London: How martial arts fighter rebuilt his life after escaping Iran

Pasha Rafiei, 36, now lives in London and is a proud member of the KO Combat Academy MMA community (Image: Gergana Krasteva)

At KO Combat Academy in east London, where mixed martial artist Pasha Rafiei trains seven days a week, there is a characteristic sweat smell typical of a well-oiled gym.

It’s here that the “Persian powerhouse” – as he’s called by fans – has been rebuilding his life over the past two years after fleeing Iran in fear for his life.

Watching him deliver powerful kicks while wearing an altitude mask, it’s hard to imagine that in 2019 he was living in a refugee camp in Greece, where he used old car tires as a punching bag to keep fit.

Back in his home country, Pasha was known as Mohammad Hadi-Rafiei – a successful MMA fighter who had won a number of medals, representing his country abroad.

But his life took a dark turn after he complained against the Iranian Martial Arts Federation for “corruption” in 2016.

Sports authorities also discovered that Pasha had secretly coached female students.

“By their rules [Sharia law]”Men aren’t allowed to exercise or meet women, so they banned me from exercising,” the 36-year-old told

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Pasha Rafiei works out in the gym

Pasha wears an altitude mask during training to improve his breathing (Image: Gergana Krasteva)

Pasha Rafiei works out in the gym

Pasha watches over one of his classes and helps the fighters improve their technique (Photo: Gergana Krasteva)

“Everyone should learn martial arts and self-defense, especially women, even if it’s just to help others.”

When Pasha returned from a championship in Denmark the following year, the federation took the knife even further and banned him from training in gyms.

“I was proud to represent my country and I waved the Iranian flag when I won the gold medal in Denmark,” he said.

“Danish officials even offered to sponsor me to move there, but I turned it down as I had to take care of my family at home.

“But when I came back I was banned from training and competing in MMA gyms. That was really difficult for me.

“Is this how you value your champions? Force them to train at local parks?’

Pasha took part in the August 2018 uprising against Iran’s theocratic government, which saw protests erupt across the country.

When the police arrested him, he recalls being beaten by officers so badly that his head bled and he was taken to the hospital.

Pasha Rafiei

Before fleeing Iran, he had a thriving career in the MMA world (Image: Gergana Krasteva)

“Everyone had their reason for attending the protests,” said the athlete. “The police used tear gas against the crowd.

“They caught me and beat me up. My whole face and nose were broken, as were my ribs.

“I remember not being able to see and then passing out because my head was really injured.

“The police took me to the hospital because they didn’t want to be responsible for my death.

“They let me go after three days and I was forced to sign a letter saying I would not take part in any future protests.”

A clip of Pasha lying on a stretcher in hospital and covered in blood was shared tens of thousands of times online, further inflaming the demonstrations, he said.

His friend Navid Afkari, who was with him, was also arrested and later accused of murdering a security guard during the anti-government rally.

Pasha Rafiei with his students

Pasha pictured with his students after an hour of sparring (Image: Gergana Krasteva)

Activists outside Iran still believe the allegations were false and that Navid’s first confession was obtained under torture.

There had been calls for a pardon for Navids around the world, including from then-US President Donald Trump.

However, the Iranian judiciary denied allegations of torture and he was executed in the city of Shiraz in September 2020.

“There was never solid evidence that he was guilty, it’s terrible,” Pasha said, fighting back tears.

“Navid was killed just a few weeks before my birthday, it was the saddest thing I’ve been in my entire life. I’m still devastated.’

He feared the same fate awaited him even before his dear friend Navid – a well-known Iranian wrestler and his training partner – was sentenced to death.

So, Pasha fled Iran with his wife using fake passports, leaving behind his family, home and blossoming career.

Pasha Rafiei with his youth class

The coach with his youth class at the East London Gym (Photo: Gergana Krasteva)

The couple crossed the border into Turkey by bus and then traveled to Greece, where they were taken to a refugee camp on the island of Samos, which housed about 3,000 asylum seekers in “tragic” slum-like conditions.

Pasha remembers with pain that he lived there in a tent for almost 12 months. But that didn’t stop him from training.

He said: “I used to run on the beach every day. I’ve done shadow boxing and bodyweight exercises. I wasn’t allowed to work out in the gyms in Greece so I had to do that to keep in shape.

“I also stacked three tires on top of each other and hung them from a tree as a punching bag.

“My hands were covered in cuts from boxing, so I ripped apart some clothing and used the material to wrap my ankles. That was my life there.”

After leaving Samos, he traveled to Athens, then to France, and then to Britain.

Pasha and his wife had married in 2018, but soon after he discovered that she was a lesbian.

“I didn’t know that at the time, but her brother forced her to marry me. She didn’t want to,’ he said.

“One of the reasons I’m so passionate about educating LGBTQ+ people is because of you.

“Over time, I got to know her better and learned that she was a lesbian, but she didn’t really tell me.

“I brought her because I felt responsible for her. She was afraid of the Iranian regime.

“When we arrived in the UK, she confessed her sexuality to me. She now lives in Birmingham and volunteers for a rainbow organization. I am very happy for them.”

Now the KO Academy in the railway arches of Bethnal Green is his new home and his close-knit community his new family.

About 40 days after Pasha arrived in London, he started volunteering at the MMA gym, a local institution.

As part of his work there, he teaches self-defense courses for LGBTQ+ people and hopes to empower them.

As well as his two jobs, he also volunteers with Ultra MMA London, which has raised millions of pounds for cancer research since 2019.

Participants train for free for two months and then compete in amateur bouts.

The coach also volunteers with a 12- to 16-year-old youth group in the area, hoping to give them confidence.

Pasha is currently gearing up for his next fight at Crystal Palace on Saturday June 25th.

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