Hassan al Rumaithi takes the spotlight at the first Abu Dhabi Fighting Championship hoping that it will inspire others to pull on the padded gloves.
Fighting talk from a young Emirati
Hassan al Rumaithi feels he is carrying the future of his sport in this country on his muscular shoulders. The first Emirati professional Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter takes centre stage tonight at the inaugural Abu Dhabi Fighting Championship (ADFC) as he goes fist-to-fist with the 32-year-old Italian Massimiliano Pecchia.
Al Rumaithi is 26 and this will be only his third MMA fight - "the first big one", he says - and while he has spent two months training twice a day, he admits to being as nervous as he is excited. "This is my first big competition and I feel a lot of pressure, yes, because I am the only local fighter and it is taking place in Abu Dhabi," he says. "A lot of young guys will be watching me, wanting me to win, so they can begin training too."
MMA visibility has expanded locally of late, with the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) 112: Invincible event in March having provided the Middle East's first live taste of the sport. Some 11,000 people watched the bouts at a purpose-built arena at Abu Dhabi's Yas Island. It was also beamed to millions of homes around the world. . With a strong interest in the Emirates in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, it is little surprise that MMA, which combines stand-up fighting techniques with wrestling, jiu-jitsu and judo, is becoming popular among Emiratis.
ADFC, which will have a Dh1million (US$272,200) purse for the three events, will allow local fighters, Emirati and expatriate, to compete for the first time at a professional level with fighters from overseas. Vali Lifei, al Rumaithi's coach, also trains two other Emiratis, whom he expects will fight on the second ADFC event later this year. "I saw him [al Rumaithi] striking and recognised his potential," Lifei says. "When I asked several students if they were interested in MMA, he was the only one to say yes. The others were afraid."
Lifei and several other Brazilian coaches have been working with al Rumaithi ever since. They say they have seen a change in his attitude as well as his skill. "I have fought all my life and my heart has never beaten as hard as I expect it will when he enters that cage," Lifei says. "I really want him to win. He deserves it." Without the usual motivating factors fighters cite in other countries, such as an opportunity to earn money, respect and a better life, al Rumaithi says his motivating force is simply a love of the sport. He hopes his performance at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre this evening will inspire others to participate in MMA.
"I don't have a lot of people to train with," he explains. "The sport is still very new here. I hope with this tournament that a lot of people will come, watch the fight and feel inspired to take up the sport." He will have at least a small cheering section in his corner. Al Rumaithi's family and friends, many of whom were initially concerned about him taking up MMA, will attend tonight's event. "Most didn't understand why I wanted to do it or what the purpose was," he says. "They would say it is not a sport, it is just fighting. Now they are very supportive."
This will be al Rumaithi's first fight on home soil - the prior two were in the Netherlands, where he won once and lost once. Al Rumaithi believes Abu Dhabi's interest in the UFC and regular coverage on television have helped to educate people about mixed martial arts. The presence of world-class fighters such as Anderson Silva in the city also gave al Rumaithi (who cites the Brazilian-born UFC middleweight champion among his heroes) an opportunity to train with the champion and his team for three days.
One of Silva's boxing coaches has remained in the country to continue preparing al Rumaithi for his fight. The young man knows little about his opponent, aside from one video of him fighting which he found on YouTube. "He is a beginner, like me, so finding information is difficult," al Rumaithi says. "At this stage it is important to focus on your own fight plan and your own strengths." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org