Attempting to follow one’s passion and turn dreams into reality is no easy feat. Early on, more often than not we aren’t even exactly aware of what it is we truly want to do or become. It just ends up falling together with the most exemplary of outcomes and results being produced via happenstance. At least … that’s how it can seem for those seeking creative outlets. For Leicester, England’s Ramaize Atique, he too believes he falls into that category.
Getting into the MMA media world was never an intention of mine, yet here we are. A fan through and through, like everyone in the community, I temporarily gave up on the MMA world in the first half of 2019. It wasn’t due to MMA itself or a dying love, but more so the feeling of need for something else. And that led to a path into English language teaching and relocating to the massive city of Shanghai, China.
While my journey was incredibly short-lived, Mr. Atique capitalized on his to the fullest.
Who exactly is Atique? Well, he’s a father, a husband, an adventurer, and most famously to the MMA community, the English teacher to UFC strawweight champion Weili Zhang.
As popular as the sport of football (soccer) is in Europe, it was only natural for the future teacher of a combat sports titleholder to be a lifelong fan of “the beautiful game”. However, after so long, attractions can fizzle out. Especially when something so new and enthralling presents itself. MMA became that to Atique.
“I’ll tell you, I think what was a major turning point for me … I used to be a huge football/soccer fan growing up, huge Manchester United fan,” he shared with MyMMANews, “And in my late teens, it just became a little bit boring. I think, for the most part of my life, it was very much around football. So you know, playing football in school, following the different leagues and watching all the matches. And I think I just became a bit bored of it. I remember my father said to me that there’s this show on a channel called Bravo. Now, for those from the UK, they’ll know about Bravo from back in the day. It was actually The Ultimate Fighter.
“I’m not too sure which season, but it was the season where it was advertised or marketed as the Brits vs. the Americans. It was the one with Michael Bisping on it. So that was a big thing for me. Michael Bisping, guy from the UK, representing us, doing his thing. I knew about MMA before that, but I think that was a major turning point in terms of interest. And since then it’s just consumed my life from watching all The Ultimate Fighters to following the fighters, the stuff on YouTube, the events. I’ve probably been following the sport for about, I think, almost 15 years – 10-15 years. It’s been quite some time.”
Obviously, teaching language of any kind is a very unique challenge and there are multiple ways it can be done. But it’s not truly done or experienced unless you immerse yourself in a separate culture where it will be taught.
The benefits of being bilingual go far beyond what could be initially imagined by most. Especially when it comes to such a usable language like English – not to knock all the many others, of course.
Learning a different way to vocalize and communicate with other individuals is one of the greatest challenges that a human can take on. It’s a true process of knowledge expansion and cultural adaptation. As a teacher to students from all over the world, Atique expresses that all come with their own differences in regards to perks and teaching challenges.
His most experience, however, is in fact with Chinese students. It’s what he knows best and culturally understands along with the general strengths and weaknesses. Consider it his “comfort zone”. Adjustments are always there to be made, but generally, the approach to each task or student is the same.
Ultimately, as alluded to, it wasn’t always Atique’s first desire to study the Chinese culture or teach.
“I actually wanted to go to the Middle East to study Arabic,” the teacher shared, “So I completed my bachelor’s in English in 2010. The plan was to go study Arabic because I wanted to work in translation. Now, that didn’t materialize. So I thought to myself, ‘Okay, what’s the next best thing?’ Well, I’m sitting on this degree, it only makes sense to teach English, right? I got what we call a CELTA certificate, which is a one-month intensive course. I did that then I went to Saudi Arabia for one year to teach English. Then I came back and I decided to take things a bit more seriously. I pursued a master’s degree in English language teaching. And that’s when I got involved in working in China. So I’ve been in and out of China since around 2015. Mostly doing contractual work on behalf of a university in the UK.
“I think the best things happen without you intending them to happen. I remember, it was a very challenging time because I was studying, I was working, I just had my first kid at the time as well. It was quite overwhelming. But everything kind of came together as things do.
“I really enjoy teaching,” Atique continued, “I’ve been teaching for quite some time now, I think seven or eight years. I’ve taught English to students from around 25 or 30 different nations. Worked in different sectors, obviously worked in the Middle East, worked in China, and I’ve worked for quite a few universities in the UK as well.”
