The region's youngest professional MMA fighter could not stop crying when he won his first bout, in Abu Dhabi. It was his reward for months of intense training.
A quiet Emirati masters the art of mat destruction
The region's youngest professional MMA fighter, Ali Mohammed Ahli could not stop crying when he won his first bout, in Abu Dhabi. It was his reward for months of intense training, as Gary Meenaghan reports.
Peruse the pantheons of fighters and there is a common denominator: almost every prominent professional was heard before he was seen.
Ali Mohammed Ahli, the youngest professional mixed martial arts (MMA) practitioner in the Middle East, already has plenty to shout about in his short but spectacular career.
And yet rather than having to tune your ears to the braggadocio of a Royce Gracie or the macho catcalls of a Mike Tyson, the 20-year-old Emirati is as modest a man as you are ever likely to meet.
Negotiate your way through the Dubai rush hour traffic in uptown Mirdif, past the City Centre Mall with its throngs of people milling around outside, take a left off-road and head a couple of hundred metres inland. Here you will find the Shark Attack Gym.
A long, open vestibule greets you and, on any given night around this time, you will be drawn towards the two panel doors at the far end. The thrashing noise of Ahli pulverising a punchbag alongside a dozen or so cohorts attacks your eardrums like a jackhammer.
On this night, however, in the confines of this room - a soft-floored room filled with the musky smell of sweat, testosterone and uninhibited dreams - an eerie silence had fallen. The young fighters, as instructed by MJ, their experienced Californian coach, were taking a short respite from bag work to fit themselves with leg-guards and gloves, head guards and mouth shields.
As the tired group breathlessly adorned their kit, the only sound audible was that of the punch-bags. Hanging sinisterly like carcasses in an abattoir, their chains scraping against the wall brackets, each bag slowly swung to a stop.
"Right, we're going for Muay Thai at 50 per cent," MJ called out, as he divided the young, predominantly Arab, amateurs into pairs. "I don't want any injuries. Take down, but no submission. Repeat, you can take him down, but no submission. Saif, you go with Ali."
Saif Tikrany is a slight Syrian with a scruffy beard and has been training with MJ at Shark Attack for four months. On this night, his rapport and experience was rendered redundant: he had drawn the shortest of short straws.
His opponent became the youngest professional MMA fighter in the region when he made his debut inside the octagon at the Abu Dhabi Fighting Championship on October 22 - just three months after his first training session at Shark Attack. Ahli took on Luciano Ferreira, a Brazilian, in a welterweight bout and emerged with his first victory, a cheque for Dh12,000 and tear stains on his cheeks.
"It has always been my dream to represent my country," said Ahli, who collapsed to his knees in ecstasy when the judge announced he had edged a split decision after three rounds of fast and furious fighting.
"When I won, I could not stand up, I just cried because it was a dream come true. I cried for about half an hour and my friends and coaches just kept hugging me. It was amazing, the best feeling of my life."
MJ said he could not wish for a more obedient student. Before the fight, he calmed Ahli's nerves by telling him the result was not important and he just wanted him to "smash" his opponent. Before the second round was finished, Ferreira was bleeding profusely from a cut above his left eye.
"Ali's fight was awesome," MJ said. "Whatever I was telling him to do, he was doing: left punch, boom. Right kick: boom. He was taken down a couple of times, but both times it was because he slipped. But even when they were grappling on the ground, it was Ali throwing the punches. He is like a remote control: I say it and he does it."
Back in the abattoir, Ahli and Tikrany were sparring and the Syrian was being taught a harsh lesson.
A series of punches and kicks left him hunched over heaving and gasping for air and he looked defeated before they even touched gloves to restart.
Gone was Ahli's friendly smile, replaced instead with a cold, hard glare and a vicious countenance. Within seconds his opponent was writhing on the ground once more.
"He is a strong boy," said Tikrany on the sidelines afterwards, his face red and looking flustered. "When he hits you, it leaves you breathless. He has been in this career for only a few months and look how he is sparring. It takes people one year or more usually to spar like that."
