When Hakeem Dawodu was 6 years old, a teacher of his told him he should sign up for taekwondo. He was living in Calgary with his mom, who was only 20 years old at the time and struggling to make ends meet. His father had already been deported back to Jamaica and was no help to the situation. Dawodu paid special attention to the advice, because — even at 6 years old — it felt talismanic, like something important to do. He was already getting in street fights. Taekwondo sounded fun. His mom signed him up.
“I’ve always had people hinting that I’d be a good fighter, since back all the way back then,” he says. “I’ve always had weird circumstances like that my whole life pointing me in the same direction.”
That teacher was the first person to lend a hand in saving him.
Dawodu fights Kyle Bochniak at UFC 231 Saturday night in Toronto, and when he steps in the Octagon he’ll have the Canadian fans behind him. He’ll also have the knowledge that he has walked an incredibly dangerous path to get there. That he delivered himself through less than certain circumstances, and somehow materialized — powerfully seasoned — as a professional athlete. Now at 27 years old, Dawodu has lived through multiple lives, including a tumultuous childhood.
“My mom did the best she could do raising me, she’s a strong woman,” he says. “She was 14 when she had me, but at the same time my grandma was quite religious. She was a Jehovah’s Witness. So when she found out my mom was pregnant and wasn’t married, she actually kicked my mom out of the house. So not only was my mom 14 years old, she was 14 years old and homeless. She had to find a way to survive out there. So she did the best she could, but she was just a kid herself.”
Dawodu grew up tough. With a teenage mom and no father figure around, he got into fights from his early school days. He had a short fuse, and didn’t like to argue. His way of dealing with situations was to throw down. Even when his mother would send him to Jamaica as a child to visit his father and get some discipline, he would fight with kids there, too.
“Because I was Canadian they thought I was soft,” he says. “They always called me a foreign kid and they thought I was a little bit soft, so I used to get into mad scraps in Jamaica to prove myself to all my cousins and stuff, that even though I’m from Canada I wasn’t soft. I was used to conflict.”
The fighting gave way to delinquency as his childhood progressed. He was in frequent trouble for little acts of lawlessness that he and his circle of friends engaged in. When he was 13 years old, he was kicked out of his house for his misadventures. That same year, he did his first stretch in juvenile hall for theft. It was the first of many.
“It was wild,” Dawodu says now, just days before he’ll fight on the main card of a major UFC pay-per-view. “When I was 14, I was one year too young to work on your own. So I remember I kept trying to get these jobs to support myself, because I was staying at this place called Avenue 15 — it’s a foster home for kids that don’t have a place to go before they get fostered. I remember I kept trying to get a job at [fast-food restaurant] A&W, because I remember they were hiring for like $15 an hour. But I needed to be 16 years or older to work on my own without my parents signature. I couldn’t get a job, but I really needed money.”
As a foster kid essentially on his own in the world, Dawodu was a lethal blend of dangerous. He had a temper. He had no real grasp of consequences. He was broke. He was hungry. He was seeking.
“There used to be this local street gang called The Family, that used to hang out in downtown Calgary,” he says. “They’d find foster kids and they’d make the foster kids sell drugs for them. Obviously they came up to me, and my belly’s hungry, and I remember they said, ‘Hey, you want to make some money?’ And any foster kid that has no money, you’re going to be like, of course — of course I want to make some money.
“It started off just selling weed and kind of went from there. Pretty soon you ended up in trouble, doing robberies and stuff like that. It really escalated. It wasn’t until I was 17 where I really got caught.”
By the age of 14, Dawodu did another stint in juvie for armed robbery. At 15 years old, he was a scamp on the streets, selling drugs, stealing, committing petty crimes, whatever he needed to do to survive. He lived like this past his 17th birthday, and that’s when he got popped for something even more severe.
“I got charged with aggravated home invasion with a weapon,” he says. “Because I was under 18, I did only six months, but I remember when I was in juvie the crew that I was running with at the time, none of them stood by me or helped me out. None of them called me, none of them gave me no canteen money. One of my guys from my old crew ended up hooking up with my girlfriend while I was inside. It really just made me think, fuck this lifestyle — I’m done with it. I’m not getting anything from it.”
He was living the life of a throwaway. That’s when the next signpost appeared towards the martial arts to help him get out. Out of what? Out of his predicament. Out of the gutter. Out of the deadly patterns that had until that point ruined his adolescence.
“I got put on a year of house arrest when I got out,” he says. “They released me to my mom at the time, and I was only allowed to work, go to school, and I had to do anger management. But I was so stubborn, I hated my anger management group, it was just kind of filled with weirdos. I actually didn’t do the anger management, so I kept getting breach, and they kept sticking me back in juvie and then letting me out.
