They moved the couches and chairs and coffee table. They rearranged the family living room, the brothers and the neighborhood kids, so that when it was time to wail on one another, it would resemble something close to the impromptu boxing ring they believed it to be. When it was all set and the room looked ready to host another after-school rumble, that’s when they’d slip on their boxing gloves and fire away.
Ramsey Nijem was 11, determined to find a way to beat his older brother, Joe, but instead of holding bragging rights for the day, Ramsey got dropped. He hit the floor in the living room and couldn’t move. They waited for their mom, Silvia, to get off work. When she walked in, Ramsey wasn’t moving, so she rushed him to the ER. The shot Joe delivered resulted in a sprained neck for Ramsey, who had to wear a brace for the next month to school back home near Seattle, Wash.
“A lot of people are afraid to fight or get hit,” said Joe Nijem. “Growing up, that’s the way it was in our house. There wasn’t a week without a hole being put in a wall or a someone getting a bloody, busted nose.”
That story is just one of countless tales that put Ramsey on the path to where he is now, at 31, a full-fledged mixed-martial arts fighter, who considers himself among the most tenacious in the growing sport. He’s now part of the Professional Fighters League (PFL). The season continues Thursday night at the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y., where the onetime Utah Valley University wrestler turned professional MMA fighter was scheduled to face Brazilian Ronys Torres, but Torres was surprisingly not medically cleared to fight Thursday. Now, Nijem must wait a little bit longer. He automatically advances in PFL and is scheduled to fight on July 25.
“A lot of what you see in the media nowadays regarding Middle Eastern people, it’s very negative and I just want to be a positive light for that. Being of mixed heritage, I feel like I can bridge a lot of gaps. I think at the end of the day we’re all humans. We all live in this crazy world that’s going around a giant ball of fire in space. We’ve all got to get along.”
— Utah MMA fighter Ramsey Nijem
Nijem calls Utah home. His gym, The Pit SLC, is in East Millcreek off the 3300 South exit, where he’s honed not only his own abilities to take someone out, but also teach aspiring MMA fighters how to tap into what drives them. He says he wants his bouts “to be an expression of who I am.” That is on the front foot, ready to drive forward and not wait for a tactical adjustment.
“You’ve got to perform, and I do it in devastating fashion,” he said. “That’s what the big shows want to see: tough fighters going for finishes. And I always go for finishes.”
Beyond the ring, however, beyond the punches thrown or received, what charges Nijem’s ambition stems from a unique upbringing. He grew up the son of a Palestinian immigrant, who was born in a refugee camp, a devout Muslim, and a white mother who was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The Nijem boys grew up both Muslim and Latter-day Saint. And they went to the mosque and a local ward on the weekends.
Born into it
Jamal Nijem gave his sons a strict regimen. It involved push-ups, boxing and jogs to and from school every morning. The same neighborhood kids who were in the living room watching Joe and Ramsey box eventually joined in on the jogs. He told his sons that living in the U.S., they were free, that they should appreciate everything given to them and that someday they should look to find a way to help others. It could be voicing an opinion or donations or even humanitarian work.
The boys took their father’s advice. Joe, Ramsey and youngest brother Adam wouldn’t ever shy away from being half-Palestinian.
“It was something we were born into,” Joe says. “It bred us to be fighters.”
It came from dad. Jamal Nijem grew up in the West Bank in a town outside Ramallah called Al Am’ari. He instilled in his sons what was worth fighting for and when they talk now, the three sons do not sugarcoat what it means to represent the journey their father took and what both of their parents allowed them to do growing up: fight for fun and fight when necessary. Looking back, they all appreciate the way they were raised, introduced to various religions and cultures.
“You learn a lot about social norms when you’re around a lot of different people,” said Adam Nijem, who runs his own gym in Walnut Creek, Calif.
Growing up, though, Ramsey endured some hardships that his brothers did not. Both Joe and Adam say they’ve always looked more white than Ramsey, who bears a more Middle Eastern look than his siblings. He experienced the unfortunate sort of racial profiling in the post-9/11 era as a kid. His childhood and background has given him more reason to be outspoken about being of Palestinian descent and embracing it. He’s worn Palestinian flags in the ring after fights and has talked about how he wants to represent his heritage proudly now that he has an emerging platform to do so.
“A lot of what you see in the media nowadays regarding Middle Eastern people, it’s very negative and I just want to be a positive light for that,” Ramsey said. ”Being of mixed heritage, I feel like I can bridge a lot of gaps. I think at the end of the day we’re all humans. We all live in this crazy world that’s going around a giant ball of fire in space. We’ve all got to get along.”
Salt Lake as home base
Years ago, a promoter walked into the UVU wrestling room and asked the team if any one was interested in a fight. A spot opened up after a last-minute dropout and they needed to fill it. After the promoter name-checked a BYU guy who would be the opponent, Ramsey leapt to his feet and said he’d try it out. After wrestling in Orem, Ramsey was ready to fall back in love with the MMA world, where he grew up learning boxing, Taekwondo and jiu jitsu from instructors and neighborhood kids.
Even now he says transitioning to wrestling full-time in high school to eventually earn his spot at UVU was more difficult than learning how to brawl in the ring again. That has always come natural to him. It’s why he’s back with the PFL, fighting in their season-long format, with a chance to win $1 million if he manages to stack up a series of wins. The 6-foot-1, 155-pound lightweight fighter is 10-7-0 in his career, with previous stops at UFC and The Ultimate Fighter. The 31-year-old lists Salt Lake City as his hometown because it’s where he returned to pursuing knockouts and takedowns.
When he walks out of the gym, he stares up at the snow-capped Mount Olympus and it serves as a reminder of why he calls Utah home.
“In Utah, you go hike a [expletive] mountain,” Adam Nijem says. “What you do there, it’s more holistic. It’s better for fighters.”
It’s best for Ramsey right now. He’s fighting in the PFL, running his own gym, and is the same guy that has always, as he explains it, marched to the beat of his own drum. His family’s always told him, “Do your thing, Ramsey.” And he is. He’s back in the ring this week and he’ll be back for more after that.