KARACHI: Lyari is known for drugs and gang wars. For a long time, it has been considered as one of the dangerous areas in the country’s metropolitan to travel to. Yet, the same Lyari continues to produce legendary sportsmen.
Lyari-born Syed Hussain Shah’s heroics at 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea gave Pakistan its second medal in an individually-played sport. Children playing football out in the fields aspire to become the town’s next Umar Baloch, Ghulam Abbas, Ustaad Qasim or “Pakistani Pele” Abdul Ghafoor Majna.
In karate, people of Lyari have found their hero in Saadi Abbas. A 28-year-old young man who dreamed to become the country’s best, who dreamed to become the Asia’s best and who dreamed to see Pakistani flag flying high above the rest.
For Saadi, it was for his father that he stepped into karate. “My father was inspired by Bruce Lee, he had watched all his movies. He always wanted one of his sons to master the art of karate,” he says.
When Saadi first stepped into a karate academy near his locality, he was just seven. Seeing him learn quickly, Saadi’s coaches went to his home and told his father that he should continue playing the sport.
Saadi admits he thought about quitting many times, but his family just wouldn’t let him. “My family has been very supportive. When I did not see any future in playing the sport I decided to quit but they forced me to continue. They said I was born to play karate,” he says.
In 2003, Saadi participated for the first time in a national championship and clinched gold, becoming the first gold medallist from Sindh. The performance got him a call to the Pakistan camp, where he had many hurdles as he was younger that the majority of the participant.
But, Saadi says, support from his club and coaches kept him motivated. In 2006, Saadi became the youngest player from the region to win a gold in South Asian Games, but he says “people thought it was a fluke”.
“I set an aim to win gold in an Asian competition as none from our South Asian region had ever done so. People laughed at me. They said with competitors coming in from countries such as Iraq, Iran, Egypt and Japan, I stood no chance,” he recalls.
Saadi did manage to prove the naysayers wrong, but it took a while.
In the first Asian competition that he participated, Saadi was knocked out in the first round of his second bout. He tried to regain his rhythm and participated in Asian Karate Championships in Malaysia in 2007, and in all the three categories that he participated he suffered defeats.
“I was disappointed but kept working hard. In 2009, I fought in Asian Martial Arts Games and won bronze in it. I was well prepared for the next Asian event but for some reasons it got postponed and I had to stay at home for six months that disturbed everything,” Saadi says.
When the event finally happened, he lost there too. It was a difficult time for Saadi for he actually decided to call it quits. “I believed I can’t do it and decided to pursue my education. I got admitted to a university and started focusing on building a career, to live a ‘normal life’,” he says.
“But I had the craze of becoming Asian gold medallist. I used to wake up from my sleep and start crying because I did not have the Asian gold that I promised myself for. I wanted to be a legend… kids dream of becoming engineers and businessmen, but I always wanted to be a legend.”
It was around that time when Pakistan’s karate federation reached out to him for Commonwealth competition in South Africa in 2009.
“ I told them that I have already lost in so many tournaments, I could not live up to people’s expectations, but the federation showed faith in me,” says Saadi. “I went there to compete without a coach or a manager and won gold which turned things around for me.”
Saadi was back in the karate gear and was looking forward to another Asian event in China in 2011. “I had developed a phobia for Asia-level events. I was afraid of losing and I thought I won’t be able to bear another defeat,” he recalls.
The Pakistan contingent reached China six days before the start of the tournament. To Saadi’s surprise, he found himself in complete control when his bouts were announced. “I won my first fight, then second and easily moved into pre-quarter finals and then quarter finals,” he says.
“I had my semi-final fight against an athlete of Malaysia and I still remember I was crying a night before the bout. I was shivering before entering the ring, I never got that close to achieving my dream and I did not want to lose it from there. I just wanted to win.”
And he stormed into the finals. The semi-final win was the turning point for Saadi.
“I was so confident after the semi-final that I believed this gold only belongs to me. It did not take me long to beat my Korean opponent and there I was standing victorious in an Asian event. Pakistan’s national anthem was being played in the arena and our flag was flying high.
“It wasn’t my first gold, but it was a dream that was achieved.”