The region's newest reality show Al Batal pits Arab amateur fighters together for a chance to win some cash and earn an MMA contract, writes Ali Khaled.
Arab amateur fighters will compete on TV and under the MMA spotlight
Blindfolded and handcuffed, the young Arab men are crammed in the back of two pickup trucks and driven into the desert. There, the two teams of seven are separately dropped off with nothing more than a water tank and portable GPS systems. The challenge for the competitors from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and other nations from across the Middle East to find their way back to base camp first.
It is just one of the many challenges that contestants in a new reality television show are hoping to overcome in a bid to make it big in the world of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). In Al Batal, which literally translates to hero or champion, the 14 Arab amateur welterweight contestants are fighting for the cash prize of Dh75,000 and a multi-fight contract with Abu Dhabi Fighting Championship (ADFC).
The brainchild of ADFC president Randall Yogachandra, the show, which was filmed across all seven emirates, is the latest indication of MMA's seemingly relentless ascent across the Middle East in recent years.
Incorporating diverse categories such as freestyle wrestling, Muay Thai, karate, kick boxing and jiu jitsu, among others, MMA's rising popularity led to the establishment of the ADFC in 2010. Since then, many events have taken place in the capital, culminating in last week's Abu Dhabi's World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Championships at Adnec.
MMA is one of the fastest-growing sports across the Arab region, and now Abu Dhabi is taking it to the masses. The public gets what the public wants, that's entertainment.
In keeping with tried and trusted reality-TV formats, the two teams, "The Warriors" and "Arabian Lions", share a training camp and villa, and are put through strenuous weekly training sessions by a team of MMA experts. Every week, they face off in a variety of adrenalin-fueled competitions and at the end of each episode, the winning team nominates a fighter from each side for the elimination challenge fight. The last man standing at the end of the series is the inaugural Al Batal.
But is this kind of spectacle healthy for the growth of the sport, and indeed for the fighters themselves? For the participants, the answer is relatively straightforward; Al Batal is their golden ticket to worldwide fame.
"I want to be a star," Mohammad Mostafa Al Shammari, a Canadia-based Iraqi contestant, said in one of the opening scenes of the first episode. "I don't care about the money."
Exposure on television, the fighters believe, is worth the risk of punishment and potential public heartbreak.
"The challenges were very difficult, for me it was the first time doing many of these things," the 20-year-old Al Shammari said of the tasks set for the teams each week. "My biggest fear was heights, and though I wouldn't say I conquered that, I had to face that in the challenges."
Furthermore, throughout the show, the contestants were trained by three of MMA's most famous names: Brazilian coaches Luiz Eduardo Guerreiro and Ulysses Pereira, as well as former jiu-jitsu world champion and UAE resident Abdelaziz Cherigui of France.
Their job will be to harness the raw skills of these fighters, many of whom have won events in their home countries, into talent that can compete at the highest level. It is once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the young men.
MMA is where the future is at, and while most of the contenders are specialised in one category of fighting, they must be able to handle the array of different techniques and styles if they are to thrive in the mixed cages. Facing champions from varying categories, needless to say, requires mental strength, too.
"The fighting, while not completely new to me, was different," Al Shammari said. "It's hard to describe the feeling before my first fight. I was very nervous, and my opponent was very strong."
The process of elimination, over the duration of the show, provides an indication of how the fighters will handle rising up the ranks, or indeed falling by the wayside.
As the weeks pass, the pressure on the individuals rose as the teams got progressively smaller. And doubts started to creep in.
"You start to question yourself, am I next?" Al Shammarisaid.
Ultimately, whatever the distractions of the ever-present television cameras, the blows received on Al Batal, unlike other reality shows, will hurt more than just their egos.
On Saturday, the Abu Dhabi World Jiu-Jitsu Championships came to a dramatic conclusion, with a several successes coming the way of the UAE team. It is those kind of heights to which these contestants aspire on the MMA stage.
For Al Batal's winner, there will be no hiding place.
Al Batal will air for the first time on FX at 11pm UAE on Wednesday.
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