DUBAI // It has been described as an ultra-violent blood sport akin to human cock-fighting - but mixed martial arts is attracting child fighters as young as 4.
Cage-fighting classes for youngsters have been held at Contender MMA centre for almost two years, with 22 regular students.
On a Wednesday afternoon, the gym rings with the giggles of preschoolers who see the facility as just another playground.
Fares Al Jamali leaves a lasting impression on spectators. The 5-year-old is quite the performer and, to him, being in class is like getting to be a superhero for an hour.
Even his coach cannot contain his laughter when the skinny boy taunts the punching bag by flexing his muscles at it.
"He loves this," says his mother, Nelly. "He has been training here twice a week for six months now, and the coach says he reminds him of himself at that age.
"We don't allow him to watch violent shows or combat sports on TV at home, so to him this is just a game."
Tam Khan, the head coach and a co-owner of the centre, says: "This is by far the most difficult class of the day for me. They are tougher to train than professional fighters."
Mr Khan stresses that every possible precaution is taken to ensure the children's safety.
"The class focuses on fitness drills as well as certain techniques, and a controlled light sparring," he says. "There is never any contact to the face or head and we use the best gloves and protection gear."
Ethan Paul, 10, has been training at the centre for three months.
"My husband wanted him to learn basic self-defence and try to build up his confidence," says Ethan's mother, Julie. "This is very safe and it's a controlled environment with professional, experienced coaches.
"I don't see it as fighting - it is a lot more technical than that."
Adam Babb, 10, is one of the top students in the class and won a silver medal at the Grapplers Quest tournament in America in July. The contest was sponsored by the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the largest mixed-martial arts company in the world. "I was blown away by just how good he was," says Adam's father, James. "This is a testament to the level of training we have here and to his coaches."
Mr Babb enrolled his son in the class because he was concerned about him spending half the year indoors. "I didn't want him to become a couch potato," he says. "I wanted to find something that kept him active indoors."
He was never concerned that the sport would be too violent for his son.
"Studies have shown that in terms of injuries, statistically, MMA as an adult sport is safer than soccer or tennis even," he says.
Mr Babb also believes there is a genuine atmosphere of respect in the sport. "This is not building bullies, they are learning sportsman-like qualities," he says.
For Tarek Al Ghunaim, 12, MMA is more than just a sport - it is security.
"I used to be scared all the time at school, many days I'd come home crying," says Tarek, who was bullied.
His father decided his son had to learn how to defend himself, and hired Coach Khan for one-on-one MMA training at their house. Three years later, Tarek's personality is completely transformed.
"I'm stronger and I'm not afraid any more. Nobody picks on me at school now, and even if they try I can stand up for myself," he says.
Experts warn that parents should still exercise caution.
"Physical activity is greatly needed these days, especially for children, but parents have to carefully monitor the child's interaction with his peers to be sure they don't exhibit any aggressive tendencies," says Isaac Cherian, a licensed psychologist at the Higher Colleges of Technology.
"Children have a tendency to learn from observing and imitating what they see. Those exposed to fighting are more likely to attack when there is a threat."
This is true for all forms of martial arts, including karate, Mr Cherian says. "It is the parents' responsibility to explain to the child what they are doing. Make the child understand that this is for pleasure and activity and not for fighting."
- This article was updated on 24/09/12 to correct the spelling of Adam and James Babb's surname, which was previously published as Bapp.