Fighters, and more specifically champions, learning English to better promote themselves and grow as individuals isn’t anything new. We’ve seen it in the past with several Brazilian legends such as Anderson Silva, Antonio Rodrigo “Minotauro” Nogueira, Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, Cris “Cyborg” Justino, and the list goes on and on.
Surely they had some great teachers. Though, what has made Atique stand out is the fact that he’s been one of a kind. For starters, he’s teaching the first and only Chinese UFC champion that there has been to this point. On top of that, he’s documented their journey together in a way that is innovative when it comes to providing unique and fan-friendly content.
In October 2019, Atique launched his YouTube channel Teach, Train & Travel. Over time, he had begun documenting and uploading the teaching adventure that he was embarking on with a historic champion. Also historic for Atique from a personal standpoint, Zhang would be his first student that was an MMA fighter. Despite that, he had prior training under his coach, The Ultimate Fighter season 9 finalist, Andre Winner.
Coincidentally enough, that was the same season that Atique’s MMA fandom blossomed from.
August 4, 2018, marked the UFC debut for Weili Zhang when she took on Danielle Taylor and scored a unanimous decision victory. Therefore extending her winning streak at the time to 17 straight. Two wins later, and the woman known as “Magnum” was poised to do something that had never been done before.
Meanwhile, the wheels had already been turning in Atique’s head.
“I watched one of her first fights in the UFC … and I’d been saying to my wife for quite a few years that I don’t see anyone working with MMA fighters, or if they are I don’t know about it,” he recollected, “So, you know, with the growth of the UFC, Bellator, other MMA organizations, and the fact that they’re looking to get into different markets. I thought to myself, this is a very interesting niche, and it doesn’t seem like many people are in it. So I think, a couple of years ago, I saw Weili’s fight and I said to myself, you know what, I’m going to teach this girl. I don’t know how it’s going to happen, I don’t know what I’m going to do. But it makes sense. I’ve been following MMA for quite some time. Most of my experience in terms of teaching and learning is with Chinese learners. So it makes sense. It’d be an awesome pilot, and it’d be an amazing experience. And here we are.”
As one might expect, contacting international fighters can be a bit of a tricky task in its own right as is. Let alone trying to figure out the proper way to approach them and convince them to let you teach them something. Especially something as personal as a language, which goes beyond simply just fighting in a cage … a not so simple profession.
Oh, and then there’s the fact that the target subject has now broken into superstardom after such an incredible capturing of the world title.
In the end, things wound up lining up pretty perfectly for Atique as he attended UFC 242’s fight week in Abu Dhabi. Also, in attendance was the new champion, Zhang … who actually just so happened to have been told by UFC President Dana White a few days earlier that she needed to start learning English.
“I started working with her in October 2019,” Atique started, “I met her and the team in September, I met them in Abu Dhabi. She was there at the meet and greet, in fact, there were a couple of fighters that I wanted to work with and she was there at the meet and greet. But the issue with the meet and greet was there was so many people there and I just didn’t feel comfortable. You know, ‘My name is Ramaize and I want to teach you,’ … it wouldn’t be a very smooth conversation because I literally had 100 people or so, 200, a few hundred people, behind me. And obviously there’s a communication barrier as it is. So I thought to myself, ‘You know what, I didn’t get an opportunity. I’ll see what happens,’
“I think it was a day or two after Khabib [Nurmagomedov’s] fight … I saw her in the mall, and I said to my wife – I had my wife and kids with me – and literally I said to my wife, ‘Hey, hold my ice cream (laughs). I’m going to speak to the team,’ When I first approached them, I think they were really taken back because A. they weren’t expecting it, B. it was just so random, right? Okay, who are you? What do you want? What’s your background? Are you really even a teacher? Sometimes these opportunities are hard to come by. So I thought to myself, here’s my opportunity. What’s the worst they could say? They could say no. And it really doesn’t make a difference, right? Because I’ve already got my life in the UK, I’ve got work. If they say no, it’s not going to be the end of the world.
