Why this MMA fighter can't represent Canada on the world stage, even after winning a Canadian title
In his first Canadian fight, Dorjan Dokaj, 22, won the national middleweight amateur title
A Toronto-based mixed martial artist says he's unable to represent Canada at the upcoming world amateur championships in Bahrain due to immigration issues, and his request for help from the federal government has gone unanswered.
Dorjan Dokaj, 22, won the Canadian Combat Alliance middleweight championship in June, less than a year after immigrating to Canada from Albania.
"When this opportunity came to fight for the Canadian title ... to be honest I was more motivated than ever," Dokaj said at an Etobicoke gym during one of his daily training sessions.
As the current titleholder, Dokaj has the right to represent Canada at the upcoming International Mixed Martial Arts Federation (IMMAF) championships, which will be held in Bahrain this November.
However, as a permanent resident in the process of applying for Canadian citizenship, Dokaj said he's been advised by immigration officers not to leave the country except for urgent "death or life" situations, meaning he won't be making the trip.
The event is considered the pinnacle of amateur MMA, and features national champions from more than 50 countries.
Dokaj said competing under the Canadian flag on the world stage would be his greatest honour as a fighter.
"I want to do that because I just want to thank this country for the opportunity that it's given to me," he added.
Recruiters from major professional MMA organizations — including UFC, Bellator and ONE Championship — are also known to scout the event for future stars.
"Most MMA fighters, they couldn't even dream of having that kind of an opportunity," said his coach Robert Santos.
"This is the highest honour you can achieve, in my opinion; to be able to go fight for the world championship."
Dokaj said he's had no reply from Ottawa to the request for a travel exemption he submitted this month.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada did not respond to an inquiry from CBC Toronto by the time of publication.
A move to Canada 'to follow the dream'
Dokaj grew up in a small town in Albania, dreaming of a career as an MMA fighter since he was at least 10. After moving away from his hometown, which didn't have a gym or MMA coaches, he began seriously training in 2017.
Dokaj then went undefeated in five amateur fights in Europe, but eventually decided a move to Canada would accelerate his growth and opportunities in the sport.
"To follow the dream, the only chance was to leave the country," he said.
Dokaj began training at Xtreme Couture in Etobicoke after arriving in Canada. Trainers at the gym quickly realized their new recruit had the potential to become a serious contender in the Canadian amateur ranks.
"He's a real warrior," Santos said. "He's not scared of anything, ready to fight anyone."
Even compared to other athletes in his 185-pound weight class, Dokaj is exceptionally strong. A fitness coach at Xtreme Couture marvelled at his massive hands, saying "they look like lunch boxes."
Waiting for the next shot
Dokaj said his citizenship application ultimately outweighs the opportunity to compete at the IMMAF championships, and that he won't make the trip without explicit permission from Ottawa.
Despite the setback, Dokaj's coaches say he'll continue to fight and train.
They're hoping his next international opportunity will materialize after his immigration issues are resolved.
"It's definitely not the end. Whether he gets to go or not, he's still going to be moving forward," Santos said.
"If he's going to immerse himself and live the fight life 24/7, he'll go all the way to the top."