When Dubai thinks of its sporting self, it thinks of football and cricket, double-trap shooting, rugby and horse-racing.
It thinks team sports mainly, and on occasion individual racing achievements.
It probably does not think of mixed martial arts (MMA) and combat sports; the usual assumption being no one cares.
But that is not the case, people do care and MMA is rapidly catching on among us locals and the expats.
“It has changed a lot. When I first started teaching MMA nobody knew who any MMA fighters were, they thought it was some sort of thuggish street-fighting class,” says Tam Khan, a former British Ultimate Warrior Challenge (UWC) middleweight champion and the owner of the well-known Glory MMA & Fitness Gym in Dubai.
“I remember only having two or three students and those were my friends. Then after I worked closely with the national media and brought Royce Gracie over for the first time, the scene changed. “
Gracie is a Brazilian professional mixed martial artist, an Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Hall of Famer and Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner.
The Las Vegas-based UFC is the largest MMA promotion company in the world and it hosts most of the top-ranked fighters in the sport and produces events worldwide.
Gracie is considered by many to be the most influential figure in the history of modern MMA.
“More gyms opened, events started, more fighter seminars, MMA apparel stores, etcetera” after Gracie arrived, Mr Khan adds.
“It’s becoming very popular and I feel in three years will be the most popular sport in the UAE.”
With the sport gaining momentum in the country, the question is are local authorities here getting involved? Dubai Sports Council (DSC) is one entity that associates itself with any local sporting bodies – and it has shown great enthusiasm in promoting MMA in the country.
Mr Khan, for one, certainly appreciates the much-needed aid provided by the DSC in helping raise the profile of the sport.
“Yes DSC have been very helpful of late especially Naser Al Tamimi,” Mr Khan says.
Mr Al Tamimi is the general secretary of the UAE Wrestling, Judo and Jiu Jitsu Federation.
“He is very sincere in trying to make MMA a monitored sport and have it follow in the footsteps of other combat federations,” Mr Khan adds.
“My goal is to work closely with the DSC as a volunteer to make the sport mainstream and safe for all to participate in. To ensure it’s presented in a professional manner for the public and meets all guidelines presented by the DSC.”
With the advent of the Dubai Fighting Championship (DFC) and the Abu Dhabi Fighting Championship, and supported by the presence of MMA pioneers in the UAE such as Mr Khan alongside stars such as the UFC heavyweight champion Ricco Rodriguez and coach Carlo Dekkers, the UAE could be on its way in becoming a hub for MMA fighters and fans in the region.
And to add to this, the Russian politician and a man considered as the best heavyweight fighter in MMA, Fedor Emelianenko, along with delegates from the 2013 World Combat Games, visited Mr Khan and the Glory MMA & Fitness Gym last week to establish ties with the UAE.
The Combat Games kicks off in St Petersburg, Russia on Friday, the second city to host the event since Beijing in 2010.
Some 15 Martial Arts and combat sports will be featured including aikido, boxing, fencing, judo, ju-jitsu, karate, kendo, kickboxing, muaythai, sambo, savate, sumo, taekwondo, wrestling and wushu.
And the UAE will be participating in the games for the first time. Exactly who and how many athletes is yet to be confirmed by the DSC but Mr Khan says the team consists of at least six, both Emiratis and expats, in various weight classes.
The future of the sport in the UAE under the guidance of DSC looks increasingly healthy, according to Mr Khan.
“I say the future is very bright. More academies, events and initiatives to help combat obesity and health-related issues certainly help,” he says,
“I think the UAE will become a hub for some of the greatest fighters on the planet, too, to host training camps. We are bringing some of the world’s best coaches to the region and it’s time the fighters followed suit.
“Already at my gym, we have ex-UFC heavyweight champion Ricco Rodriguez coaching alongside the muaythai champion and legend Carlo Dekkers,” Mr Khan points out.
“With the likes of Fedor Emelianenko coming this week and Anderson Silva at the end of the year it just shows how far the UAE MMA scene has come.
“It’s great, especially for the enthusiasts in the UAE to meet these stars and motivate themselves to try and emulate them.”
Alongside the develoipment of MMA here, Mr Khan also hopes to see an Emirati feature in the UFC some day soon.
“I feel the greatest accomplishment will be when I have the very first Emirati fighter make the UFC,” he says.
“That’s my goal or to at least see a UAE-based citizen in the UFC. It will show that we are legitimate and a serious nation of athletes.
And it could provide a more material benefit.
In August last year, Bloomberg News reported UFC had 442 fighters from 38 countries under contract and would host 14 pay-per-view events in 2012, bringing in $500 million in annual sales.
The Las Vegas-based company signed a seven-year television contract with News Corp’s Fox Media Group in July 2011, and its content, broadcast in 19 languages, is available to more than 1 billion homes in 148 countries and territories, Bloomberg said.
Today, Mr Khan is just pleased he is at the vanguard of this burgeoing sport here.
“As in what I have accomplished so far, it would have to be opening the very first full MMA facility – as well as Dubai’s first MMA promotion, DFC, which has been aired worldwide and received global recognition, especially in the MMA circle,” he says.
There is no doubt people take an interest in MMA in this country. In fact, the foundations have been laid for MMA to become a part of UAE’s sporting future.
Nevertheless, MMA has some challenges to deal with to avoid becoming forgotten among the various other sporting events fighting for consideration among a population of 9.2 million.
On that note, let the serious conversation begin.
Shuaib B Ahmed lives in Dubai and has written for The New York Times and afootballreport.com. He also writes about all things football at www.footynions.com.