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."
She saved enough money by helping to remodel homes, hanging drywall and painting to rent a different bed, basement, floor or room each week all over the Washington 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 a while," 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 centers in Sterling and Alexandria, which are part of MMA legend Royce Gracie's chain.
According to a list compiled by MMAweekly.com, two of the top 10 most-viewed MMA bouts of all time were women's fights televised by CBS in 2008. 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 said that Achhal's fight against Felice Herrig -- an 18-2 world champion kickboxer 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," Achhal said. "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: Tonight'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 . . . Tonight's fight will be streamed live on Sherdog.com.