DUBAI // Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu master Sergio Penha believes the rise in popularity of mixed martial arts in the Middle East is making the region a focal point for the sport.
The 52-year-old, who currently coaches mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters Stephan Bonnar, Steve Cantwell and Anthony Njokuani in Las Vegas, said: "The interest from people in the region has grown significantly and excellent masters setting up gyms here is helping in the rapid growth of the sport."
Penha is one of only a handful of Jiu-Jitsu masters to be awarded a red and black belt - the sport's second-highest honour - and the only known practitioner to have skipped over a brown belt to be promoted to black belt.
After being a black belt for 31 years, he was awarded a red and black belt on June 7 at the 2010 Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu World Championship.
Penha arrived in the UAE recently to attend the World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Cup 2011, which will be held in Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre from tomorrow until Saturday.
The world cup is the sport's richest annual event, with a total prize fund of US$1 million (Dh3.6m).
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was derived from Japanese martial arts by two brothers in Rio de Janeiro, Helio and Carlos Gracie.
Carlos Gracie was taught the art by a visiting Japanese Jiu-Jitsu practitioner and Kodokan Judo master, Mitsuyo Maeda. Carlos went on to teach his brothers the sport and develop the Brazilian style.
Since the 1960s, the sport has been used in military and security training, for self-defence training and in MMA training.
The sport rose to prominence in the early 1990s after Royce Gracie - the son of Helio - used the fighting style to win the first, second and fourth Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC). UFC is a televised MMA tournament in which competitors face off in a cage with no rules of engagement, save a ban on biting and eye-gouging.
"UFC and MMA helped Jiu-Jitsu a lot," said Penha. "All MMA champions know Jiu-Jitsu, and this helped make the sport more popular."
"You cannot be a kickboxer or a karate professional and survive in the cage with only the knowledge of these sports - you need Jiu-Jitsu to be able to compete and win in MMA fights," he said.
Tam Khan, a professional MMA instructor and the pioneer of the UAE's first MMA training centre, Contender MMA, backed up Penha's claims about the growth of the sport in the region.
"When I first started three years ago, it was me and two others who were training," said Mr Khan. "After UFC started being broadcast on television, interest grew rapidly. We hosted Royce Gracie to conduct a training seminar and from three, the class exploded to 150," he said.
On Monday, Penha addressed a group of more than 30 students at the Emirates Jiu-Jitsu Centre about the different techniques and styles of the sport.
"My teacher was taught by Sergio Penha and this is an incredible opportunity to let students meet a true legend of the sport," said former world champion Rafael Haubert, master at the Emirates Jiu-Jitsu Centre.
Haubert's centre opened a year ago. "I want to introduce this sport and expand its base in the country. It is a great and healthy sport," he said.
Sheikh Zayed's son shows an interest
Jiu-Jitsu and Mixed Martial Arts enthusiasts can count themselves in good company. The Abu Dhabi Combat Club was founded by the son of Sheikh Zayed, Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan, after he was introduced to MMA and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu during a trip to the US.
The club meets on Al Saada West Street in the capital (www.adcombat.com).
In Dubai, Jiu-Jitsu classes are offered at the World Black Belts Centre on Sheikh Zayed Road (04 343 4397) and at Art of Power in Al Hana Centre, Satwa (04 398 9812).
Haubert’s Emirate’s Jiu-Jitsu Centre is in Al Barsha, near Mall of the Emirates (04 447 5120) and Tam Khan’s Contender MMA gym is in the Giordano Building on Sheikh Zayed Road (04 346 9990).