The start of Hayder Hassan’s mixed martial arts career began with a teary phone call to his mom.
Now a member on the “Redemption” season of the UFC’s reality series, “The Ultimate Fighter,” the 34-year-old Florida State graduate was working in a job he loathed and simply couldn’t go forward.
He was an inside sales representative for a pharmaceutical firm, with an entry-level salary of $50,000 and a career path that would have led to salaries many multiples higher.
He comes from a family where education is highly valued. His father and sister are medical doctors. His cousin is a medical doctor. His mother is a psychologist with a doctorate degree who is active in South Florida politics.
His youngest brother went to Afghanistan and created a scholarship program for top Afghani students to come to the U.S. to study because as Hassan said, “he realized the best way to combat radicalism is through education.”
Hassan majored in sociology with minors in biology, chemistry and exercise science. But as he was working his first job, he knew he could go on no more. Something had to give.
“I was just miserable,” he told Yahoo Sports. “It was breaking my soul. I was driving home and I called my mom. I know I’ll probably take some heat for this, but I was crying my eyes out. I had never quit anything in my life, but I knew I couldn’t do this any more.
“She asked me what was wrong, and I said, ‘I need to quit. I need to do something else.’ She saw how defeated my soul was and so she gave me permission to quit.”
And that led him to becoming a fighter, now competing for a second stint in the UFC.
But Hassan is also different because of his religion. He is a Muslim whose parents moved from Baghdad, Iraq in the 1970s in search of a better life. Life in Iraq, Hassan said, was horrific, and residents only showed public support for former President Saddam Hussein out of fear.
“Here, we have freedom of expression and we can talk about the government with no worries,” Hassan said. “Over there, they had the secret police. They had the Republican Guard. The guards would pay your neighbors to turn you in if you said something against the government. Families lived in fear. Every house has someone who has gone missing.”
And the Hassan household is no different. His uncle, his father’s brother, was hung by the Hussein regime.
Hassan was born in the U.S., a first-generation American who would talk for hours about the virtues of this country if someone was willing to listen.
“The United States is the greatest country on Earth, and I don’t think most of the people here, even those who love this country the most, realize how good they have it,” he said. “We are truly free to live our lives and maybe you don’t realize that until you have family members like I do who lost their lives in other countries because of the government.”
Service to others is deeply embedded in the family’s roots. His father, Redha Hassan, traveled to Iraq during the height of the Iraq War during the Bush Administration and volunteered as a physician at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison.
Hassan himself supports the “No More Tears” charity which is a South Florida-based non-profit that fights human trafficking and domestic violence and supports LGBT rights. He makes monthly donations and did so even when the dollars were short, because he so believed in the cause.
His cousin, who is a doctor, traveled to Syria and volunteered to treat the victims of that nation’s civil war. Innocent people were being displaced from their homes and killed and injured by bombing as well as by the government’s use of chemical weapons.
Hassan’s cousin is a doctor who was born in the U.S. but whose family is from Syria who became naturalized American citizens.
“He was in the middle of the worst of it and nearly lost his life several times just trying to help the people,” Hassan said. “His family has been urging him to come back.”
Last month, he tried to come back but because of President Trump’s travel ban, he wasn’t allowed back in even though he’s an American, Hassan said. But because he’s cloistered in “The Ultimate Fighter” house and unable to get much outside news, he’s not certain if his cousin has finally made it home.
One of his goals is to try to change the perception of Muslims in the U.S. He said there are numerous incorrect assumptions made about Muslims now given the current political climate.
He hopes to be able to use his position as a public figure, should he earn another spot in the UFC, to champion understanding and social justice.
He’s a hard guy not to root for, and not just because of his eagerness to promote understanding and serve others.
He’s had to overcome a lot in his fight career. He didn’t take up fighting until he was 26, but he’s had numerous obstacles in his way.
He broke his right hand in a fight and he wound up requiring four surgeries, which kept him out of action for more than three years. He jokes that he’s a poor man’s Dominick Cruz, in reference to the ex-UFC bantamweight champion who missed nearly four years because of a series of maladies.
“I broke two bones in my hand and they were set incorrectly, and that took over a year to heal,” Hassan said. “I got back to training and I ended up breaking both bones again in sparring. I had to go to a specialist and I had to have my hand reconstructed. I was out for another year.
“During that time when I was out for three-and-a-half years, I was constantly training my mind and I taught myself to fight as a southpaw. If you’re going to go into battle, why go with one sword? Why not increase your chances? Now, I have two power sides. It’s part of that whole making lemonade when you’re given lemons. But it was hard. My sister was telling me that if I didn’t quit, I wouldn’t even be able to wipe my own butt.”
But he’s back and eager to show what he can do in the UFC now that he’s regained his health.
And now, doing something he loves, he’s never been happier. He’d probably be far wealthier than he is had he stuck with his previous career path, but he wouldn’t be the same person.
“It was hard to quit my job because I expect so much of myself and there is a stigma that goes with being a quitter,” Hassan said. “But you have to do what you’re passionate about and what makes you happy and that’s what I am doing. I wouldn’t change a thing.”