Mixed martial arts pack a punch in UAE as more Emirati fighters join the sport

It is the world’s third most popular after soccer and basketball, with a global fan following of more than 450 million

By Leslie Wilson Jr

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Published: Mon 13 Jun 2022, 8:22 PM

Last updated: Mon 13 Jun 2022, 8:54 PM

The cage is set for a practice bout at a gym in Al Quoz. Abdulla Al Shamsi is warming up for the contest. He appears calm and in control of his emotions, but not for long. His demeanour and mood change once he is inside the mixed martial arts (MMA) fighting cage. The intensity he brings to the contest surprises his rivals and spectators.

Abdulla is now throwing everything into the fight. Caged, raging, and restless, he is eager to land that sucker punch while thinking up strategy in his head. While being aggressive, he also seizes upon his opponent's weakness, waiting for that opportune moment to strike.

The skills he displays during the friendly are breathtaking. They include killer-punch combinations and knee-kicks that involve fists, knees and elbows. It's sapping, but he shows remarkable patience as he waits for a chance to breach the other fighter's defences. The ploy works and he lunges and drags his opponent down to the canvas.

Young Abdullah is only 20. To some, he's still a boy finding his way in a ruthless and dangerous sport. It's bloody too but that does not deter many Emirati youths who have been bitten by the mixed martial arts bug.

These men are attracted by the sport's intensity and extremes that are not for the faint-hearted. Besides, it helps them build confidence for the bigger challenges that life throws at them. It's energy-draining and physical injuries are common. This is raw and real.

Some 500 Emirati fighters are actively involved in the sport which is the world’s third most popular after soccer and basketball, with a global fan following of more than 450 million.

Notable Emirati fighters include Hadi Omar Al Hussaini (flyweight), Juma Bashir Al-Badour (flyweight), Saeed Al Hosani (featherweight), Fahd Ahmed Al Zaabi (middleweight), and Abdullah Waleed Al Shamsi (rooster weight).

What the training regimen is like

"I am committed to making my mark in this sport. I train seven days a week at the state-of-the-art Team Noguiera Gym in Al Quoz, mostly with fellow Emirati fighter, Essa Abdul Rahman Al Marzooqi," says Abdulla after the fight.

The daily training routine for MMA aspirants covers all aspects of the sport – boxing, Muay Thai (kick-boxing), and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (grappling), together with conditioning, technical drilling, and sparring.

Discipline is very important to the daily training regimen where a fighter is required to bring mental strength into his game.

Most fighters spend an entire day at the gym, sparring and doing cross-fit training to account for every single second they spend polishing their craft.


How did MMA catch fire in the UAE?

Since the formation of the UAE in 1971, the leadership recognised and paid attention to the role sport would play in the development of the country.

However, mixed martial arts only came to the fore in 2010, when the UAE Capital hosted the inaugural UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championships) — thanks to a ground-breaking partnership between parent company Zuffa and the Abu Dhabi government-owned Flash Entertainment.

The sport received a massive boost in 2012 with the launch of the exciting UAE Warriors Arabia, the country’s own professional mixed martial arts organisation, catering exclusively to Arab fighters.

In 2019, the sport experienced a level change when Abu Dhabi hosted what would be the first of many blockbuster UFC events at the purpose-built Yas Island facility which was dubbed ‘Fight Island’.

Made possible by a collaboration between UFC and the emirate's Department of Culture & Tourism, the opening event showcased anticipated fights in MMA when the legendary Khabib Nurmagomedov defeated challenger Dustin Poirier in September 2019 before 14,000 screaming fans.

Photo: AP
Photo: AP

Subsequent events would feature some of the sport's best fighters, including Kamaru Usman, Jorge Masvidal, Israel Adesanya, Max Holloway, Holly Holm, and Conor McGregor as Abu Dhabi went on to cement its position as the international fight capital of the UFC.

The Jiu-Jitsu boost

Anas Siraj Mounir, the head coach at Team Noguiera, a Dubai-based martial arts and fitness academy formed by former Brazilian UFC heavyweight champion Big Nog, believes that the best is yet to come.

“The sport is growing rapidly in the UAE and we have seen some exciting Emirati fighters coming through,” he says. “The evolution is due to a lot of factors, including the popularity of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in the country and the staging of mega UFC fights in Abu Dhabi.

“Other promotions like UAE Warriors Arabia have shown that MMA has the potential to grow even further in the UAE.” Mounir, a former fighter himself, acknowledges that MMA is not everyone’s cup of tea.

Fan engagement

Saahil Karmally agrees with Mounir’s views and talks up the thrills of MMA. “Anything can happen in an MMA fight, and that’s what makes it so thrilling. You can feel the adrenaline of the fighters even if you’re not in the ring. Fighting is a state of mind. In the cage, you have to have the right mindset.”

Darryl Sequera admits that while MMA can be brutal, it is also about overcoming adversity. “Fundamentally, MMA is about two people trying to hurt each other. But it’s also about human resilience and the ability to triumph over adversity.”

Daisy Alzantara, who switched from watching boxing to MMA, says: “MMA is more gripping. MMA fighters have a lot of heart, determination, and skills. When you watch them, you can look into their eyes, and see every emotion they are experiencing. Sometimes, I want to close my eyes but I never do. I don’t want to miss a thing.”

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