x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

UAE winning its fight to popularise boxing

The country's sporting public has embraced UFC, but the noble art of boxing is holding its own, as will be shown tonight in Dubai.

UAE boxer Eisa al Dah training with his coach Anthony "Chill" Wilson, from USA, at Bel Rematha Sports Centre.
UAE boxer Eisa al Dah training with his coach Anthony "Chill" Wilson, from USA, at Bel Rematha Sports Centre.

DUBAI // When 32-year-old Eisa al Dah steps out into the ring tonight, it will be for the biggest fight of his career. But the impact of the UAE's first professional boxer is being felt well beyond the World Trade Centre, where he will take on the Spaniard, Ignasi Cabellero Parez.

"Eisa's a role model now," said his manager, Jessie Robinson, who discovered the welterweight in 2006.

"The kids see him and think if he can do it, I can do it. People love blood sports here and I give it five years before this thing explodes."

In spite of the rise of mixed martial arts and the country's fascination with the splashier Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the old art of boxing is still on the rise.

Some say it is the more graceful or "gentlemanly" sport, more athletic and faster paced, while others simply consider it a better way to stay fit.

This month will see two big fighting events. At the World Trade Centre, crowds of up to 3,000 are expected for the seven-card event, which will climax with the US welterweight champion, Brad Solomon, fighting Victor Correa.

Next week, Chi Garden at the Lodge in Dubai will host its Full Force event, bringing fighters from countries including Turkey, Iran and Syria. On March 4, up to 40 children aged between four and 15 will fight it out in KO Promotions' inter-club championships.

Zak Taumafai trains many of the emirate's aspiring fighters and owns the KO Gym in Dubai Marina, which has on average 120 men and women each evening for boxing and kickboxing classes.

In addition, he trains about 40 fighters for competitions. "Boxing will always be there," he said. "People see boxing as safer than UFC which is seen more like street fighting and not as nice to watch.

"To the general public, boxers are always active, throwing punches and moving. It's just lacking the big names like Anderson Silva right now, which UFC has."

However, thousands of Manny Pacquiao fans gathered round television screens across the country to see their hero defend his WBO welterweight title last March, showing that, for Filipinos at least, they have their star.

White collar fight night happens twice a year and sees 18 professional workers turned into fighters and thrown into the ring after two months of intense training.

Since its launch in 2006, the event has grown to proportions its organisers, Transguard, could not have imagined. For the next event, 120 people have applied for the 18 places. With corporate sponsorship this costs Dh30,000 and for individual private entries, Dh12,000.

"In the beginning, only one of the fights was female but now, we've got three of those too," said Mark Povey, the managing director of Transguard. "It's just an event that has mass popularity. Everyone wants to be involved now."

Alex Green, 33, a marketing executive from Manchester, has watched boxing's profile rise in the four years he has been in Dubai. "Back in the UK, it's easy to go and see good fights but it's great that things are picking up here. UFC's really taken off here so I'm happy to see that boxing's not being left behind."

Mark Alvaro, 36, from London, competed in the last event and sees big potential for boxing in Dubai. "There's so much interest from locals and expats here," he said. "The structure's there for people with the gyms and the trainers here now. These events and the fights at Chi are generating a lot of interest."

Mr Taumafai is now working alongside the Dubai Sports Council on regulating boxing clubs and fights, to ensure safe training and fighting, regulating coaches and merging with the UAE boxing federation.

Mr Robinson says regulation can only help to raise the credibility of the sport. "The sports council are really supporting us with this so it can only be a good thing."