x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Eisa Aldah, the "Arabian Warrior" aims to be a worldwide hit

The UAE's only professional boxer fights Spaniard Ignasi Caballero Perez in Dubai on Friday night. And after that, he plans to go all the way to a world title.

UAE boxer Eisa al Dah training with his coach Anthony
UAE boxer Eisa al Dah training with his coach Anthony "Chill" Wilson.

Eisa Aldah had just finished a five-hour training session ahead of his welterweight bout with Ignasi Caballero Perez of Spain this weekend, when a karate class entered the mat-padded gymnasium. As an instructor put the students through their paces, the young boys seemed unaware they were sharing the room with the UAE's top - and only - professional boxer.

It is hard to imagine the same thing happening to Floyd Mayweather Jr, the undefeated American who has won world titles in five weight categories, at a gym in Las Vegas, or Amir Khan, the WBA world super lightweight title-holder, in his hometown Bolton in England.

"Who?" responded Ahmed, a nine-year-old Emirati, and Kosa, 11, whose parents moved to Dubai five years ago from Syria, when asked if they knew of Eisa Aldah, the "Arabian Warrior".

Of course, Manny Pacquiao, the WBC world super welterweight and WBO world welterweight champion, could probably have been in the room and the children would have been none the wiser.

"I don't know much about any boxers," Ahmed said.

"I know Mike Tyson," Kosa said excitedly. "He once bit a man's ear off. He was a very famous boxer."

Kosa was only five years old the last time Tyson stepped into a ring. It is clear Aldah will need to do more than knock out his opponent tomorrow night at the Dubai World Trade Centre if he is to gain notoriety and inspire the next generation of boxers in the UAE.

There are a lot of sports to compete with here, including football, cricket, horse racing and Formula One. Capturing the attention of youngsters will not be easy.

"It's true, boxing has a long way to go to become as popular as football and other sports," said al Dah, who receives backing from the Dubai Sports Council. "But that's why I'm here.

"As much for myself - I want to become a successful boxer who people talk about - but I want children, not just Emirati, but all children in the UAE to take more of an interest in boxing.

"But to do this, I must improve as a boxer. I can only achieve so much here [in Dubai], this is why I must go to places like the UK to train in the best gyms and spar with the best boxers that I can."

Aldah has been sparring with Khan at his base in England and has forged a close relationship. Al Dah said there is no substitute for the tips he picks up working around the fringes of Khan, who, at 24, is eight years his junior, and his trainer Freddie Roach, who is the cornerman to Pacquaio, the Filipino who is the only man to have won world titles in eight weight divisions.

"Amir is a great champion and a true warrior," Aldah said. "Just watching him, the little things; his movement, the angles he throws punches from. Working with someone like that can only be a huge benefit to me.

"This is my plan. No matter what happens in my next fight, it is important that in between fights, I surround myself with champions like Amir, so I can become the best boxer I can.

"I do this because it's in my heart. It is my dream to become a world champion. It is my mission to show Emirati people that they too can become champions. They just have to follow their dreams."

Tomorrow, he will fight for the UAE World Championship title. Although the belt may hold little clout, al Dah intends to use it as a stepping stone, and he accepts there will be many more before he fulfils his ambition to fight for a major title.

"It will be a long process, even after my fight against Caballero. I know this," he said. "But, with the right training, the right support and the right strategy, in a few years' time, I can accomplish my goal."

Anthony "Chill" Wilson, his trainer, is an American who has been part of several US national teams and worked with Pernell Whitaker and Randall Bailey, among others. When he began working with Aldah, he was not impressed.

"When I first saw Eisa he was even worse than an amateur boxer," Wilson said. "He looked like he was treading quicksand and he just didn't know how to throw combinations."

But Wilson focused on Aldah's strengths, rather than dwell on his weaknesses.

"He's a good puncher and he's got potential," he said. "A good puncher with good potential can become a world champion. He just needs the right kind of training."

One important person will be missing from his corner when he faces Perez (5-3) tomorrow on the Dubai International Championship card. His father, Mohammed, died last month after a long battle against illness.

That is one reason why Aldah is behind schedule in terms of the number of fights he should have had by the age of 32. Since turning professional, he has fought only eight times - and only one of those was in 2010, when he returned to the UAE from his base in England to be by his father's side.

However, if his father's illness made Eisa lose focus; his passing seems to have helped restore it.

"My father was a big loss to me. He was my biggest supporter and was always by my side," Aldah said. "He is still by my side, just in a different way now. I am determined to win a major title not just for me and my country, but for my father."

Al Dah turned professional boxer in 2007 at 27. His record stands at six wins and two defeats, fighting in the UK, US and Mexico, as well as twice in Dubai.

His family have had to come to terms with his career switch, swapping the security of an office job for one littered with physical dangers and financial uncertainty.

"Yes, they did find it a little strange at first," al Dah said when recalling telling his mother and father. "I had a job - a good job - with a good salary, but boxing was in my heart. It's what I wanted to do."

Eisa's mother, who he said voiced the loudest objections before finally accepting his change of vocation, will be in the crowd tomorrow at the Sheikh Rashid Hall.

Al Dah's boyish good looks belie his 32 years. Joe Calzaghe, the handsome Welsh boxer who dominated the super middleweight division before retiring undefeated, once said there are only two reasons a boxer keeps his looks: one, because he is too good to get hit, or two, because he rarely gets in the ring to get hit.

The latter applies to Aldah, but he refuses to believe anything other than that his best days in the sport are ahead of him.

That may account for the lack of urgency in jumping into the ring for just any fight. Some promoters might try to push al Dah to take any opportunity that arises, forcing him to travel to boxing backwaters in search of bouts that will garner little for his bank balance or reputation.

However, Jessie Robinson, his promoter, the chief executive of EMD Sports Services who has been promoting events in the US for 25 years, working with boxing legends such as Tommy "Hitman" Hearns and promoters Bob Arum and Don King, has a different strategy for al Dah.

"I've been in boxing a long time," Robinson said. "I've worked with some of the best. Believe me, 32 is no age. Boxers don't hit their prime until they're 36-37. Eisa's got plenty of time on his side. But for Eisa to become a world champion, he needs to go to countries like the US, the UK and be around guys who can take him up to the next level."

sluckings@thenational.ae