ABU DHABI // He says 360 degrees, but Ahmed Suhail Al Ketbi means that his life has turned around 180 degrees to what it was before he took up jiu-jitsu; that is, that it is completely opposite to what it used to be.
Al Ketbi is one of the UAE’s leading fighters and we speak just after he has sewed up third place in the purple belt of the under 72kg category at the Jiu-Jitsu Gulf Open Cup in Abu Dhabi.
“It just gives you so much confidence,” he says. “It changes the way of thinking. If you have a temper, you know. It cools you down, like 95 per cent of it gone.
“It changes life.”
Al Ketbi’s is a useful tale about the way the sport has taken hold in the UAE.
About six years ago, a friend who had competed in jiu-jitsu in the United States took him to the Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC). He went twice and did not like it at all.
“I was a muscular guy [he still is] and there were guys lighter and smaller than me sweeping me and taking me down,” he said. “It surprised me. They told me I didn’t have the power, stamina or strength.”
It was only after watching UAE fighters win some medals at a local tournament as a spectator that he was sufficiently roused to start.
He went straight to the administrators at headquarters and asked to start training immediately.
Al Ketbi started taking part in some tournaments, did well and has gradually established himself as a significant presence on the scene.
And he does it, essentially, as an amateur, making time for it between his work and study schedules.
The Gulf Open Cup is not a new tournament.
It has been on the calendar for some time, as one of around eight events that circle around the main event of the year, the Abu Dhabi World Professional Championships. This April will see the event held here for the fifth time.
Essentially, as the veteran referee Alex Paz, of Brazil, points out, this tournament is preparation for the world championships.
“This is a great training tournament, just as you would train in an academy, except that it adds a competitive edge to the training,” Paz said.
But it is also an opportunity to spread the sport out a little farther.
“The benefits of participating in each tournament like this, not just winning or getting gold, but getting the experience is immense, especially because of the confidence you get,” Al Ketbi says.
Thursday, for example, was set aside for school age participants and held in Al Ain.
The tournament was actually postponed by a week to ensure students had enough training time after returning from the winter break.
On Saturday women competed.
In all, organisers say, 600 fighters from 20 different countries took part over three days.
It is, as Sameera Al Romaithi points out, an ideal, inclusive pursuit, recreationally or professionally.
Al Romaithi is a board member of the UAE Jiu-Jitsu Federation (UAEJJF) and currently the federation’s acting chief executive.
She is also a fighter herself.
“The great thing about it is, other than the physical benefits, it’s a great mental sport,” she explains. “It teaches you discipline and respect, strategic thinking. I play myself and the coach tells me always to treat it like chess, in that you have a goal in mind and then you strategise as to how to go about it.
“Anyone can play this sport, male, female, young, old. For me Thursday was a great success. It was the first time we had the kids tournament in Al Ain which was key to raising awareness throughout the UAE. It went very well, the kids were excellent with very good participation.”
Within the Arabian Gulf, the UAE is probably the leading player in the region, though Kuwait is also said to have a thriving scene.
Al Ketbi reckons there to be upwards of 25,000 people who are practicing the martial art in the UAE at some level.
The UAEJJF, Al Romaithi stresses, is keen to make Abu Dhabi a global centre of jiu-jitsu.
The world championships are “the big one” and the UAEJJF are expecting athletes from 26 countries to attend. “We’re hoping that the fifth edition will be bigger and better than ever before,” she says.
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