Ladies who punch

The participants at Dubai's first women-only mixed martial arts class aim to be fighting fit.

Petite, pretty and softly spoken, with flawless skin and perfectly coiffed hair, the participants of Dubai's first women's mixed martial arts (MMA) class were not exactly in keeping with the traditional image of female fighters, with not a cornrow braid or tattoo in sight. And yet on the matted mezzanine floor of a Sheikh Zayed Road apartment block earlier this month, the aforementioned women punched, kicked and "grounded-and-pounded" their way through the first ladies-only session in true fighting style.
Driven by a desire to release aggression, burn calories and build strength in the company of like-minded women, Fatima Rabbani, 27, from Afghanistan, arrived at the TSG Dubai MMA Academy fresh-faced and determined to make it through the instructor Tam Khan's intense cardiovascular workout. Khan, an experienced 27-year-old professional MMA fighter from the UK, has pioneered the development of the sport in Dubai since 2008, setting up the UAE branch of TSG (Team Sure Grip) MMA Academy at the World Black Belt Centre on Sheikh Zayed Road.
TSG, which is affiliated with the legendary Royce Gracie fight school, also has branches in London and Italy, and caters to fighters wanting to compete professionally in MMA, boxing, K1 and Muay Thai, as well as for those wishing to improve their fitness and conditioning or learn basic self-defence. But while martial arts, particularly kick-boxing, has become big business in the women's fitness industry in recent years, until now the testosterone-charged, tough-guy image of MMA has made all but a handful of women in Dubai nervous about rocking up to a class.
Instead, most women opt for private classes with Khan, which makes it difficult for them to put what they learn into practice. "It is hard for them to practice certain moves, particularly the grappling floor moves, with a member of the opposite sex," Khan explained. "A ladies-only class is an arena they feel more confident in. I can teach in a private lesson, but they don't get to do the practice.
"Eventually, I would like to train a female instructor." Rabbani, who exercises regularly, had decided to attend the first class after watching one of the MMA classes from the sidelines. "I had watched Tam at his MMA class. One of my friends comes to his class and I saw how good the cardiovascular training was - how hard," she said. "I go to the gym and do Body Pump weight classes, Pilates and yoga, but this is obviously something very different. I knew he was a little tough, but that was part of the appeal. Many people have trainers who don't push them hard enough. I knew he would push me.
"It was just important that I could attend a women-only session." MMA is a full-contact multi-discipline sport that uses a range of martial arts, including Muay Thai, boxing, ju-jitsu, wrestling and judo. While there are professional female MMA fighters around the world, and Khan predicts there will eventually be female fighters in Dubai, he is emphatic that the focus of this ladies' class is on conditioning and fitness, not contact.
So there will be no hitting each other in the face, then? "No, not at all," he said. "I don't want to scare people off. "MMA has that hard image. Maybe we can produce the first female MMA fighter in Dubai but that is not what this class is about. You cannot beat an MMA workout. It works almost every muscle group - your core, legs, hips, arms, parts of the body you never knew existed." Rabbani has many Emirati friends who also wanted to make the first class but were unable to because of social commitments. They will, she insisted, attend the next class.
Her family are fully supportive of her participation. "My father's first question was if it would be all ladies," she said. "When I said it would he was fine about it. After all, it is good for my safety, to know how to defend myself." The class began gently enough, with participants running around the perimeter of the hall touching the floor with their hands as instructed by Khan. But the tempo soon changed, as did the sweat-to-smile ratio, as he took the women through an unforgiving series of knee-up jumps, squats, push-ups, sit-ups, sprawls and burpees.
From there it was on to the focus mitts. The women paired up and Khan took them through a series of basic punch combinations incorporating combinations with straight-out flurries to increase the heart rate. Then came the kick shields for some basic leg work - rib and lower-leg kicks that increased in speed and intensity as the rounds wore on. After that it was on to basic grappling and knees - something that Khan pointed out could come in handy as a self-defence ploy to fend off male attackers.
The women took it in turns to hold a kick shield while their partner gripped them around the neck and pulled them forward to make contact with the knee. It was tiring but in no way harmful. Finally, it was on to "ground-and-pound" practice - a tactic that involves taking an opponent to the ground using a takedown or throw, and then when in a dominant position striking the opponent with the fists and elbows.
Today though, it happened minus the throwdown and the women protected their upper bodies with a large kick shield while their partner let out their aggression on the pad. Embarrassed giggles soon gave way to an unleashing of energy as the women poured what was left of their power reserves into the pads. Then it was back to running, sit-ups, push-ups and some Pilates moves to build core strength before stretching.
At the end, Nadine Ahmed, a 15-year-old student from Yemen, was tired but happy. "I was expecting it to be really tough, but I actually found it really entertaining too," she said. Ahmed's brother, a fighter and instructor who trains at TSG, had encouraged her to try the class when she expressed her interest in trying something new and getting fit. "It is a good way to start exercising," she said.
"I was tired but I am OK now. I am going to come again." The social aspect of the class, she said, was as important as the physical element. "I wanted to do something that involved being in a group, something that could make you stronger and empower you. It can also help with self-defence." For those who like the sound of the calorie-burning (Khan claims it is possible to burn as much as 1,000 calories in an MMA class) but are less interested in the pad work, TSG is also in the final stages of agreeing to an MMA boot camp in conjunction with Fitness O2.
It is yet another avenue for women and men to gain the body, but not the bruises, of a fighter. "This whole movement is about promoting the fitness side of MMA and making it accessible to everyone," Khan said. "It is about pure conditioning so you get the workouts that champions and MMA fighters such as myself use to get in shape before a fight." The boot camp is likely to launch while the mixed martial arts champion Royce Gracie is in Dubai for a workshop at the Black Belt Centre on Friday, January 29.
@Email:loatway@thenational.ae For more information, visit www.mmadubai.ae.

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