Hop through Dubai’s TV sports channels and you’ll quickly stumble across a show featuring red-faced (occasionally bloody) gents choking the life out of each other. For the uninitiated, you’ll almost certainly be watching Ultimate Fighting Championship, the best-known competition of a fighting style called Mixed Martial Arts. Combining freestyle wrestling, judo, ju-jitsu and Brazilian ju-jitsu, it’s a largely regulation-free fighting sport, that offers its growing legions of fans a more bloody, violent spectacle than the likes of boxing and karate.
But while the sport has enjoyed great success on TV locally, its UAE fans haven’t had the opportunity to learn how to fight MMA-style – until now, at least. ‘I was fascinated by the idea of a sport with no rules, where the toughest survive,’ explains MMA trainer Tam Khan, who started teaching here in Dubai just last week. ‘MMA is the most effective style of fighting today; it comes very naturally.
Everything is just like a real situation of someone grabbing you – how to throw, how to get out of trouble.’ It seems Khan [inset, about to strike], a Brit who has been trainer for some of the UFC’s finest competitors, including Ian ‘The Machine’ Freeman (British light heavyweight champ) arrived at just the right time. Sheer word of mouth meant his first group class was packed with people looking to train and others who were just there to check it out. ‘I’ve also had six or seven people calling up daily because they want personal one-on-one training. We’ve got people coming from Abu Dhabi and Sharjah to try it.’
Originally from a boxing background, Khan was attracted by the freedom that the sport offers. ‘This is a very open form of martial arts. It’s for anyone who’s ready to train in every style, respect every form and put what they learn into one’. He also explains that the style emerged from athletes wanting to pit different martial arts against each other.
‘In the old MMA days, you would get specialists fighting specialists from other disciplines – karate versus jujitsu versus boxing, for example. Now you get what we call cross training, and that’s what we teach here.’
MMA brings together all of these disciplines and, according to Khan, compounds them into something more relevant to a street situation. ‘You’ll get a karate guy who’s been training for 10 years and, in my opinion, his style is just not as effective in a street situation. This is a very natural form’.
Professionals tend to train for six hours a day and concentrate on a wide range of styles, but Khan’s classes follow a slightly more fluid system. ‘Plenty of stretching, fitness drills covering every muscle, a lot of padwork, boxing, wrestling moves, breaking your fall, takedown defences, ground fighting and a basic straight workout of a fight. You’ll work muscle groups you never thought existed.’
But amid all this talk of new muscle groups the question remains, is this going to hurt? ‘People think that because I’m a professional fighter, that training is going to be very boot camp-ish, but it’s not. I’m going to be showing techniques throughout and the workout itself, cardio-wise, is amazing. Back in the UK we get people in from all different age groups, different sizes.’
Khan insists that the style was developed to try to overcome difference in size between competitors. ‘It’s more of a conditioning fight. You can lose from a toehold. Size doesn’t count with this and that’s what I like about it – a 57kg guy can beat someone twice his weight. That’s what the Gracies [the Brazilian brothers who founded MMA] tried to do with it.’
You’ll work muscle groups you never thought existed
Khan talks inspiringly about the sport and even mentions at one point that he has hopes to promote the first MMA fighter from the Middle East. But when we ask about the rules of this so-called rule-less sport, he fires off a list of no nos that wouldn’t be out of place as a to-do list in a torture chamber: ‘No eye gouging, no biting, there’s no finger locks and no pinching. If a guy is on the floor you can’t stamp on their heads. You can’t pull hair, you can’t punch the groin, you can’t do any pile driver moves.’ He says that the no-rule idea was a clever marketing ploy when the sport first started out.
Rules are still pretty minimal and this accounts for some of the seemingly incoherent, grappling madness that you see on TV. Nontheless, ‘It’s been found that MMA is generally safer than boxing, injury-wise’ says Khan. ‘In MMA once you’re down and knocked out the referee will stop the fight. But in boxing, you go down for eight counts and then you stand up and take a repeat punishment to the head.’
Fear not. Any sort of repeat head punishment is only for the very advanced. Tam Khan’s classes are accessible, safe and one of the most all-round demanding workouts you could hope to achieve.
The Blackbelt Centre, Sheikh Zayed Road, nr. Mazaya Centre. Call 050 104 5008 to arrange a place. Wed and Sat, 8.30pm-10pm. www.mma.ae