Ahli first became a fan of MMA almost 18 months ago when he began enthusiastically following the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) on television and admiring the way in which the athletes refused to surrender.
His fascination soon grew and he decided to train Muay Thai, a martial art from Thailand, which he did for a year at a gym near Festival City, before a chance meeting with MJ saw him specialise in MMA. The trainer MJ, who declined to reveal his full name, has been involved in MMA for almost 25 years and claims to have fought six times in UFC. He has also competed in several bouts in Thailand, he said.
He opened Shark Attack Gym four months ago and has watched proudly as increasing numbers of young men walked through its vestibule, the thudding noise of the punch-bags luring them towards the soft room where they find both fitness training and fight skills.
"The hardest thing in training is to spar with MJ," Ahli said. "He is so strong and dominant and he has very heavy hands. Every single punch or kick, I can really feel it. I feel at any second he could knock me out. The thing is though, now when I fight somebody at my level it seems much easier."
Tikrany provided a fine example of Ahli's dominance over his peers, and yet in the Syrian's defence, his opponent has been training more than anyone else at the gym. In the weeks running up to the Emirati's victorious debut, Ahli trained for eight hours a day, six days out of seven and travelled with his coach to Thailand for three weeks for an intensive preparation camp. His lecturers at Dubai Men's College, where he studies marketing, were not best pleased, but, as he puts it, he had little choice.
"When I first started I could not even throw a punch, but in three months MJ has made me a fighter and that is with no help from anybody. Imagine if I had sponsorship and help, if my college gave me days off and such like. Imagine what I could achieve," Ahli said.
A distinct lack of sponsorship combined with a vastly smaller prize purse is in direct contrast to that on offer to the international fighters who are brought to the Emirates to fight for the Dh1 million prize as the country looks to build both the sport's standing in the region and the region's standing in the sport.
Ahli has no sponsorship whatsoever, and the Dh12,000 he received following his victory was used to pay the outstanding bills he had accumulated for his flights and accommodation in Thailand.
"If you want to promote UAE fighters, you have to pay them well," MJ said. "[Organisers] put up all the big money to the guys who come from outside the country, but it doesn't make sense to pay some C-class fighter from overseas to promote MMA to the UAE nationals. It's not going to work.
"You have to put Dh100,000 for the UAE people and then you are going to see how many people are going to train, really.
"I can put Ahli in a fight in Japan; I am capable of doing that. But we get no support from anybody and we had to borrow money from left and right to cover our flights to Thailand, so it is difficult."
Randall Yogachandra, the chief operating officer for the Abu Dhabi Fighting Championship (ADFC), said developing local MMA talent was one of his organisation's top priorities, but added that helping Ahli financially would involve negotiating a number of obstacles.
"In terms of financing, there are a lot of legal issues," he said. "But ADFC are nothing without our fighters, so we will help them as much as we possibly can."
Ahli indicated he is planning to return to Thailand once again before Round Three of ADFC on March 11. He fought three amateur bouts while staying in the outskirts of Phuket in the build-up to his Abuy Dhabi fight and feels he clearly benefited.
"The place we went was in the middle of nowhere," he said. "There was nothing to do but focus on training. It was my first time out of the country; in 20 years I had never left Dubai, but I only saw glimpses of the nature. It was not a holiday, it was intense."
Having etched his name into the UAE history books by becoming, at age 20, the country's youngest professional fighter, Ahli is yet to discover who he will face at ADFC3. But his confidence has never been higher. At the launch of the event on Monday, Ahli was not quite Gracie or Tyson, but the braggadocio was more evident than ever before.
"I am the best fighter in the UAE," he said. "I have only fought one professional fight and I am from a country that does not have a strong history in MMA, so whoever I face, I will be the underdog. But, for me, I think that is nice. It suits me because then I can surprise and beat my opponent every time."
He certainly did that last time, and by March he will have endured a further five months' training at the abattoir. For Ali Ahli, the UAE's great bright hope, the omens are positive.