“And then finally my probation officer one day, she was like, ‘You know what Hakeem? I don’t think you’re a bad kid, I just think you do bad things.’ She made a deal to me. She said why don’t you try martial arts, and I can write it off as anger management?”
Having fought his whole childhood at the drop of a hat, Dawodu eagerly agreed. It was the best decision he could have made. It was in the gym that he wrangled the tempest, and put it in check. He wasn’t even 18 years old yet.
“One of the first gyms I went to was Mike Miles Muay Thai and Kickboxing in Calgary, and within three months I had my first fight,” he says. “I got him write my probation officer saying that I’m training and turning my life around. And to be honest, after my first fight, I just never stopped. I blew up.”
He’d figured out a way to channel his anger at all his wrongs. The anger management diversion turned into an unlikely career path. He was throwing punches with purpose, rather than impulse. His wildness was harnessed and redirected into competition.
“I went 42-5 as an amateur Muay Thai kickboxer. I had every belt an amateur can possibly win. A gold medal, WKA, IKF — any title an amateur can get, I had. And then, I turned pro in 2012. I went 9-0 as a professional Muay Thai fighter, seven knockouts, and won in my WMC Intercontinental World Title.”
So the probation officer was the third person that helped save Dawodu from himself.
The second person who helped Dawodu was a man he crossed on the street one night from his apartment complex, when he was 12 years old — the year he stopped communicating with his father, and a full year before all the trouble began. It was an old man that Dawodu speaks of as an aberration that appeared before him— a ghost from Dickens’ own mind.
“We used to live in these little condos, I was just walking and he came up to me, and he was like, ‘You know what, you look like you’d be a good boxer,’” Dawodu recalls. “It was really random and surreal-like. And he bought me a two-month boxing membership at this place called Impact Boxing. He got me signed up for like two months. I loved it. I loved boxing. And literally a month after that, the old man died. That was one of my first introductions to boxing.”
In the gym, he learned to punch. He learned to move and generate power through his legs. One thing feeding the other, all in the machinery that he could control. More than anything, he learned that he could be who he is in the sweet science. That it spoke to him, and it always had.
But he couldn’t sustain it. There wasn’t money to keep going to the gym. So he packed it away. Five years later, when he entered the kickboxing gym, it was the boxing experience that the old man afforded him — the familiar feeling of the gym and the sweat — that clicked back into place.
“It is kind of weird, a weird destiny thing,” Dawodu says today. “At the same time, I’ve had a lot of weird things like that.” The old man, who for no good reason pointing a wayward boy to the boxing ring by paying his way right before he died, did his part.
Maybe he knew something, because he helped save Dawodu, too.
Dawodu has good relationship with his mother now, a Canadian-Nigerian who is only 41 years old and still living in Calgary. He doesn’t really keep up with his father, who was 19 when he got together with his mother, but he knows he inherited an athletic gene. His father was a track athlete who was good friends with Jamaican-Canadian sprinter Donavan Bailey, who won Olympic Gold for Canada in 1996. He also inherited his temper.
“Just growing up the way I grew up, my temper was a problem,” he says. “To the point where I couldn’t calm myself down. I heard my father had the same thing, an extremely bad temper, so maybe it was hereditary. It wasn’t until I became a true martial artist that I learned to control that.”
But the temper is a thing of the past. Dawodu no longer fights angry. He fights cool-headed and with a sense of purpose. He has racked up an 8-1-1 record in professional MMA, beginning in 2014 when he fought Behrang Yousefi in WSOF. “I was scared shitless,” he laughs. “The gloves are small. I thought, what if I just get taken down and pounded out? I had a lot of kickboxing experience, but it was a completely new punch. The first punch he threw caught me a little, but I remember the first punch I threw knocked him out. I was like, holy shit.”
There was power in Dawodu’s hands. He showed that again in his second fight against Jake MacDonald with WSOF, knocking him out early in the second round so violently that MacDonald never fought again. The anger that he carried as a kid has been packed into his punches, and refined.
“I’m an athlete now, and a professional sportsman,” he says. “Now I’m a completely different person. It’s business now. I feel like as a person I’m a lot older, and I feel wise in the sense of life. But in the MMA world, I feel like I’m just getting started.”
The path has been a strange one, but then again the fight game has always been a refuge for the wayward. Dawodu found his calling through stages — through juvie, and self-reflection, through taekwondo courses and boxing gyms, through desperation and Muay Thai, signposts and saviors — but he did find his way. He’s in Toronto to fight Kyle Bochniak for the biggest MMA promotion in the world. He doesn’t see his past as checkered; he sees his past as scaffolding. Everything he’s done — good, bad, or otherwise — he owns. He says he is who he is, and he knows what he wants to be.
“I want to get that belt, defend it, and go down as one of best fighters in MMA history,” he says. “When I retire, I can see myself being in movies, being famous, living the life, opening up my own gym and being happy.”