MMA on the rise among Gen-Z? Saudi fighter reveals how the sport is taking over the Middle East

Last year, 25-year-old Abdullah Al-Qahtani became the first Saudi Arabian fighter to win inside the SmartCage

by

Somya Mehta

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Al-Qahtani during his recent visit to Dubai. Photo: Muhammed Sajjad/Khaleej Times
Al-Qahtani during his recent visit to Dubai. Photo: Muhammed Sajjad/Khaleej Times

Published: Thu 18 Jan 2024, 8:20 PM

Last updated: Thu 18 Jan 2024, 8:41 PM

Born in the heart of Morocco, Abdullah Al-Qahtani’s childhood wasn't painted with the ease one might expect. But the journey quickly took a turn when, at the age of 15, he made the leap to Saudi Arabia, where he's originally from. Little did young Abdullah know at the time that these early years would lay the foundation for a narrative that would be etched with resilience and determination.

Reflecting on his youth, he admitted to being the quiet, shy kid who occasionally found himself entangled in troubles. There were no blatant signs that he would evolve into the celebrated Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter that he’s become today but life had its way of surprising him.

The revelation of MMA entered his world at the tender age of 11. “When I discovered the real hits and dynamics of cage fighting, that’s when I got more immersed into the world of MMA,” says Al-Qahtani, who’s a featherweight class, popularly known as ‘The Reaper’.

Photo: Matt Ferris / PFL
Photo: Matt Ferris / PFL

The transition to becoming a professional fighter was marked by a defining decision during his initial days after the return to Saudi Arabia. Rejecting the prospect of a conventional job, the 25-year-old declared, “This is my job. I want to be a professional fighter.” This unwavering determination would set the tone for the chapters that followed.

MMA has emerged as a highly popular sport among Gen-Z, marked by its entertainment value and the appeal of its athletes. The sport's widespread availability on various platforms, including OTT services, ensures that younger audiences can easily follow and engage with MMA events.

Moreover, athletes in the MMA world, including Al-Qahtani who's a Gen-Z fighter himself, actively utilise social media to connect with fans, sharing personal insights and training updates, fostering a sense of intimacy and relatability that resonates with the social media-savvy generation.

However, navigating the uncharted waters of MMA in Saudi Arabia didn't come without its challenges for young athlete. When a chance opportunity presented itself in the form of auditions conducted by a prominent company, Al-Qahtani knew that it was the call to action he'd always been waiting for.

Photo: Matt Ferris / PFL
Photo: Matt Ferris / PFL

“I attended the auditions and during the course of the event, a coach spotted me among the fighters. Prior to that, I had been training alone at home, without a gym or a trainer, just by myself, watching YouTube videos,” he mentions. “When I saw the professional set-up, coach and team for the first time, I immediately knew I wanted to be part of that world.”

MMA stands as the world's fastest-growing sport, gaining immense popularity in the Middle East. The demand and enthusiasm for the sport have experienced a remarkable surge over the last few years. “There’s an incredible amount of interest in growing the sport of MMA throughout the Middle East and Africa (Mena). There’s an underserved consumer base in the Middle East, consisting of fans who want access to high-quality MMA events,” says Peter Murray, CEO, Professional Fighter’s League (PFL).

PFL, which signed Al-Qahtani in June 2022, has established itself as a global force in MMA, standing out as the fastest-growing sports league worldwide. Envisioning a comprehensive global strategy for the sport, PFL has actively been constructing the ‘Champions League of MMA’ with initiatives like PFL Europe and more recently, PFL Mena, and additional international leagues currently in development.

“In addition to that, at the grassroots, amateur, and professional levels, there is a growing pool of fighters seeking outlets and opportunities to compete on a major stage,” adds Murray.

At the The Theatre at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York. Photo: Cooper Neill / PFL
At the The Theatre at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York. Photo: Cooper Neill / PFL

PFL has announced its plans to launch a new league in the Middle East in 2024, aiming to broaden its influence here, attracting emerging MMA talent from the region. “I always watched the big leagues growing up, so the prospect of an organisation like the PFL launching a league in the Middle East was way beyond my imagination. This just goes to show that the world is taking notice,” said Al-Qahtani. “It’s only the beginning.”

Discussing the evolution of MMA in Saudi Arabia over the past two years, he expressed joy at the increased awareness and recognition. “There has been a whole lot of movement, MMA has taken off in a much faster way. Before, none of the Saudis would know what MMA Mena is but now, a lot of people know me and know the sport. There are more training clubs, teaching young people the sport,” he adds. In 2023, Al-Qahtani became the first Saudi Arabian fighter to win inside the SmartCage.

The journey of an MMA fighter is hardly easy and due to the physically demanding and combative nature of the sport, one is always at risk of life-threatening injuries. Shedding light on the often-misunderstood relationship between fighters and pain in the world of MMA, Al-Qahtani says, “I have a positive relationship with pain.”

Photo: Matt Ferris / PFL
Photo: Matt Ferris / PFL

He continues, “Experiencing the pain of injuries or anything similar doesn't bother me; I am at ease with it. I have accepted the pain. I consider it to be a normal part of the human experience.”

While acknowledging the normalcy of physical pain, he revealed that the real pain, for him, is the agony of losing. “The true pain lies in losing. That is the genuine pain,” he adds. “I am never afraid of the opponent. The fear is solely about losing, not injuries, the opponent, or anything else because the ultimate goal is always to win. Nothing else occupies my mind before stepping into a fight, other than the desire to win.”

Losing, perhaps, is an indescribable feeling for a fighter. “While some say losing is part of the game, I don't like to think that way. It's like facing death; you can't say no to it. So why think about it?” says Al-Qahtani.

“We call ourselves fighters, you know? Fighting basically means to sacrifice everything you have to get what you want. The moment you lose, it feels like you've lost everything. The pain of losing is hard to put into words.”

At the The Theatre at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York. Photo: Cooper Neill / PFL
At the The Theatre at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York. Photo: Cooper Neill / PFL

Each MMA fight Al-Qahtani steps into carries the weight of potential injuries. A fighter must acknowledge that pain is an inevitable aspect of the sport — a natural consequence, believes the MMA fighter. “All fights are hard,” he adds. “I don't think there's any fight from which I have come out ‘okay’. There's always going to be cuts and broken bones.”

“When it comes to near-death experiences, every fight feels like it's going to kill me at that moment. So, the intention is always to give it my all and do whatever it takes to win,” says Al-Qahtani.

The post-fight recovery process, however, is “like a drug”, the fighter reveals. “In MMA, whether you win or lose, you're going to come out with injuries. You're going to experience the hardships that come with it, go to the hospital, take some medicines, or whatever is necessary, and hopefully, celebrate your win. Then, you will get back to training, but slow and steady,” says Al-Qahtani.

“You take baby steps to rebuild and then you go in for another fight, another win. You fall to the ground and rebuild again.”

Photo: Matt Ferris / PFL
Photo: Matt Ferris / PFL

Looking ahead, the MMA fighter’s aspirations are clear — winning the Mena belt for PFL in 2024. “Training is my whole career and I will continue to give it my all to achieve my goals,” says Al-Qahtani, adding that the discipline it takes is second nature to him.

“Come what may, I never skip a day of training. Even if I have a reason, I keep the reason outside the gym. And when I'm not training my body, I train my mind,” says the MMA fighter.

When asked about his experience in the city, Qahtani responds, “I love Dubai way too much; it's a very joyful city,” adding that he hopes to spread his wings here soon and continue his interactions with other MMA fighters, exploring all the new opportunities the place has to offer.

somya@khaleejtimes.com


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