x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The real karate kid

Popular action movies might appear trivial to Khalifa, for the teenage martial artist from Emirates is making a name for himself on the global stage.

Khalifa al Abbar, right, is ranked the fourth best karate practitioner of his age in Europe.
Khalifa al Abbar, right, is ranked the fourth best karate practitioner of his age in Europe.

Khalifa al Abbar is not your average teenager. Forget the countless gold medals in national karate tournaments or the fact that he is recognised as the third best practitioner in Asia, or even that he took silver in an Under 17 competition last year - while aged 12; young Khalifa, for all his love and mastery of the martial arts, has, in 13 years of blinking, never seen The Karate Kid.

"Who is in it?" he asks nonchalantly, unaware of the impact made by the 1984 Oscar-nominated classic. "I don't know it. I prefer Bruce Lee." Now, the talent and ability of Lee should be genuinely appreciated, but surely a young boy, passionate about karate, would relate more to the fictional characters of Daniel Larusso and Mr Miyagi than a genuine Chinese genius who could knock an opponent to the ground with a one-inch punch?

Khalifa's father, Adnan, has the answer. "It's a nice movie to watch, but to him it would seem silly - he is in a professional environment," he says. "They always play it on Emirates flights though, so the next time we go to a championship, he can watch it." Lucky boy. Khalifa heads to Monza today to compete in the U15 Italian Golden League and, as a jet-setting karate champion, he will collect his first gold of the weekend before he even departs Dubai International Airport - Skywards Gold.

"I hope to come home with two golds," he says, with a grin. "But I don't look for medals; I just want to do my best. Always I want to do my best." So far, the black belt's best has brought him victories in three different age categories in two separate countries, the highlight of which came in November at the Lodz-based World Karate Federation's Polish Grand Prix, where he tasted triumph at U15 level.

"One day, I want to be world champion and I can achieve it through hard work," says the UAE's No 1 practitioner defiantly. "I have to win more international tournaments though; tournaments with 64 players. "My last competition, in Switzerland, had 64 players and was repechage. That means it goes down to 32, then 16, then eight, but when you enter the final four that is the medals: gold, silver and two bronze."

Repechage dictates that once the two finalists have been established, each of the players who lost to them throughout the course of the tournament come back in to compete for the second bronze. However, in Zurich at the U14 Swiss Open, Khalifa was not involved in the fight for fourth - he had already secured safe passage to the final, where he collected silver. Now ranked as the fourth best karate practitioner of his age in Europe, Khalifa would be well within his rights to expect euphoria on his arrival back to the Dubai School of Research and Science, where he thrives in biology lessons.

Instead, the response was muted. "In the UAE, people don't find karate interesting; they don't care," he says. "In the last year, with karate making news internationally, it has changed a little, but my friends still don't see me as a champion or anything." The news of the teenager's talent is spreading around the school though and Khalifa is benefiting from a new-found reputation. "People at school are beginning to treat me a little different and give me respect. Before I maybe had a few issues; people would push me around and throw bad words at me," he admits with a shy glance towards his father. "Now they don't - they know who I am and think better of it."

Father Adnan sits up, alert. "What would you do if they tried to punch you now?" he asks intrigued. "Nothing," replies Khalifa. "If they tried to hit me, I would not react as if I was in a fight. I would hold myself because I know I could beat him. Karate training teaches you self-control, discipline and how to hold your temper. "But in Dubai, there are not really a lot of problems anyway. Here people love each other - it's part of our religion." @Email:gmeenaghan@thenational.ae