Houston lightweight boxer Bahodir (“Baha”) Mamadjonov has never been one to back down from a fight.

The former WBA international lightweight champion started boxing at age six. He immigrated to the United States from Fergana, Uzbekistan in 2011 to pursue a professional boxing career. With a solid record and good coaches, Mamadjonov is on his way to a successful career.

His biggest opponent? English. Mamadjonov struggled to communicate in America because he didn’t speak English.

“I was walking around the city and saw a Houston Community College sign,” the 28-year-old says. “It said ‘college,’ but I wasn’t sure if I had read it correctly. In my language, college is spelled with a ‘k.’ I went in because I wanted to talk to people.”

Up for the challenge, Mamadjonov walked onto an HCC campus and said one of the few words he knew in English—“English.” He was referred for testing, and enrolled in his first English as a Second Language (ESL) class. Within four months, he was communicating effectively in his adopted country’s native tongue.

“If we are living in America, we have to speak English,” the boxing professional believes. “If we can’t communicate, how are we going to get a job, or work, or live here?” he asked.

Mamadjonov is just one of the thousands of ESL students the School of Continuing Education teaches each year. And while most of the students’ first language is Spanish, HCC professors are prepared to teach students who speak virtually any language.

“Students from all over the world come to HCC to learn English,” says Dr. Terry Kidd, dean of HCC’s School of Continuing Education. “As the diversity of Houston has expanded, so has the HCC student body. It’s not unheard of to have a class where students’ native tongues vary from Uzbek, to French, to Vietnamese, and, of course, Spanish.”

Mamadjonov attacked learning English as aggressively as he attacks opponents in the ring. He began watching American TV and memorizing words to take back to class. Word by word, he mastered the English language.

“I really wanted to learn. I really wanted to communicate with people. I really wanted to understand. I wasn’t afraid of making mistakes. Now, I’m getting better; I’m still learning,” he says.

He credits HCC instructors with making learning fun, and for encouraging him to ask questions.

“They were great. They were very, very good and very helpful. I asked them a hundred questions a day, and they would always explain; no problem. They would say, ‘Whatever you don’t understand, ask us again and we will explain.’ That’s how I learned. They helped me a lot.”

In fact, the teachers at HCC were so good, he encouraged friends from Ukebistan to enroll. His wife took classes, too.

“I told my friends, if you want to speak English, go to HCC. You will have fun, and you will learn to speak good English. You will feel comfortable. Many of them went and have now finished school, not language school, but real school, with a college degree. I took my wife to HCC, and now she’s going to become a doctor.”

A college degree is in Mamadjonov’s future as well. Once he retires from boxing, he’s headed back to class and back to HCC.