Rami Ibrahim, the longest active Muay Thai fighter in North American history, originally hails from the Palestinian town of Silwad, and is carving out a name for Palestinians in the world of combat sports. The No.1 ranked fighter in the United States and 10th in the world, Ibrahim is the only professional Muay Thai fighter who holds ten championship titles and who has defended the World Kickboxing Association North American Muay Thai Champion title four times over.
I don’t just fight for the Palestinians, I fight for the freedom of every oppressed human being.
“I don’t just fight for the Palestinians, I fight for the freedom of every oppressed human being,” Ibrahim relayed.“ Here in Philadelphia [Ibrahim’s home base], we have kids growing up that don’t have resources, just like I didn’t. But I fight so people can see that even if you don’t have any resources, even if you don’t have anyone backing you, you can still go after what you want in life.”
Ibrahim started fighting Muay Thai, a full contact combat sport that originated in Thailand hundreds of years ago, at the tender age of ten. He’d moved to the U.S. two years earlier from Kuwait, his place of birth, when the Gulf War broke out. His parents, both born in Silwad pre-Nakba (the expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 as part of the strategic establishment of the state of Israel), lost everything during the war and relocated to Philadelphia to build a sustainable life.
“I was the kid that everybody started fights with. I didn’t speak English, so I wasn’t ‘normal,’” Ibrahim shared. “My parents threw me in the gym so I could learn to defend myself.”
Despite his Arabic accent and childhood spent in Kuwait, Ibrahim remained largely disconnected from his Palestinian heritage until adulthood. “My parents didn’t talk about our background,” he said. “I think they were trying to protect me.”
Eventually, he would be forced to confront his identity.
“Back during Oslo right after Yitzhak Rabin was shot, I had a fight in a venue that was also hosting an Israel-oriented event, so there were a lot of Israel supporters in the crowd. My opponent that day also happened to be Jewish,” Ibrahim recalled, with an ominous tone. “After the fight, all hell broke loose. People were throwing chairs at me and trying to hurt me. Security had to come try to escort me out,” he said. “That’s when I started to begin to get interested in my Palestinian heritage. I remember thinking, ‘What the heck is going on? Why did these people just attack me?’”
Ibrahim began exploring Palestinian history and grew active on the Philadelphia political organizing scene. He even began using his platform as a record-breaking athlete to “give voice to the voiceless,” although he’s been met by censorship repeatedly in his sport.
One memorable example took place in the summer of 2014, when Israel was attacking Gaza. At the time, Ibrahim was preparing for a prestigious fight to be broadcast live on national television. He was also busy posting footage of the Gaza assault on social media, and dedicating his fight to the Palestinian people.
“I got a call from the PR person who said I had to stop posting or they’d scratch the fight,” Ibrahim said. Not wanting to lose the opportunity to represent his people in the ring, he reluctantly backed down.
The day of the fight arrived, and his cornermen (a group who act as teammates or supporters during a fight) walked into the arena wearing shirts that advertised “Rami Ibrahim” on the front and “Son of Palestine” on the back.
“Security came up to me and told me my cornermen had to take their shirts off because they had Palestinian flags on them -- otherwise, they’d pull the fight off live TV,” he said. “I asked, ‘Are you crazy? You’re going to scratch this off live TV because of my cornermen’s shirts… when they aren’t even going to be in the ring?’ They said yes,” he continued. “I didn’t want to make a scene, so I said, ‘Okay, I give up. I’ll let them silence me yet again.’”
Ibrahim’s experiences with censorship have yet to dull his spirit. He recently won his 10th championship title on January 30th, and jetted off to the Middle East soon after.
“Being in Palestine motivates the heck out of me. I see how the Palestinians are constantly being oppressed, embarrassed in every way. And they still find a way to live life,” he shared.
Ibrahim plans to continue fighting as well as coaching out of his private Philadelphia gym, Rami Elite. “I’m going to continue to speak for my people. With every punch, every blow I throw. I’m going to do it in their name.”