Annandale's Iman Achhal Makes Her Pro Debut in Mixed Martial Arts Tonight in Fairfax

Iman Achhal, a 32-year-old local fighter prepares for her Mixed Martial Arts pro debut on Saturday in Fairfax, Va. Video by B.J. Koubaroulis/The Washington Post
By B.J. Koubaroulis
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, February 21, 2009

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 tonight's Ultimate Warrior Challenge 5: Man "O" War -- a nine-bout mixed martial arts card at Patriot Center.

During a break in her training 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. Her mother was devastated that her daughter had refused an arranged marriage to a man she had handpicked from their home town 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 to accompany 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 whom Iman remains in contact.

"Iman left us a month or so after we came" to Virginia, Anas said. "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 tomboy, Achhal's passion for athletics was smothered in Morocco "because that's just not, you know, what girls are supposed to be 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," Anas said.

"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 convenience stores waiting to hop onto the back of a contractor's truck.

She said she spent one winter homeless, finding shelter in a tent at 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," Achhal said. "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."

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