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‘Us Black fighters need to get together and help our damn selves’: The fuel that drives Hakeem Dawodu

The UFC featherweight contender says his own experience with police profiling fuels his fight against racial injustice

You’d be hard-pressed to find a picture of Hakeem Dawodu smiling on his Instagram account. The only time you’d see his teeth is when he shows off his gold-plated grill, which is inscribed with the word “MEAN.”

A rising contender in the UFC featherweight division, “Mean Hakeem” is a persona Dawodu uses in a sport that requires toughness. But his look is one of strength and resiliency. He is a survivor, hardened by memories of mistreatment, harassment and police brutality growing up in Calgary, Alberta.

When he was 12 years old, Dawodu said, he got into an altercation with a classmate, which led to the child’s father, a police officer, punching Dawodu in the face. On another occasion, police officers yanked him off the train after school because he matched the description of a criminal suspect: “A Black guy wearing green.” He also said his car was searched because an officer claimed he smelled marijuana, only for the officer to apologize when the only thing he found was his muay thai championship belt.

Dawodu said he’s been pulled over more times than he can remember, once fearing for his life when an officer placed him in a choke hold while his hands were cuffed behind his back.

“I almost forget all the times, because when you’re Black, one of the first things my mom would always teach me is, ‘You’re Black, Hakeem, it’s different for you. You gotta move differently, you gotta act differently,’ ” Dawodu said. “It’s kind of sad that it’s normalized, especially back then before I knew my rights, when a cop would pull me over and violate me, I was just like, ‘OK, this is just how it is.’ ”

These memories don’t anger Dawodu, who is now 29. He’s numb to them at this point. But those experiences fuel his desire to fight racial and social injustice. And with his growing platform in the UFC — Dawodu will fight Zubaira Tukhugov in the pay-per-view opener of UFC 253 on Saturday — he wants to shed light on issues of systemic racism in Canada.

“It’s different here, no offense, but it’s a cowboy city and hillbillies,” Dawodu said. “A lot of times, you don’t even realize that they’re being racist or being rude. … I think Canada and Calgary are just a lot better at hiding it. When you think of Calgary, you think of the perfect city, you think of the Stampede, you think of hockey. But it’s not just me, you can talk to many Black people out here and they’ll tell you the same thing.”

Dawodu’s cousin, Adam Massiah, agrees.

“The truth is the racism is just different, it’s not like it hurts any less. In America, the racism is more overt,” said Massiah, who is CEO of the United Black People’s Allyship, a local activist group in Calgary. “Here, people do it covertly, people do it under their breath, people do it in their actions in a way that only you will notice it, and people around you will have no idea it happens.”

Dawodu was born in Calgary. His mother, who is Nigerian, was a teenager when he was born. His father was deported to Jamaica when Dawodu was 6. When he moved with his mom’s family to North Haven, a middle-class neighborhood in Calgary, Dawodu oftentimes was the only Black student in his class.

“I was definitely an angry kid. I didn’t even know why I was so angry,” Dawodu said. “But there’s a lot of reasons. Especially when you’re raised around white kids, you see they got money, they got both parents. … Definitely not having a dad, I didn’t think it bothered me, but I think maybe subconsciously it probably bothered me and that was another reason why I was so angry.”

At 14, Dawodu said, he was desperate to start making money, so he began selling marijuana. For the next two years, he was in and out of juvenile detention and was placed under house arrest at 16. But instead of ordering Dawodu to attend anger management courses, his probation officer allowed him to take up muay thai training, which provided a necessary outlet for Dawodu.

Dawodu excelled in muay thai, with his first amateur fight coming in 2010, shortly after he turned 19. He soon earned the nickname “Mean Hakeem” for his vicious knockouts of opponents. He went 9-0 as a professional, with seven knockouts, before taking up MMA in 2014.

Dawodu signed a four-year deal with the UFC in 2017 and lost his UFC debut in 2018. But since then, he has won four straight fights. And with his success, he has become more outspoken.

“He has substance,” his aunt Mo’mi Dawodu said, “and it’s not just about fighting. The fight is greater than the physical fight.”

Being a Black fighter in the UFC can be uncomfortable, especially in the current social climate. The sport’s audience is majority white and UFC president Dana White’s public support for President Donald Trump is well documented. As an organization, the UFC has not issued an official statement on the Black Lives Matter protests.

Dawodu believes this is a case of willful ignorance.

“I just feel like it’s a lack of understanding of what we go through,” he said. “If you’ve never seen it before or never experienced it, it’s hard for you to imagine. … It’s hard for you to really feel the pain and the consequences of supporting someone like Donald Trump.”

This past week, Dawodu was among the Black fighters who spoke out against welterweight Colby Covington, who made racist comments toward current champion Kamaru Usman.

“I found them extremely rude, racist. I’m kind of surprised he’s allowed to talk freely like that, I guess everyone’s allowed to talk freely, but I took a little offense to it,” Dawodu said. “It’s crazy that it’s comments like that that are causing more and more of a divide, I feel like, amongst the people. That’s how he gets down, but I’m not really with that and I took offense to that, for sure.”

The UFC has not punished Covington for the comments.

In the aftermath, White said: “These guys all have their own causes, things, their own beliefs. We don’t muzzle anybody here. We let everybody speak their mind. I don’t know what he said that was racist. I don’t know if I heard anything racist that he said.”

Fighters are independent contractors, so each individual can choose whether or not they want to involve themselves in the fight against racism. If Black fighters want to make a difference, Dawodu said, unity is the key.

“I think us Black fighters need to get together and help our damn selves, because at the end of the day, nobody’s really helping us,” he said. “So at the end of the day, we need to get together and make our own movement happen, us UFC fighters, and speak out for ourselves.”

After Saturday’s fight, Dawodu plans to continue speaking at local schools in Calgary. He wants to share his story with children who come from similar situations, so they know what they can overcome. His longtime boxing coach, Eric de Guzman, also said Dawodu hopes to one day build a rehab facility for drug addiction in Calgary.

Dawodu, who attended every protest he could before entering training camp for his fight, also plans to rejoin the efforts of his family members who are closely involved with different causes. Massiah’s local activist group spearheads the Black Lives Matter movement by organizing protests and speaking with politicians and council members to advocate for police reform. His aunt Mo’mi has recently been working to raise awareness of Godfred Addai-Nyamekye after a police helicopter video surfaced of him being assaulted by Calgary officers during a 2013 arrest.

“Whatever they need, I’ll be there,” Dawodu said.

“I’m just doing my part to make sure that I’m doing the most that I can,” he added. “I would love to organize a group for us brothers and sisters to get together and speak out against this. But until that happens, all I can do is keep doing what I’m doing and help my community. …

“If you don’t like me using my platform to uplift my community, unfollow me.”

Doric Sam is a New York-based freelance sportswriter. He's written for Newsday, SiriusXM, Wrestling Inc. and other online publications.