Thursday, February 19, 2009

Achhal Fights, Seizes 'Independence'

Achhal Fights, Seizes 'Independence'
Annandale Resident Set to Make MMA Debut
By B.J. Koubaroulis
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, February 19, 2009; 2:53 PM

Iman Achhal pinched each of her cheeks between her thumbs and index fingers and pulled them in a sharp upward motion as she reenacted the worst beating she ever received.

"If you ever wondered if it was possible to lift someone up by their cheeks, I know that it is," said Achhal, a 32-year-old Annandale resident who will make her professional debut on an undercard in Saturday's Ultimate Warrior Challenge 5: Man "O" War -- a 10-card Mixed Martial Arts event at George Mason University's Patriot Center in Fairfax.

During a break in her training earlier this month, Achhal, nicknamed "Mannie," peered out from underneath her Adidas baseball cap and relived what she called "the beating of her life" when, at 18 years old, she endured a 30-minute verbal and physical pounding at the hands of her mother. She was devastated that her daughter had refused an arranged marriage to a man she had hand-picked from their hometown in Morocco.

"I just knew I could do better than to marry someone I didn't know or I didn't love and just end up barefoot and pregnant, so I knew I had to get out of that situation," said Achhal, who, at 18, fled the small country in northern Africa and came to the United States on a green card she won through her biological father.

"At that time [the government] was giving out visas, lottery visas, and I guess [my dad] was one of the lucky ones that got one," said Achhal's half-brother, Anas Achhal, who was one of four siblings that accompanied their father to the United States in 1995.

Anas, a 26-year-old student who lives in Prince William County, is the only family member with which Iman remains in contact.

"Iman left us a month or so after we came [to Virginia]," said Anas. "She had always lived with her mom and she didn't grow up with my dad's house rules and when she came here, you know, he had his house rules and I guess she didn't like them and that's why she left."

A self-confessed tom-boy, Achhal's passion for athletics was smothered back in Morocco "because that's just not, you know, what girls are supposed to being doing," she said. "When I came here, once I had my freedom, I realized that I could work out, that I was allowed basically to work out and I just went all out. I would be at the gym for, oh my god, four to six hours."

She left her family, her religion and her country to pursue a life that better suited her "independence," said Anas.

"My family is my coaches and my trainers," said Iman, who spent most of the 10 years after she left her father's home working as a day-laborer, braving frigid early mornings in front of local convenient stores waiting to hop onto the back of a contractor's truck.

She said she spent one winter homeless, finding shelter in a tent in Bull Run Regional Park in Manassas.

"So, you're not allowed to live in a park, so I had to basically just pretend like I was camping," said Achhal. "The only bad thing in that picture is that it was snowing and really cold, so a lot of people were looking at me like 'there is no way you like being in a tent' but I had to make it look like it was awesome."

She remained homeless until she saved enough money helping to remodel homes, hanging drywall and painting to rent a different bed, basement, floor or room each week all over the D.C. Metro area.

Fluent in Arabic and Spanish, she said she taught herself English by listening to the radio and television.

In 2005, she was one of 30 recruits who spent 22 weeks in training to become a Fairfax County Firefighter.

"She told me about the arranged marriage and how she got here and ended up being homeless for awhile," said Fairfax County Firefighter Ron Gemsheim, a 45-year-old captain who was Achhal's superior officer at the Franconia Fire Station in Alexandria. "Honestly, she inspired me. To come from something like that and stay upbeat the whole time, really made me look at my problems and say 'What the hell, mine are minuscule compared to that.'"

Mike Lee, a 28-year-old firefighter stationed at Fire Station 14 in Burke, was part of Achhal's class at the academy in Fair Oaks.

"She really didn't have any prior experience, but what she had was heart," said Lee, who works out with Achhal four to five times a week. "She might not have been the most technically proficient person, but she had the heart to push through a lot of stuff. And that's basically the same deal with her fighting, it's like, regardless of whatever setback she might have, she always has the heart to keep on pushing and pushing and pushing and pushing."

Achhal recently left firefighting to become a full-time fighter and trainer at Capital Jiu-Jitsu -- a mixed martial arts gym that has local centers in both Sterling and Alexandria that are part of MMA legend Royce Gracie's chain.

According to a list compiled by, two of the top 10 most viewed MMA bouts of all time were women's fights televised in 2008 by CBS. Each fight grabbed more than 5 million viewers.

That prompted local promoters to add a female card to their third MMA venture at Patriot Center.

UWC President Marcello Foran says that Achhal's fight against Felice Herrig -- an 18-2 world champion kick-boxer also making her professional MMA debut could be the "highlight of the show." Herrig has won bantamweight titles with the International Kickboxing Federation (IKF) and World Association of Kickboxing Organizations (WAKO) and gained national attention when she appeared on "Fight Girls" -- a 2007 television show on the Oxygen Channel.

"On the 21st, win or lose, I really don't care," said Achhal. "I care about how I perform. I want to perform well. I owe it to myself. I went way too far. I've done so much on my own and this is just the result of hard work and persistence. I'm very persistent and I got here."

Notes: Saturday's card will also feature a co-main event. Local fighter Mike "The Hulk" Easton (6-1) will take on Chicago's Chase "Rage" Beebe (11-3) in a five round 135-pound matchup for the UWC Bantamweight World Championship and Jamal "The Suit" Patterson (4-2) will square off with Antoine "The Juggernaut" Britt (8-1) in a 205-pound fight . . . the fight will also be streamed live on

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