When Anees Mohammed Taj was growing up in Watford, his classmates occasionally made fun of the scars that remained from the cleft surgeries he had as a baby, but he learned to ignore them and not let himself get angry. Instead, he embraced how having a cleft made him unique and different. “In my own way, I felt I was special to God,” he says.
As he grew, that ability to keep calm on the surface while the world comes at you served him well. It gave him strength through multiple cleft treatments and helped him get through school to become a legal assistant. It’s also what gives him such poise in the ring as a professional cruiserweight boxer. “The concept of hitting and not being hit is fascinating,” Anees said.
His whole family followed the sport closely before his dad convinced him to finally give it a go himself in 2012. One step in the ring, and he felt something deep within him ring like a starting bell; he knew right then that he had found his passion. He took on the name “Braveheart” and moonlighted on the amateur circuit, taking as many punches as he landed, but, like so many others with clefts around the world, always getting up again twice as hungry for the fights ahead.
As he rose through the ranks, he took a Hawaiian phrase as his motivation, “A’o i ke koa, e a’ao no i ka holo,” which means that when one learns to be a warrior, one must also learn to run — or, as Anees explains it, “When you learn a skill, you must learn to utilise all of the possible ways to become great and reign victorious.”
After years of hard work and focus, he turned pro in late 2019 and won his first match, against a veteran from Lithuania, in 48 seconds via just two punches.
Outside the ring, Braveheart Anees takes the same dogged, disciplined approach to one of his other passions — advocating for others with clefts. He uses what he calls the “reach one, teach one” method — when someone asks him about his scars, he always takes the time to teach them the truth about clefts to help raise awareness among people who had no idea how serious having a cleft could be. And it’s this belief in the powerful one-two punch of “reach one, teach one” that led him to Smile Train.
“The work Smile Train is doing is brilliant,” he said. “They embody ‘reach one, teach one’ by not only helping children in need receive care, but also by teaching medical professionals the best ways to treat clefts in the places where that knowledge is needed most. I believe this is what puts them at the forefront of all cleft organisations.”
Braveheart Anees may seem like a man of contradictions. As a legal assistant and cleft advocate, he stretches out his hand to lift up those who are down; then, at night, he closes that hand into a padded fist to knock his opponents down and keep them there. Yet, to him, it’s all the same: using what God gave him to make a difference in the world in a way only he can.