A first-generation martial artist from the great Northeast follows in a proud trainer's footsteps.
There’s a soft, constant tribal drumming coming from two large speakers in the back corner of World Gym on Roosevelt Boulevard in Northeast Philadelphia. We’re on a basketball court that, for tonight, has been cordoned off from the 24-hour training center’s workout equipment with 30-foot-tall cloth barricades.
It’s bright. From where I’m standing, I’m hit with constant chants of “Danny! Danny!” as Daniel Diaz and his opponent, Long Island-based fighter Tyrese Washington, knock, grapple and kick one another, each taking several brutal blows. The crowd reacts to each one, loudly, giving each other high-fives.
After three rounds, neither fighter has been knocked out, and an official gets in the ring to announce the winner by number of hits. He shows the scorecard to the referee, who, along with Diaz’ trainer Rami Ibrahim, raises his hand in the air as the small, sweaty crowd erupts into applause, chanting the fighter’s name.
Diaz falls to the ground and gets into a prostrate position, his face in his taped-up hands. After he and his opponent take turns around the ring, bowing to and shaking the hands of those involved in the match, a white championship belt is strapped around his waist. He takes a look at a friend in the audience, smiles, and sticks a single finger against his lower lip.
Danny Diaz is 12.
A skinny Hispanic boy with a tight crop of black hair and a light complexion, Diaz first started mixed martial arts training six years ago. His father, also named Daniel, had pushed sports on him from a young age, believing it’d keep the boy off the streets of their Juniata neighborhood. He was right, but after a year of baseball and football, Danny told his dad—who helps maintain an outdoor sport-oriented nonprofit in lower Northeast Philly—he just wasn’t that into it.
“One day he came up to me and said, ‘Dad, that’s not what I want to do anymore,’” the elder Diaz recalls. “I said, ‘All right, what do you want to do?’ He said, ‘I want to fight. I want to do something different.’”
They started checking out several gyms in North and Northeast Philly. One afternoon, they walked into Sitan Gym in Rhawnhurst and found its owner, muay Thai champion Rami Ibrahim, teaching a pee wee class. He stopped the class and introduced himself to the Diazes. They hit it off quickly, and Ibrahim took Danny on as a student.
Under Ibrahim’s tutelage, Danny has begun competing in MMA tournaments; he’s got a 3–3 record after six matches. The day I meet them at Ibrahim’s gym, Danny is warming up a group of seven other children, aged 7 to 10. This is standard for Danny; he attends Sitan Gym six days a week, following his school day at the charter Esperanza Academy.
His father is happy to drive him there each day: “I tell everybody in my family it was the best investment ever. He’s not the kind of kid you talk to and tell him something 100 times. He follows directions to a T.” Danny’s father recently finished building a home gym, too—for Danny, yes, but for his sister as well.
Meanwhile, it’s not just other kids Danny’s helping. Ibrahim, who still fights professionally himself—his MMA nickname is “The Son of Palestine”—has recruited his 12-year-old student to help him prepare for a fight through Lion Fight Promotions in Las Vegas, where he’ll be taking on Simon Chu “Coke” Chunhawayt, who previously beat Ibrahim in a 2011 bout.
Ibrahim and Diaz’s mentor-protegé relationship was a natural fit from the start—probably because Ibrahim saw so much of himself in the boy.
A Palestinian whose family was well-off enough to live in Kuwait, Ibrahim came to the United States with his parents the summer of 1990. Two weeks later, the Gulf War broke out, and his family lost everything. “There was no reason to go back,” Ibrahim says. Settling in as refugees in Northeast Philadelphia, Ibrahim’s parents took blue-collar jobs and enrolled him in an after-school karate program.
“My parents thought they should put me in the martial arts so I wouldn’t see what they were going through,” he says. “I was on Wyoming Avenue. It wasn’t very nice.”
When Ibrahim got to high school, he started wrestling. Two years later, he began boxing at a gym at 26th and Huntingdon, spending up to seven hours a day after school in fighting-sports programs. The sports, he says, kept him off the streets and ending up where others from his neighborhood did. “I don’t know anyone from my neighborhood who’s done anything positive. Either they went to jail, became alcoholics, dropouts, and—”
He pauses. “That’s partially why I never really had a friend. All the people I considered friends were from the martial arts world, from my fighting team, from the boxing world. This is my education.”
The students Danny’s leading in the gym bow to each other, and he gives them a break so he can sit down and speak with a journalist. Doing so, he’s not overly enthusiastic, or nervous, either; rather, he just seems matter-of-fact about it all in that slightly sheepish, preteen way.
A first-degree black belt, Danny says he fought his first official match because he wanted to “see how it feels. I wanted to get the experience of what it’s like to be a fighter.”
And: “I heard fights were fun.”
First Person Arts Podcast: Proud Mom