When Ramsey Nijem strode cockily into the ring for a televised mixed-martial arts bout June 2011, the breakout star of the 13th season of the Ultimate Fighting Championship reality show, “The Ultimate Fighter,” was draped in a Palestinian flag, a tribute to his father’s homeland.
The music blasting through the Las Vegas arena? “One Day,” by Jewish rapper Matisyahu.
All my life I’ve been waiting for
I’ve been praying for
For the people to say
That we don’t wanna fight no more
There’ll be no more wars
To some, a song about peace seemed to be an unusual choice for a man preparing to fight inside a cage in Sin City. And then there was the eyebrow-raising fact that a Palestinian American chose a song about peace by a Jewish artist.
Nijem insists that his choice of attire and music was not meant to send a specific message about the Middle East. Instead, he said, he just casually chose two things that he likes and that have meaning for him.
“I didn’t really preplan it as much as a lot of people thought,” said 24-year-old Nijem, who grew up in Washington state. He said he liked the song’s beat, and the message that “we are all people at the end of the day,” though he never intended to get political.
But now, Nijem says that while he is committed to putting his fighting first, he has come around to the fact that his rising profile might give him a chance to change the way people think about Israel and Palestine — something he semi-unwittingly tried to do last year.
“There’s a lot of smarter people out there that I think could solve it other than me,” he said, referring to the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. “But the most important thing is to be open to dialogue, and to not allow the people who aren’t open to dialogue to set the tone.”
Nijem is an up-and-coming star in the world of competitive mixed martial arts, a combat sport that is promoted by the UFC and combines disciplines like kickboxing and karate with wrestling and judo. The UFC’s bouts, or matches, are staged in a trademark octagon-shaped cage and draw huge audiences of millions on cable and pay-per-view TV.
Nijem was born in Concord, CA to a Spanish-American mother and Palestinian father, who grew up in a hardscrabble refugee camp in the West Bank. He instilled in his son the importance of freedom for the Palestinian people, but did not pass along any resentment of Israel or Jews.