Chuck Culpepper talks to the Emiratis who want to repay the trust shown in them by Sheikh Tahnoon and Sheikh Mohammed. Audio interviews
A bond thicker than blood for UAE jiu-jitsu team
The meaning of the word "brother" long since strayed from the biological all the way to the near trivial, especially in sport, yet in a pocket of Abu Dhabi it does seem resuscitated.
It echoes as meaningful.
Sit among this exact group of Emirati young men, and their brotherhood seems easy, established, unmistakable. They pretty much live their lives together.
They travel the world together - aeroplanes, restaurants, hotels. They know each other so well that as they lounge around a sofa on the second floor at the UAE Wrestling, Judo & Jiu-Jitsu Federation, the place rings as a sort of living room, that rare living room with wrestlers training below.
"I was a bit fat," one says of his past.
"He was chubby," says another. "That's more easy. Better than fat."
"Most of them are my brothers," Mohamed Al Qubaisi says.
"I have known him since I was one year old," Hassan Al Rumaithi says of one teammate.
"You are your brothers and then the coach," Faisal Al Ketbi says, summarising the team.
"All the family people can all make fun of each other," 19-year-old newbie Khalifa Ahmed Al Mazrouei says, and when he says, he refers to this unique group of men technically absent from his family tree. He says they all made fun of each other last month as they sat in a New York restaurant, Al Mazrouei eating with the unusual adornment of a gold medal around his neck.
These men have found their way into something they never would have envisioned as tykes. They have burrowed exhilaratingly into a sport born so far from their own birthplace that to get there you would have to cross one Arabian Peninsula, one Africa and, oh, one Atlantic Ocean. Many of them found Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu together aged 11 or 12 or 13, in the late 1990s, when they came to train as wrestlers and saw a demonstration of something exotic.
As they prepare for the premier event of their year, the Abu Dhabi World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Championship ongoing until Saturday, clearly this sport has taken them by the scruff, obsessing them and making them brethren.
"They work 10 or 12 hours a day sometimes, but they call me, 'Coach, I want to train,'" said their coach Maiky Reiter, a native of Brazil. "They come tired, but they train hard."
And as they sit around together either finished training or awaiting training, a tongue-in-cheek question comes: "So, do you guys like each other?"
"I like him," Al Qubaisi points to a teammate. "But I don't love him."
Repeatedly listening to them, you hear testimonies of how this offspring of judo perfected by Brazil's renowned Gracie brothers in turn revamped their very beings.
"Changed my life," said Al Ketbi, 24. "In simple words. Changed my life, actually. My behaviour. Changed my attitude. Changed me as a human, how to respect others and how to have high spirits even whenever you lose. To be more merciful with the small kids, with the weak … Not only a huge guy can win, or a strong guy can win. It breaks all the rules of the games. It's not only that the big guys win."
"It makes you respect everyone," said Al Qubaisi, 26. "It changes my life. It makes me a better person. Even to appreciate who is the loser, even in the life outside of sport."
"Here it's so high, the percentage of smoking," said Al Rumaithi, 28. "And the drugs. With martial arts and sports, you're pulling away from this."
"Without sport," Al Ketbi said, "you don't live well, or long."
As the pup of a group that ranges from ages 19 to 30, Al Mazrouei never saw a bout until 14 months ago. "I loved sport when I was a kid," he said, "but I didn't find the one game that I love."
At first sight, "I thought, What's this?" he said. "I felt it was like a soft martial art. Like you didn't want to hurt the guy. But now I know it's the strongest fight in the world."
He aims to grow his stature, excel in other areas such as mixed martial arts, maybe even become famous. "I don't know where life's going to take me if I'm not going to be in jiu-jitsu," he said. "You feel like you are a sport guy," and it makes you avoid the unhealthy.
"Jiu-jitsu takes all my time," he concluded, "so I don't have time to go to find the bad things."