“So I went up to them and I said, ‘Okay, she’s Weili Zhang, I want to teach her,’ and they looked at me so baffled, and I said, ‘Look, it will be way more comfortable for me to talk to you if I were to sit down so can I please sit down?’ And before you know it, it turned into a … I would say 40-45 minute conversation talking about China, talking about MMA, talking about where I worked and some of my experiences,” he recalled, “I started naming some of the places in Beijing and showing them pictures. We exchanged details, I gave them my CV, my resume. And I think they got back to me a day later or two days later and they said ‘when can we start?’ So it was very natural. I think that was the biggest part in all of this. That it just felt very natural. And, you know, it was being in the right place at the right time. It was fate, I guess.”
It all worked out for Atique in his goal to start teaching an MMA fighter – and it was even the exact one that he said he would. Unfortunately, the one roadblock that there was, came in the form of the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, which has affected the entire world as a whole. And with it beginning in Wuhan, China, Atique was forced to return home earlier than he had planned to.
Regardless, he still got to document the majority of their journey and from the beginning to the most recent video, Zhang’s progress was evident.
Although they discussed English learning for a year, things have obviously been put on hold due to the circumstances. Atique says they’ve stayed in touch as friends but in regards to teaching, he’s waiting for her to be ready first as adding on any pressure in the current climate wouldn’t be too respectful of her space.
“It was a very creative project because I had worked with language learners before,” he said, “But the idea of documenting the progress was something that really interested me and I said to Weili that when you look at Western social media, platforms like Instagram, platforms like YouTube, there isn’t really much content. There really isn’t much content of Weili. Now, the MMA community is a community that becomes very invested. They become very invested in fighters. So I thought to myself, ‘How awesome would it be for Weili’s fans to watch this journey?’
“The way she lives, the way she eats, the way she trains, the way she is behind the scenes. Weili the daughter, Weili the friend, Weili the companion, Weili the fighter, all these different things are very, very interesting and we don’t really get to see much of it. I know there are a few MMA fighters who have started to document their lives and put it out there. But you have to bear in mind the Chinese community. The idea of Western social media is an alien one. I thought, ‘Okay, look, why don’t we work together? We’ll put out these videos and it creates a certain level of interest building up to the fight itself. People get to see the journey.’ And for myself, I can show the world what can be done with other fighters. So for me, it was really a blueprint moving forward and it was a part of a bigger plan.”
Atique believes he can get Zhang to that near-native level of English speaking with that potential year’s time of teaching. But the greater picture has to come into play first.
And painted into that picture is Zhang – the strawweight champion of the world.
Living in China and teaching any subject, no matter what it is, is already enough to create so many different types of perspectives. But one that is one of the most foreign that can possibly be imagined is that of a championship-caliber athlete.
If he would have just taught specifically online or not proceeded about things the way that he did, Ramaize Atique would have missed out on seeing and living what it’s like being a championship competitor. Not only that … but one with the world’s largest nation on their back. How could one possibly prepare for such a thing?
“I didn’t really have any expectations, the only thing – I was not afraid of, but here’s the thing – many people don’t know this, but I have three kids, I have a family,” Atique stated, “So to leave my wife, I quit my job, I left my children for a few months, it’s not easy. And I was going into something that I really didn’t fully understand how it was going to work, the logistics, how many hours she’ll be able to commit to. A lot of that wasn’t really discussed.
“We started working in October, mostly doing online lessons. And I was just getting her used to some of the sounds and getting used to the pronunciation to relax the facial muscles. And we were working, I would say, three times a week on average – were doing about 45 to 60 minutes of training. Now, when I got to Beijing, you have to bear in mind, and the reason I’m emphasizing this is … when you relocate your entire existence to another place, you really want your student or your client to give it everything that they’ve got. There was no point for me to relocate to Beijing if I were only going to get 30 minutes a week out of her. Because there are two problems with this. One, it’s not a very efficient use of my time. And look, this is something that I need to tell the MMA world … Working with a world champion. The idea of that is euphoric for maybe 30 seconds. But then after that, you need to live, you need to work, you need to sort out your routine. There’s a lot to do, honestly, it’s not as easy as you think.
