How UAE wrestling bounced back from a 10-year wipeout
Jiu-jitsu’s gain was wrestling’s pain when the national team switched sports
Having the foundations wiped away would be damaging for any sport. To be knocked back a decade would have most beaten.
But for the UAE Wrestling and Judo Federation, it was all part of the challenge.
Founded at the turn of the century, the federation made rapid progress, with commendable results on their international debut at the Asian Championship in Wuhan in 2005 and a first appearance in the 2006 Asian Games.
However, all the hard work fell apart in one stunning moment when they lost the entire national wrestling team to jiu-jitsu, with Faisal Al Ketbi, Mohammed Al Qubaisi and Yasser Al Qubaisi among the defectors.
Having made the switch, Al Ketbi used his wrestling background to become the most decorated Emirati fighter. But jiu-jitsu’s gain was wrestling’s pain.
“We lost the first generation of our wrestlers, meaning we fell 10 years behind and were back to square one,” Nasser Al Tamimi, general secretary of the UAE Wrestling and Judo Federation told The National.
“Faisal won the UAE’s first international wrestling gold at the Asian Junior Championship in Kazakhstan in 2006. We had hopes he would represent us at the Olympics. he even had the potential to reach the medal round.”
Al Ketbi, now 33, won silver at the 2010 West Asian Championship and Al Qubaisi, 35, bagged two silvers at the 2010 Pan Arab Championship and 2011 Pan Arab Games.
“They built solid bases in wrestling and took that forward to be successful in jiu-jitsu,” Al Tamimi added.
“We didn’t want to stop them from doing what they wanted to do. It was their decision and after all they were representing the UAE either way.”
Until the federation was founded, wrestling remained a traditional sport mainly in the Northern Emirates, particularly in Fujairah and Kalba.
Forming a federation to pursue Olympic goals was the idea of Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed, who introduced jiu-jitsu to the UAE while completing his studies in the United States.
“Sheikh Tahnoun is known as the father of martial art sports in the UAE and it was his idea to provide the Emirati youth the opportunity of becoming Olympians,” Al Tamimi said.
“Wrestling is one of the oldest Olympic sports. We had federations for every martial art sport but not wrestling. Actually, we started work two years before we founded the federation. Judo was brought under the same federation in 2002.”
Moldovan-born Sergiu Toma created history by winning judo bronze at the Rio Olympics in 2016. He was only the second UAE medal winner after Sheikh Ahmed Al Hasher's shooting gold in Athens eight years earlier.
The federation naturalised three Moldovans in 2013 and all three qualified for Rio. Victor Scvortov and Ivan Remarenco have also qualified for the Tokyo Games, now rescheduled for next year after the pandemic.
“We tried creating a similar pathway for wrestling but it became more difficult and complex to naturalise them, unlike the judokas,” Al Tamimi said.
The UAE federations are already trying to encourage long-time expatriate residents and homegrown talent to showcase their skills in local competitions.
“We have already identified a couple of youngsters who have been included in our high performance training,” Al Tamimi said.
“After losing our wrestling’s first generation we were back to square one. It meant we had to start all over again to create a second generation. We have decent cadets and juniors who regularly take part in the regional and continental competitions.”
One athlete who has made the grade and is now stepping into the senior category is Bader Al Ali, who turns 21 in September and has been shortlisted for the 2022 Asian Games by head coach Shaban El Sayed.
Al Ali won gold at the Arab Championship Juniors and competed in the senior category at the same competition to take silver in the 124-kilogram weight in Cairo last year.
“Bader has been our most promising junior and he can compete in the adult division, which means he becomes eligible to compete at the Asian Games,” said El Sayed, an Egyptian who represented his country at the Sydney Olympics.
“We haven’t been able to participate in any international competitions this year because of the Covid-19 situation. We are now preparing for next year.”
The wrestling initiative consists of a school programme and training centres spread across every major city in all seven Emirates.
The domestic calendar includes a national league comprising 14 competitions, President’s Cup and a couple of open competitions held from October to April.
“We plan to stage an international championship once our new federation headquarters is ready next year, and obviously a regular event similar to our annual judo Grand Slam Abu Dhabi,” Al Tamimi said.
Updated: July 26, 2020 07:39 AM