"Why do you want to train?" said Reiter, the Brazilian coach. "And they do it because they like it. I feel this from them … You can see their professional way, and how much they want it. Money cannot buy your heart. They have the fighter heart, and nothing's going to change that."
"As a player, we fight, we train," Al Ketbi said, "Whenever we stop training, we feel sick. We do. Like something is missing."
Mingled with their elation is a motivation that might surprise the outsider from any of the world's large, cacophonous countries: gratefulness.
It sounds almost alien in these days, but these guys do express gratitude in a way you can read only as heartfelt. They aim it principally toward two men: Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.
Sheikh Tahnoon, of course, brought the sport to the UAE after studying it in San Diego.
Sheikh Mohammed, in turn, has backed it effusively toward its finding of an unforeseeable capital-of-the-sport in Abu Dhabi. In a world forever abuzz over entitled athletes, it can seem almost bracing to hear these words from a 19 year old, in this case Al Mazrouei: "When I see the guys supporting me, our bosses, when I look at their eyes, and see them clapping to me, wanting me to win … I want to make them happy, proud of me. I want them to think, like, they make something. They didn't waste their time. They make a good fighter."
Seated on the couch amid the group, the biggest guy shares some big sentiment, through Arabic-English interpretation from one of his brothers. At 27, Yahya Mansour Al Hammadi (Over 98kg class), the gold medal winner in 2010, rates as his best moment his top-athlete nomination from Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. And he rates as his best prize the uniform with which he fought for that gold, a uniform Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed autographed for him.
That thing never saw the laundry again.
"He put it in a frame," Al Ketbi said."It gives us motivation," Al Hammadi said, "and it gives us spirit to play, the attention Sheikh Mohammed [bin Zayed] gives to it. They support the game."
"We want to do well in return," Al Rumaithi said.
Asked for a hilt in his jiu-jitsu life, Al Ketbi chooses one not involving any medal.
"When we were preparing for this competition, the biggest moment was when Sheikh Tahnoon called us to give us some classes," he said.
This happened three months ago and lasted for two weeks.
"Private classes," Al Ketbi said.
Then: "The biggest guy in the country who plays jiu-jitsu is teaching us! He knows what he's doing. He knows what to share. He knows what you need. He shows you how to play. He's not just teaching a guy or something."
As this first generation marches through, groundwork for a second already has gone into place, with the sport occupying the curricula of more than 40 Abu Dhabi schools. "We were the first," Al Rumaithi said, "but we joined late in jiu-jitsu a bit."
At the tender side of that 19-to-30 age range, Al Mazrouei, who fights in the white belt (beginners) division, has a big-boy frame with a kid-brother essence. He is still young enough that as he turns 20 today, he beams: "I'm going to be really happy if I'm winning because it's my birthday and a world championship."
He says the older guys correct him and that he appreciates it. He says that if injured, such as one time with a shoulder on ice, watching the others train leaves him awash in envy.
He has seen his diet renovated utterly.
"Chicken breast," he said. "No sugar and sweets. No soda. Always fresh juices. And the M&Ms, man. Whew, I couldn't stop the M&Ms. It was really hard to stop the M&Ms."
When he thrived at the Asian Cup with an impressive three gold medals (which means he fought at his weight and in open weight), his family saw him on television from Abu Dhabi. "They got crazy," he said. "And they called everyone they know. See my son!"
He said: "I want to make my father and mother proud of me. Now I am showing people I can be a good person."
Beyond that: "I want to raise my UAE flag in the whole world."
So with all that sentiment mixed in, no wonder he can show you a photograph of his reaction last month when he won in New York. "I was crying, because I was winning," he said.
And no wonder that when this distinctive group roamed the city a bit, when they visited the top of the Empire State Building, when they went to eat, Al Mazrouei donned a rare accessory.
"I was wearing my medal in New York, walking around," he said. "When you train a lot, and you want to do something, and you put all your focus on something and then you get it, you feel crazy! You do crazy things. Like you're walking around, and you're starting to eat in a restaurant, with your medal."
And, of course, with your brothers.