“So, this is what happened,” Atique continued, “I got to Beijing. And, again, you have to bear in mind, we don’t know each other very well. We’re not on those kinds of terms yet. They’re very new to me, I’m very new to them. We were both a little bit hesitant at first to say what we really felt. I remember, I think it was a day or two later, we kind of exchanged the same idea at the same time. Which was, look, why don’t I just stay with you the whole day, because I’m not doing anything at this moment in time. I don’t really have any other commitments so I could follow you throughout the day. And that would mean that we’re exchanging words, exchanging ideas, you’re constantly listening and it’s as natural as it can be. Then what we will do towards the end of the day, when you’ve done your training, when you finish your day, at the end of the day when you’ve gone home, we can sit down for 60 to 90 minutes, three to five times a week, and we can study quite formally where I’m teaching you the mechanics of the language. The grammar, the syntax, the rules. And that worked out really well.”
Many of the projects and things alike that are put out there or created for their reasons are often much more taxing beyond the surface level. Hell, trust me … teaching just a regular person, let alone someone of such prominence is a task of its own.
And with anything that is putting oneself out there, there’s an added pressure. The size of the spotlight can be any size, it will create an extra set of nerves one way or another. That accompanied by the nonstop lifestyle that Zhang lives was something to behold.
Breaking it down, Atique recalled the days starting with five-kilometer runs (three miles) in the morning. Straight after that, it was Muay Thai sessions. Coming home for lunch, napping, session number two, strength and conditioning or BJJ. Come home, eat, study English for an hour or hour and a half. Relax for an hour, go to bed, repeat that six times a week.
“You see, for me the fear was; I’ve put myself out there,” Atique expressed, “Now if people don’t see results, they’re going to question. They’re going to, naturally. Okay, so, how have you been teaching her? What have you been doing? But what people don’t understand is what goes on behind the scenes. And I’ll be brutally honest … It’s a relentless lifestyle.
“I got tired of just watching her. Six training [sessions], six hours a day, six days a week. I was with the team, for the most part, six days a week, five to six days a week. And honestly, it’s a very, very tough way of living in terms of training, the discipline you need, the kind of routine you need to have in order to be successful. She deals with the pressure tremendously well, really, really well. And, you know, I had her full commitment from the beginning. Never did I feel like ‘okay, this girl isn’t giving it her best shot with everything she did.’
“Every BJJ session, every strength and conditioning session, every Muay Thai session, every English lesson,” he continued on, “She gave it everything possible and her efforts were tremendous. I think it goes to show the way she carries herself, the way she is in and outside of the cage. I got to see what makes a world champion. And I’d be lying if I said I could do it.”
Even though the nature of Atique’s new adventures are more challenging than your common fan could comprehend, it hasn’t at all deterred him.
The Leicester native has already gotten things lined up as we all hope and prepare for normalcy to soon return to the world. And while he hopes to someday teach the likes of two of Russia’s brightest stars in Zabit Magomedsharipov and Petr Yan, Atique has others waiting to go under his silver-tongued tutelage.
Next will be a top welterweight prospect out of Sweden, training partner to Alexander Gustafsson, the 6-0 Khamzat Chimaev.
The 25-year old is currently making noise under the Brave CF banner and is just one of the many talented figures that Atique hopes to teach and start giving more exposure to.
“I’m really excited to work with him,” said the Brit, “We’ve only had one lesson so far (because of the Coronavirus). The plan was to go to Sweden, do the same thing [like with Zhang]. Document his life. document the language lessons. Put it out there for the MMA community and the plan was also to travel to Norway. I’ve been in touch with Jack Hermansson.
“The plan was to spend a little bit of time with them in terms of working with the talent there, again, documenting it, putting out there … Because I think we have some great talent here in Europe. I really want to get involved in terms of working with these fighters and sharing what they do, how they live, how they train. I’d love to be able to do that.”
Since the start of Ramaize Atique’s journey into the MMA realm and teaching Weili Zhang, we’ve gotten to know the champion more personally, see her grow as an English speaker, and of course, successfully defend her title for the very title.
It’s not easy to put yourself out there. And it becomes even harder when you’re doing it under the umbrella of your passion or an area of expertise – something you identify with. So for Ramaize Atique, if he was to stop today and be one and done with MMA, we couldn’t necessarily fault him. But we absolutely can commend him for continuing to aid with his teaching throughout the sport of Mixed Martial Arts.