STAND UP FIGHTERS

By: Siddharth Premkumar

It’s fight night at the Dubai World Trade Centre. Two sinewy combatants circle the three metre high steel wire cage, sizing each other up behind taped hands and snarled mouth guards.

At the referee’s signal, they drop out of the boxing stance and into a barrage of kicks, counters and strikes.

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And then it’s over. The winner destroying his trapped opponent with lethal knee strikes. The fight is for three five-minute rounds. Roger Huerta needed just the one. The capacity crowd cheers.

A couple of road hours away in Muscat, Musa Abdulrahman al Harthi gets goosebumps. Almost a year ago, he’d met and received instruction from Huerta at a Muay Thai training camp and competition in Phuket, Thailand.

Watching the mixed martial art (MMA) fighter go from doling out heavy thuds into sparring pads to beating an adversary into submission has him pumped up.

“I was just so excited. I love watching fights and when I see them representing their teams and countries, it makes me want to do the same,” said the 19 year old budding martial art fighter, who trains at the Muscat Mixed Martial Arts Club (or 3MAC) in Al Khuwayr. “I would love to be the first Omani to take part in a tournament like that.”

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‘That’ was the recent ONE FC: Reign of Champions, the first tournament held in the region by the ONE fighting championship, Asia’s biggest MMA organisation. The fight card for the event featured some the most highly regarded fighters in the world.

“It was a rousing success. A historic night for ONE FC as well as for mixed martial arts in the Middle East,” said Loren Mack, director of public relations for ONE FC. “The arena was packed to the brim with thousands waiting outside hoping to get in. We saw a very diverse crowd of fans from all over the Middle East.”

Ahead of the big night, Mack was in Muscat, checking out the city’s MMA scene and scouting for some local talent. He singled out 3MAC for special praise.

“It’s got a lot of potential. The sport’s steadily growing. There’s a fervent base of MMA fans in Oman that is growing at a rapid pace,” said Mack, adding, “Oman has the opportunity to become a MMA hub in the region.”

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Ali Mushtaq al Fajwani, co-founder and coach at 3MAC, tempers the optimism with a dose of reality. “A lot of people come here and they don’t know what Muay Thai or Jujitsu is, but they do know what MMA is,” he said. “For the local population here, it’s difficult to accept fighting as a professional sport.”

“There’s a feeling that it’s not exactly legal. That it’s meant for the street,” Fajwani added. Not that the perceptions of being underground or even unsavoury has stopped people taking up the sport. In its four years, since starting shop with “five or six” students, 3MAC has had “hundreds come through the doors”.

All to learn a full-on combat sport where they will use anything from to wrestling to kickboxing to take their opponent down, forcing pained submissions or overcoming them with devastating elbow, leg and knee blows. It’s no-holds-barred stuff, though the obvious fouls – eye pokes, strikes to the groin, spine and back of the head – are prohibited. Unlike stand-up fighting, MMA allows grappling and striking on the ground even after a knockdown so long as one’s opponent is defending him/herself.

To be competitive, therefore, requires proficiency in a variety of skills – the lethal strikes of silat to judo throws, jujitsu locks and wrestling holds. “Without jujitsu, wrestling and even judo, there’s just no MMA,” Fajwani said. “That’s what makes us different from the other clubs and gyms out there that claim to do MMA. That’s where we have the edge.”

That edge is what brought Harthi through the doors a couple of years ago. He’s already won medals for the club at amateur competitions in Oman and in UAE, but missed out on a professional win at last year’s contest in Thailand – to be fair, though, he was an 18 year old debutant against fighters with as many as 50 fights to their names.

Fajwani has high hopes for him. “You get the most out of it if you start at 15 or 16,” he said. “So when you hit your peak at 25, you know what you’re doing.”

While their training in martial arts gives them a solid foundation, fighters still need to absorb new techniques, develop ring sense and strategy and learn MMA rules to contest internationally. Which is why Fajwani thinks an Omani fighter making the leap into the world stage isn’t realistic in the short term.

“Right now or even next year (when more such tournaments are planned), I don’t think there’s anyone,” he said. “But three to five years down the road, definitely. That’s the aim.”

Mack is more bullish. “The infrastructure of the gyms and coaches is unbelievable. The talent here is quite impressive,” he said. “I do believe you’ll soon see a home-grown Omani compete in ONE FC in the near future.”

If that happens, said Harthi, who can’t keep his voice or legs from shaking. “I’ll definitely grab the opportunity. I’m really hungry for a fight. For any chance I can get to pursue a career in this.”

“And he could do it too. He’s a fighter,” said Fajwani, who is no slouch himself, having represented club and country last year on Desert Force, a MMA-themed reality TV show. Though, he said, at age 30 he probably had only “four or five fights left” in him.

For now, he’ll settle for adding to the festoon of 3MAC’s medals over his office. First up, a jujitsu tournament in Dubai this month.

SOURCE: MUSCAT DAILY