

Friends and relatives cheer on the amateur fights that these men have traveled far and wide to compete in. No tickets were sold and the fights were only promoted by word of mouth.

Fighter and coach Fahim Alakozy shouts directions into the octagon during one of the many amateur fights of the day.

Faizullah Wardak (right), a mentor and professional fighter, and Salim (back) work with Noor Ahmad before the second round of his fight at the amateur event.

Aziz Zafari is hit with a left cross during his first amateur fight, which he wins. After 10 days of fitness tests and training, the final day at SLFC included 18 fights between participants.

A fighter is checked out after Samir Mukhlis knocks him out in the first round. "I am just learning more about MMA," Samir says. "It is really difficult because I need to be good at wrestling, boxing and kicking."

Ahmad Mohammed, 18, celebrates winning his first amateur fight.

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