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One of the fights at the Desert Force tournament on Thursday will feature Rafat Al Shawe, right, from Iraq, against Iran’s Majeed Saddeeq. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
One of the fights at the Desert Force tournament on Thursday will feature Rafat Al Shawe, right, from Iraq, against Iran’s Majeed Saddeeq. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

Desert Force is finding MMA niche in the Middle East

Popularity continues to build for unique Arab Mixed Martial Arts competition that will feature local fighters, writes Ali Khaled.

For mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters, it is about the luck of the draw. Some are Thai boxing experts, some karate. Others are wrestlers or jiu-jitsu masters. By the nature of the sport, fights often depend on who can adapt to his opponent’s strengths before letting his own skills flourish.

In a way, MMA has a job on its hands to distinguish itself from rival sports.

On Thursday night, MBC’s Desert Force, a unique Arab MMA competition, comes up against two major events taking place in the UAE: namely, the start of the Fifa U17 World Cup, in Abu Dhabi, and the Fina Swimming World Cup in Dubai.

For serious MMA fans, the decision is an easy one.

They will be watching 20 fighters from the across the Arab world, and a couple of foreign guests, fighting in 11, one-off bouts at the Knights Stadium on the grounds of the American University in Dubai, to determine who gets a shot at becoming champion of Desert Force’s second televised edition.

Some have been here before, others are making their first appearance. For one in particular, it is a belated chance to make a mark on the sport in this region.

“I’ve always loved the mixed martial arts,” Rafat Al Shawe, a 37-year-old Iraqi said before yesterday’s final weigh-ins. “But it wasn’t until it started spreading in this region over the last few years that I got involved in it.”

Al Shawe has lived in the UAE for 12 years and taken part in many amateur events around the country. Desert Force, however, is a whole new experience, and the veteran fighter is itching to get started.

“I’m very excited to be involved; this competition means a lot,” Al Shawe said. “It’s my first time, but my training has been excellent. It’s been very tough. I train three times a day, six times a week and I feel that my stamina is great now, thankfully.”

Al Shawe will be facing the Iranian fighter Majeed Saddeeq, and along with the clash between Lebanon’s Georges Eid and Spain’s Victor Montfront, it will be the first time that Arab fighters have gone up against non-Arabs at Desert Force.

“We’ve met once before,” Al Shawe says of his 28-year-old opponent. “I know his style well.”

Both fighters weigh 84kg and Al Shawe, at 1.82m (5ft 9ins), is only 2cm taller.

They may be physically similar, but their techniques could not be more different.

“My speciality is karate, while his is wrestling, so he likes to fight on the floor and will mostly try and keep it down there,” Al Shawe said. “I’ve been working with great coaches on my ground skills so I’m comfortable both on my feet or on the floor. But I will try and stay on my feet.”

Al Shawe also has a ringing endorsement for the sport in this part of the world.

“The standards are rising quickly, I would say they are very close to world-class levels now,” he said. “Desert Force will just keep getting better and better.”

It is good news for fans of MMA in the region and here in the UAE, which will be represented by two Emirati fighters on Thursday night.

Ali Ahli may not have as much experience as the Iraqi fighter, but he is just as confident going into Desert Force for the first time.

The 23-year-old Dubai fighter took up MMA only three years ago but in a short period has performed well enough to reach this standard of competition.

“For a long time I didn’t really have any favourite sports that I participated in,” he said. “One day my uncle took me to a Thai boxing gym and after that I became hooked.”

Ahli has participated in local events in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, but never before against opponents of this calibre. He has tailored his training accordingly.

“I’ve been training for the last two months, two or three sessions a day for a total of four hours.”

He now feels he is in shape to take on anyone.

“I’ve never fought any of these opponents before,” said Ahli, who faces the 27-year-old Moroccan Anas Siraj Mounir in the first round. “But the preparations have gone very well and I’m confident that I can win my fight.”

You will struggle to find any fighter who does not share a similar mindset. For Al Shawe, Ahli and the rest of the field at Desert Force, self-belief is as important as skill.

As anyone who witnessed the weigh-in last night at the Mall of the Emirates could tell, confidence is not a quality in short supply. Perhaps it will be skill that makes the difference, after all.


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