The Abu Dhabi Fighting Championship (ADFC) has enjoyed a meteoric rise to prominence since becoming the first mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion in the UAE just over a year ago.
From the humble beginnings of their opening show on May 14, 2010, the event captured the imagination of the country’s fight fans and was able to attract 5,000 paying spectators to Zayed Sports City on March 11, to witness a packed card, including the fight for Dh1m.
One fighter who embodies the growth in popularity of the sport in the emirates is Ali “The Kid” Ahli, a 20-year-old Emirati student who was so enthralled by Round 1 that he decided to get serious about the sport.
Since then he has exploded onto the scene, appearing in both subsequent ADFC events, winning his first two fights against more experienced fighters and impressing enough to become the first athlete officially signed to the promotion.
Ahli’s rise reached a new peak overnight as he tested his skills on the international stage, with a bout in Thailand. However, it wasn’t long ago that he was merely a fan watching the Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC) in America.
“In the beginning I used to watch the UFC fights and the prize fights,” he revealed. “I admired the fighters, how they trained, how they don’t give up; so I started watching videos of how they trained and fought.
“They do some of the competitions here so I heard of the ADFC Round 1. So, I watched that and was really encouraged to train for Round 2. So I trained for round two and took it from there.”
Ahli admits to being part of the “new generation” of MMA fighters who have come to the sport without a background in one specific martial art, although he does have an eye for submissions.
“I am like the new generation of mixed martial arts,” he said. “Before, the fighters used to have a background in something like wrestling or jiu-jitsu, but the new generation just started mixed martial arts and started learning everything, so I’m one of them.”
Ahli’s first fight was last October against Brazilian Luciano Ferreira. According to ADFC’s COO Randall Yogachandra, no one gave him a chance, but against all the odds he prevailed with a split points decision.
“I was really nervous when I entered the cage,” Ahli revealed of his emotions before that first fight in front of his home crowd.
“But there were some people who put faith in me, like the ADFC, the director of ADFC Mr Randall, he put me in to fight even though I was late on the fight card. So he gave me the opportunity to represent my country and I trained hard.
“Those people thought I could win and thank God I just pulled the win and proved everybody wrong who said I was going to lose.”
The 20-year-old is clearly passionate about representing his country in MMA, while the ADFC realise the importance of bringing on board local fighters in order to grow the sport throughout the MENA region. Ahli too has seen a groundswell of local support, and is keen to help local fighters get into the sport.
“I noticed that in my email account, Facebook account there are people encouraged by my win,” he said.
“I opened the door for local people training and getting into professional mixed martial arts, they started to ask me where I train and how they should do it.”
So, how does he train for a fight? “I always start training three months before the fight and I change my training depending on my opponent. We study the opponent and then I do the training I need to do to win the fight.”
When I spoke to Ahli, he was still to find out who his opponent was going to be in Thailand. “It’s kind of scary because it’s better when you know your opponent,” Ahli revealed. “You know his style, you know his weaknesses, but now you’re fighting an unknown so it is only in the first round, the second round that you discover your opponent.”
As well as Thailand, there are offers to fight in Australia, Brazil and Europe, while a fighter exchange programme to send Ahli to train in Europe has also been discussed. In an ideal world the ADFC would like to grow at the same rate as their prodigious star, and he clearly believes he is in the right place to do exactly that.
“If you see from ADFC Round 1, you can see it improving,” he said. “Round two was better than round one, and I think round three was better than round two. They have the right directors, the right people in the right places so I think they can make it big.”
He added: “I want to thank ADFC because they were the first organisation and first people who made me feel like they care about me. I used to go everywhere, and everyone rejected me, but the minute I texted Mr Randall he told me yes and whatever I need he has provided for me. So, I feel really proud to hold this logo on my chest, and when I am fighting on my shorts.”
However, Ahli hasn’t had it all his own way since October, as he admits his family weren’t overly thrilled when they found out about his fighting ambitions.
“When I started my career it’s like a new sport in the UAE so they said ‘no, this sport’s not for you. You’re going to get killed’,” he said. “I think after what they saw in the two matches they felt a bit more secure.
“They knew I wasn’t going to give it up, so they started to support me.”
Interview by Martyn Thomas