International student, single mother trains as MMA fighter

(Photo Courtesy of Tamra Gross)

On Feb. 3, Kheira Saadi had her first mixed martial arts match. She came out of the match with a win and a technical knockout in under two minutes.

Saadi, junior in French, is an international student from Paris, France, a mother and a mixed martial arts fighter.

She started kickboxing when she lived in Paris, but did not start training in mixed martial arts until coming to the U.S.

“I started boxing because I really love Mohammad Ali,” Saadi said. “That, for me, was the best boxer, and that’s why I wanted to be a boxer. I didn’t want to be an MMA fighter at all and my goal was to be a famous boxer.”

Saadi was born in Paris and spent much of her formative years in foster homes. This is where she got her start in fighting.

“(I) grew up in many places in the foster care system, so I’ve been in many, many homes which kind of taught me how to fight, too,” Saadi said. “I kind of had to make sure I could protect myself from anything.”

She said she was alone growing up and her teenage years were “pretty intense.”

“I was alone, since I was a kid, and that was why it (was) so important for me to fight to prove myself,” Saadi said. “I didn’t have family or anyone around to do the job for me. I did many street fights in France. I had zero technique when I came in the U.S. I was always overlooked compared to other fighters and that is one of my biggest motivation.”

Saadi had her daughter, Medina, when she was 17 years old. Later, she would meet a U.S. solider, her ex-husband, who would bring her to the U.S. After coming to America, Saadi decided to enroll at Combative Sports Center so she could continue kickboxing. Enrolling at the gym was one of the many components that aided in her transition from kickboxing to MMA fighting.

Saadi started training at Combative Sport Center, located on Poyntz Avenue, one year ago.

“I didn’t want to do MMA,” Saadi said. “I respected the sport, but I was always insecure about doing jujitsu, I thought I would never be good enough. I was very intimidated by the jujitsu people at the gym and felt like I didn’t have a place there, but after watching so many of Ronda Rousey’s MMA fights, she was so bad a** and strong and technical. She inspired me.”

Joe Wilk, owner of Combative Sport Center, has been running the gym for over 10 years. Wilk helped Saadi transition from just kickboxing to MMA fighting.

“A lot of what Kheira does is that she’s naturally athletic and she’s really, she’s game, she’s down to fight; and so for me, what I’m doing is trying to support her in that,” Wilk said. “It’s what I do, I teach people how to fight.”

Saadi didn’t start off fighting immediately. She initially went to the gym with a fight to prepare for, but Wilk suggested that she come to classes to train as a team. From there, she switched to mixed martial arts fighting.

“I think that Kheira, when she first came in, thought that this was something that you can just sign up and do,” Wilk said. “You know, like just sky diving or bungee jumping, just sign my name and get into a fist fight … I was telling her if you really want to do this, you’re going to have to come and train with the team … and she started to do that.”

Ryan Beckett, her boyfriend and trainer, said he has been someone to guide her through technical training and is a form of support, especially going into her first fight.

“The strength itself comes from strength and conditioning that she’s put in and strength and conditioning that she puts in two, three, four times a week on her own, outside of doing her own personal session and coming here and sparing,” Beckett said. “She took it on her own.”

Saadi said she hopes to participate in more fights in the future and continues to go to school, be a single mother and train every day.