In this episode of Qatar365, we wrestle with the rise of combat sports in Doha and find out what it’s like first-hand to grapple inside the cage.
Interest in mixed martial arts has increased significantly across Qatar and the region. So much so that the Ultimate Fighting Championship, better known as the UFC, has opened two new gyms in the Arab country.
While the term combat sports may sound aggressive, the fighters say the beauty is in the art of self-defence. Tatie Passos runs the jiu-jitsu programme in the new gym. The Brazilian coach often trains once, twice, sometimes even three times a day.
"The base of every single martial art is to protect yourself, to defend yourself. So, [in] any group classes, we offer this," said Tatie Passos, Head Coach at UFC Gym Qatar.
"One class is more based on grappling, like Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and wrestling. Other classes are more on striking like boxing and Muay Thai."
"What we’re trying to do here [is to] create a very good team, a very good training environment that's open for everyone [...] Martial arts teach you a lot of life lessons. The lessons you learn [are] not just applicable on the mat. If they learn to be more humble, they learn about discipline, they learn about respect."
Chris Bothwell arrived in Doha 13 years ago and loves the brotherhood he built on the mat.
"I've always been into my contact sports. And I love that we can train our whole body whilst we're doing the sport. Not only that but whenever I am training, there's a real camaraderie between everyone who does train," Chris told Qatar365.
It’s not really a fight club, but more like a fight community. The participants here range in age and skill, but all share a common love for the sport of mixed martial arts.
Saeed Kosar is the Managing Director at UFC Gym Qatar. He has lived in Qatar for more than two decades. While he grew up playing another sport in Canada and didn't even know what MMA was a few years ago, he’s fallen in love with the art form.
"I'm a huge fan now. I got a lot of respect for the guys," he explained. "I started doing jiu-jitsu and MMA as well. It's a completely different sport than from what I grew up playing, which was basketball professionally. It's just learning new skill sets. Getting instructions again from a coach, making mistakes and trying to improve and make them better."
Martial arts have skyrocketed in recent years, and more combatants have entered the crowded cage.
Donn Davis is the founder and chair of the Professional Fighters League (PFL). He came to Qatar to discuss the PFL’s expansion plans in the region and had fighting words for his competition.
"Francis Ngannou - the number one fighter in the world - left UFC to join PFL. Jake Paul - the superstar influencer - came to PFL. Why did these two top fighters come? Fighter-first league. Fighters are in control. Regular season, playoff and championship," Davis said.
"At the PFL, you win and advance. You lose and go home. It’s not like [the] UFC or anything else in combat sports. The promoter doesn’t decide anything in the PFL. The athlete does," he added.
What does it take to become a UFC champion?
He’s one of the best pound-for-pound fighters on the planet. Islam Makhachev is often described as ‘the next Khabib’ in reference to his mentor, Khabib Nurmagomedov, arguably one of the greatest UFC fighters in history.
Fighters and coaches in Qatar recently had the rare opportunity to learn takedown techniques from Makhachev, as he led a masterclass on mixed martial arts. In his opinion, the raw and brutal nature of the sport might explain its growth in popularity in the region.
"Everybody loves fighting [...] You know, this is [a] real fight. You don't wear big gloves, you just wear small gloves, shorts, and go to the cage. And you have you and your opponent."
"This is my dream to be UFC champion, to be UFC best fighter in the world, you know. This is my dream," Makhachev revealed.
Like Khabib, Islam Makhachev is a proud Muslim and Dagestani fighter. He told Qatar365 that his faith is at the forefront of his mind during his fights.
"This [faith] is the most important thing, not just for me, for all Muslims. When I step to the cage, nothing helps me: not training, not my corners, not my sparring partners, just God."
"You know why Dagestan [has] many champions? Because iron sharpens iron. That’s why we have many champions. I trained all my life with Khabib [Nurmagomedov], and he helped me a lot."
Makhachev told Qatar365 that young fighters who hope to excel in the sport must be willing to put in the hard yards.
"Many people want to be champion, but not many people want to wake up early morning, training hard. [It] doesn't matter if it's MMA or other sports. You just have to be focused, training every day."
Training the body and mind with Taekwondo
From a relatively modern style of combat to the ancient martial arts. Taekwondo can be traced back nearly 2,000 years.
Originating from Korea, Taekwondo, which literally translates to the art of kicking and punching, has now become a popular international sport. It's all about self-defence, but that doesn’t mean the kicks don’t pack a punch.
At Kim’s Xtreme Taekwondo in Doha, students of the sport are learning under the guidance of master Sungjin Kim.
They’re young and some are small in stature, but try to hurt them, and these Taekwondo students will be quick to defend themselves.
Kim’s students include children as young as four years old to adults in their 50s or 60s. Among them is 10-year-old James Kim, who first started Taekwondo because of his younger brother, but has now found a love for the sport.
"It’s fun, it’s challenging and it makes my body very active," he revealed.
17-year-old Suhani Sabu has been practicing Taekwondo for five years and has also seen some benefits.
"It is a stress buster for me because school exams and assignments were really stressful and coming here would just help me feel calm and feel light."
Calm and light aren’t how one would describe some of the skills though. In fact, the moves are fast, strong and accurate.
In Taekwondo, mastering the mind is as important as beefing up the body. Concentration and physical conditioning help combatants overcome what seemed impossible to do before.
"It's mind control," Sungjin Kim told Qatar365. "To tell you the meaning of Taekwondo. ‘Tae’ means feet, ‘kwon’ means fists and ‘do’ means mental. So, Taekwondo means to [combine] physical and mental training.
This mentality can be applied to everyday life too. For black-bet Hammam Haddad, taekwondo taught him how to be disciplined and focused.
"I wasn't caring for anything in my life, to be honest. But when practising Taekwondo [...] we are learning, we are focusing on every single detail. And with more practice and more time, it becomes like something in your daily routine or habit. Taekwondo is a way of life."
Hammam has achieved the highest belt rank in Taekwondo and is working on a teacher certification. He’s a role model for other students in the room.
With students like James, Hammam and Suhani keeping the ancient martial arts alive, the future of Taekwondo as an international sport is looking stronger than ever.