New UAE-based MMA reality series Al Batal pits Arab fighters against each other. Jenny Hewett meets creator Randall Yogachandra to get the lowdown from the ring.
Whether you love it or loathe it, reality TV has reinvented itself in recent years: it now influences everything from our daily conversations to our fashion, food and brand choices. And it’s come a long way since MTV pioneer The Real World or airy-fairy family fame-tracker Keeping Up With the Kardashians.
These days, US shows such as the UFC’s Ultimate Fighter and pop showcase The X Factor have seen the genre find a voice in almost every facet of life. Last week UAE audiences were treated to their own little slice of locally produced reality TV when all-Arab MMA series Al Batal aired for the first time on FX.
‘We came up with the concept of a locally produced TV show that would promote Arab fighters and develop a stronghold in MMA in this region,’ says Randall Yogachandra, the chief operations officer of MMA organisation iSee Entertainment and Events. Together with Fox International Channels, his production team set about coordinating the 13-episode series, which features 14 Arab fighters in the 77kg welterweight division from countries including Jordan, Tunisia, Lebanon, Morocco, Syria and Iraq.
‘The idea is that these guys get a chance to fight for the Welterweight Championship belt against Emirati champ Ali Ahli,’ says Yogachandra. ‘We wanted to create a platform for these Arab fighters to be able to showcase their skills to the rest of the MMA world.’
From more than 200 auditions, the production team had to whittle it down to just 14 fighters. ‘We were looking for guys that had at least two different specialities, whether boxing, wrestling or jujitsu, then we interviewed them on camera to see how their personality came out,’ he says. Those chosen for the show get a salary for each fight in which they compete, with the winner taking home a grand prize of Dhs75,000, plus a three-fight contract with ADSC, the leading MMA organisation in the region.
Living together in close quarters in Abu Dhabi, Yogachandra says the contestants were tested both mentally and physically. ‘We developed a compound in the desert where the fighters live and interact with only themselves,’ he explains. ‘There’s a lot of conflict between the fighters – they are very territorial.’ The fighters also participated in challenges. ‘We had a challenge in Ski Dubai: some of these guys have never seen snow before.’
Though Al Batal is similar to the US’s Ultimate Fighter, Yogachandra says during filming he spotted one big difference. ‘Even though there’s drama in the show, there is also plenty of camaraderie between the fighters in this region,’ he says proudly. Al Batal airs in Arabic with English subtitles every Wednesday at 11pm on FX.