By: Siddharth Premkumar

It began not with heavy thuds into sparring pads, nor with pomp and circumstance.

It was as soft an opening as these things go – inasmuch as one cares to attribute softness to a room full of hard-nosed martial artists. And yet, they would have had it no other way.

For, the popularity of Karate and Taekwondo notwithstanding, they have only ever known the martial art scene in Muscat to be decidedly low-key. Ringside at The Champ gym in Al Khuwayr on Tuesday saw the launch of what is hoped is a chance to change all that.

The Oman Fighting Championship (OFC), an ambitious project that ultimately seeks to bring martial arts practitioners in Oman the platform and support they need to hone and showcase their skills.

For the present, though, it is a coming-together of the city’s most popular and respected martial arts establishments. Four in particular stand out: The Oman Kickboxing Club (OKC), Muscat Mixed Martial Arts Club (3MAC), RevGx gym and Professional Martial Arts and Fitness Academy (PMAFA).

Already, other schools have shown an interest in participating in the OFC’s hard launch in April at the Bahja Hall of Jungle restaurant in Qurm. Hard being the operative word with this inaugural Fight Night featuring full contact boxing and kickboxing.

“The bouts are sanctioned by the World Kickboxing Federation (WKBF) and the results will be recorded on their website,” said Baqar Haider, OKC head coach and part of the brain trust behind the OFC. “There will be six or seven fights with three two-minute rounds. The main events being title fights. Four senior guys from each club will compete for two WKBF-licensed championship belts.

The night, which will also have demonstrations from capoeira and jujitsu schools, will feature ‘only local clubs and locally-based fighters’ – in keeping with the OFC’s mandate to promote the sport and groom homegrown talent.

“It’s not a random federation that’s just been set up with no backing behind it. There will be a formal committee created, which will have the final say – every coach in Oman teaching a full contact martial art will have a seat on the committee.”

Nicholas Jahns, of the Professional Martial Arts and Fitness Academy, said this was a project that’s starting from scratch, from the ground up, with long-term vision of a ‘national league’ as exists for Taekwondo and Karate and fighters from all over Oman.

“Oman is a very young country and lots of citizens are willing to do martial arts,” Jahns said. “This will get them hyped and hungry. I would love to see people from Nizwa, Sohar, Salalah compete at OFC events in the future.”

An in-country avenue for enthusiasts and students of mixed martial arts (MMA) would be invaluable considering the closest most in the sport get to competitive bouts is in Dubai or elsewhere in the region.

Why not here? asks Rashid al Barwani, of RevGx gym, “We’ve much better youth to represent both club and country. So far, the fighters who can have gone at their own expense to compete in and raise the Omani flag at international events.”

The OFC is an opportunity for fighters to mark their skill and know where they stand. Getting ‘good’ requires a steel forged in the fires of competition.

OFC fighters, Haider said, will get that chance. “If a fighter does well here, he’ll be part of an international league as well with, eventually, the opportunity to compete for a title shot.

Barwani added, “And you will see the talent we have here and wonder why this took so long?” For one, he said, the lack of official recognition and support.

Ali al Fajwani, of the Muscat Mixed Martial Arts Club, suggested that this was due to the less-than-wholesome image MMA has. Still, he was optimistic the OFC would be a course correction.

“In the past, it has spilled out into the street and that contributed to the violent, aggressive image the sport has here,” said Fajwani, who dismissed his worries about ‘negative effects’ by reasoning that the OFC would give people the ‘motivation to compete’. “

Once you get into the ring with a stranger and not your friend at the gym, it pushes you – whether you win or lose.” “I think clubs have reached that point where fighters don’t take being punched personally.”

That’s where the code of discipline taught to and expected of martial arts students takes over.

“There are lessons to learn from previous experiences,” said Barwani, adding that the OFC would get ‘youth off the streets’. “It’s very important that we promote the image of the sport and in its full true meaning. The fight is the last thing. It’s a reward for achievement. There’s lots of things that need to happen before: you need to standardise the training, the clubs need to stand together and you need to spread awareness of the sport.”

Having done that, he said, “we will prove we deserve recognition instead of demanding it”.

Added exposure will come from events like the one in April, which will see tickets for some 350 seats go on sale very soon. “An event every six months on average,” Fajwani said, “and I think we’ll be on the right track”.