Azim talks Afghanistan, opening gym in San Francisco
Tareq Azim’s training methods reach far beyond the technical intricacies of striking and the snapping and smacking sounds of mitt sessions.
As the head trainer of former multi-organizational champion Jake Shields and a fixture in the camps of Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez and other members of the Skrap Pack, Azim has put his unique brand of philosophical-based training to the test among some of MMA’s most elite athletes.
For Azim the motivation goes far beyond the art of hand-to-hand combat. As a native of the war-torn country of Afghanistan, he’s relied on the pursuit of dreams and the belief that lies within every man to create greatness in order to make his life a continued progression of success. Recently, Azim took the next step in his own personal journey by opening his own training facility. HeavyMMA recently spoke to Azim as he shared his thoughts on starting his gym and the circumstances that altered the course of his life forever.
“I’ve been a lifelong practitioner of boxing,” Azim said. “I started boxing very young and, as I became older, I used it as more of a tool to prepare for football. It helped with my mechanics, footwork and confidence for my football skills. I moved to L.A. for college, and on the weekends I would drive down to see my two best friends, Rener and Ryron Gracie. They got me into jiu-jitsu. When I was training with them, I connected with an old coach of my mine who was coaching at Wild Card gym with Freddie Roach. I went over there and started training and sparring with the guys, and it really excelled my boxing.
“The time spent there was extremely worth it, as I further developed my skills in boxing and jiu-jitsu. I was at the Gracie camp in Torrance (Calif.), then down at Wild Card for boxing, and was able to put it all together. This sparked the hope I would be able to combine my boxing and jiu-jitsu and would be able to bring that over to the MMA world. I really couldn’t do much through college because I was there on scholarship, and under those terms you can’t be out there fighting for money.”
Throughout his collegiate career as a linebacker at Fresno State University, Azim used his boxing and jiu-jitsu as a means to keep his body in shape for football. While he had dreams of someday combining his combat knowledge into the mixed martial arts world, immediately following his graduation from college an issue arose back in Afghanistan that would change Azim’s world view.
“I had a big family emergency in 2004," Azim said. "I left for Afghanistan the day after I graduated from Fresno State and went home with bad intentions. I went there with a really tough attitude to bring the heat down on some people. Here I was, a tough guy who played college football, and I was going there to basically fight for my family name. When I got to Afghanistan I was completely deflated.
“All of my anger and everything I had inside of me that I really wanted to put out on someone’s face completely disappeared. It happened because I saw the situation in Afghanistan. After taking in what was happening there, I was convinced I had the answer to peace – and that was communication and confidence. I started to implement these things and began using my energy toward positive rather than the negative, which is what I went there for initially.”
The reality that settled into his mind forced Azim to reassess everything he thought he knew. It was in that soul searching he realized he had the answer to the problems at hand, and amidst all the chaos, one person truly could make a difference.
“I’ve been blessed my entire life being able to box with the best boxers and being around the best jiu-jitsu instructors and practitioners in the word," Azim said. "I put two and two together and started to implement some youth empowerment programs in Afghanistan. I used sportsmanship as my way of building communication, confidence and a method for uniting communities. I started a neighborhood soccer program, which grew into a national team that turned into an Olympic womens program. Our team received the Arthur Ashe award at the ESPYs in 2006.
“In 2007, I returned to Afghanistan and launched the Afghan Women’s Boxing Federation. For the first time in the history of the Islamic Republic, we had women boxing and actively involved in the most male dominant activity there is. It was a big step for Afghanistan, and it had a lot of people asking questions. People were asking how I pulled it off, who I had to pay to make it happen, and, in all honesty, it just came by way of confidence and communicating. Because I had the confidence, I had no problem communicating with potential roadblocks, such as the Taliban and warlords inside the country. I launched that program and it took off like wildfire. We have three girls going to the Olympics.”
As Azim’s philosophies began to produce immediate results, it fueled him to push farther. With his programs in Afghanistan succeeding, he returned Stateside and began to implement his system into different arenas with similar results.
“I saw the influence of sportsmanship and how it has affected people," Azim said. "Having the confidence to step up to a society and make changes. I brought those experiences back with me to the States and implemented my same exact teaching philosophy with the Oakland Raiders. I worked with the team for two seasons under coach Tom Gable and took the same ideals into corporate America. I was able to be directly involved with CEOs and directors of very large companies and was able to give them the same confidence and communication skills that I was able to implement in Afghanistan.”
The next step in Azim’s journey came when he took the reigns as the head trainer for MMA superstar Jake Shields. Together, they worked behind a common belief and Shields' stock quickly rose as he became one of the world’s top fighters. Shields shared his thoughts on his time working with Azim and the unique system he employs.
“Tareq and I have the same mindset in the way we train and how we go about things,” Shields said. “We click very well. We know how seriously the other takes things and we train to be the best we can possibly become. His gym is more than just training professional fighters. He wants to make everyday people get in better shape and improve their lives. He has big goals, but Tareq is the guy who can go out and accomplish them.”
With the mindset and ambition to always be moving forward, the next step for Azim came when he opened his own training facility, appropriately named “Empower.” His ideal goal for the gym is to be more than a place where athletes and everyday people come to improve their physical health, but also where they find a better side of themselves each and every time they enter the gym.
“That’s what Empower is all about,” Azim said. “It’s about utilizing the martial arts and sports mentality for individual development. I’m using that mentality when working with these elite-level athletes such as Jake Shields, Gilbert Melendez, Josh McDonald and others. I use the same philosophy with them as I do with the other endeavors I’ve been involved in, and it’s been a huge success. I’m blessed with the opportunity to launch my own headquarters and my own training facility where I can implement my philosophies of empowerment.
“The entire goal of Empower is to create a spiritual outlet through sports. I’m not going to say people are necessarily lost souls, but they just don’t know which direction to go because media has intercepted life and the relationship between spirituality. Whatever the individual’s belief structure may be, the empower philosophy and concept can help rejuvenate this because it is you competing against yourself. It is you who is directly in charge of creating the best version of yourself.
“I want the Empower Gym to be a very inspiring zone. I want it to be a place where athletes and everyday people alike can come and feel better about themselves when they leave. I want it to be a place where people can come in and feel the impossible is possible.”