Mohammed Yahya ready for historic debut at UFC 294: My dream came into reality

Emirati primed for battle against Trevor Peek in front of his home fans in Abu Dhabi

Mohammed Yahya to make history as first Emirati to fight in UFC

Mohammed Yahya to make history as first Emirati to fight in UFC
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Even back when he was barely a teenager, when he first fell in love with mixed martial arts on TV, when he would have “pretend UFC fights” with his brother, and when his older sibling and cousins would tease him for not exactly having the physique for the world’s leading MMA promotion, Mohammed Yahya knew he’d prove them wrong.

And 15 years or so later, he has.

“I always believed I would be in the UFC,” Yahya tells The National at TK MMA Fit gym in Media City, Dubai, days after signing a history-making first contract with the sport’s No 1 company. “Everyone’s like, ‘Why don’t you seem so happy?’ It’s not that. I knew this was coming; I knew the moment was going to come.

“I remember telling my cousins and my brother once when we were all sitting around and they were laughing at me, grabbing my stomach saying, ‘Oh yeah, you’ve got a long way to go’. Obviously now they’re my biggest supporters.”

They're not the only ones. Indeed, Yahya will surely have many more come October 21 at Etihad Arena, where he debuts on UFC 294, in front of his own people, in Abu Dhabi.

Not only is he making his UFC bow, but a huge slice of history, too. When he steps into the octagon against American Trevor Peek, Yahya will become the first Emirati to compete in the promotion.

“I'm very proud,” he says. “Obviously this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, everything I worked for since I was a little kid. The reason I started fighting in my career is watching the UFC on TV and wanting to train and become a UFC fighter. That was the main goal.

“And now my dream came into reality – and I'm ready.”

Ready, also, to act as an inspiration for the burgeoning MMA scene in the UAE and throughout the region.

“This is crazy for the Emiratis,” Yahya says. “There is already a lot of young talent messaging me saying they are so proud of me. It's really inspiring for me just to know that, when I was one of these kids up and coming, there was no one [from the UAE] in UFC. So it was really hard for me to be like, ‘Oh, one day I'm going to be in the UFC’.

“But now they're telling me they see they have the one of their own people. But not just only Emiratis, but for the whole Gulf, the whole Arab region. I'm going to be the first fighter from the whole Gulf to be in the UFC. I'm representing it all.”

Yahya, 29, tried unsuccessfully to get signed for UFC 280 in Abu Dhabi last year, but when he saw the announcement poster in March for UFC 294, he snapped the image and sent it to Tam Khan, his manager and founder of TK MMA Fit.

Yahya then spent the whole of Ramadan praying for the opportunity to materialise and, thanks in large part to Khan, the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi, and a few willing others, he is finally here.

If participating in the UFC was a long-held ambition he was certain would be fulfilled, the attention since has been unexpected.

“A lot on Instagram,” Yahya says. “Lot of friends and followers. If you see the comments, they’re all ‘well deserved’ or ‘you worked really hard for this’.

“Because most of them saw where I started, fall off and got back up, became champion [in Abu Dhabi-based promotion UAE Warriors]. It’s been a long journey.”

It could be difficult to take that in stride. Yahya, though, appears to be coping just fine.

“Obviously I’m really happy, but I’m not letting it get to me right now,” he says. “I’ve seen fighters who made it to UFC and got caught up in the hype.

“But it’s part of the game. I’ve known my whole life where I need to be and what goal I need to be on, so I’m focused 100 per cent. Nothing is going to distract me.”

Not even the calibre of the card. UFC 294 brings another stellar line-up to Abu Dhabi, with lightweight champion Islam Makhachev defending his crown against Charles Oliveira, the man from whom he took the title spectacularly in the capital last October.

Second to that, the unbeaten Khamzat Chimaev, one of the UFC’s shiniest stars, faces former middleweight title-challenger Paulo Costa. Chimaev, in Dubai training with Team Khan, is competing for the first time in 13 months.

“I feel privileged to be fighting on the biggest card of the year; they always keep Abu Dhabi as the most stacked card,” Yahya says. “Oliveira and Islam, they’re the superstars of the UFC.

“Who has more fights [36 in UFC] and finishes [20] than Oliveira? Everyone loves to watch him. Plus, Islam is pound-for-pound one of the best fighters in the world.

“Then you have my training partner, also joining our team, Khamzat Chimaev, the most talked-about fighter. Come on, who doesn’t like to see him handle business? The whole world … he’s the new [Conor] McGregor basically. Who’s bringing more attention than him?

“And I get to follow in his footsteps, in his training. Yesterday, he invited me to join the [UFC pre-fight docuseries] ‘Embedded,’ so it’s such a privilege already.

“I have the best fighters with me, following the right footsteps. So I’m destined to be where I need to be.”

For a while, to Yahya at least, it’s felt that way. Born in Oxford, England, to an Emirati father and English mother, he moved to Dubai when he was one and eventually got hooked on MMA aged 14, thanks in large part to Jon Jones’ spinning elbows.

Since I was a kid, I promised myself I’ll do it. And I’m on the way
Mohammed Yahya

At the time, MMA gyms in the emirate were scarce, so Yahya competed in jiu-jitsu and kick-boxing, climbing to 22-0 in the latter.

He debuted in amateur MMA in 2012, from there joined regional promotion Desert Force, before a two-fight stint in Bellator and, in 2019, a move to UAE Warriors.

There, Yahya won seven of eight bouts, becoming its lightweight Arabian champion and successfully defending the title three times. The most recent win arrived in February, lifting his professional record to 12-3. He rides a five-fight win streak.

In contrast, however, Peek has fought twice already in the UFC – both this year – winning one and losing the other. He sits 8-1 as a pro.

“I'm not saying it's going to be easy; it’s a tough opponent,” Yahya says. “But I'm used to going five, five-minute rounds so three, five-minute rounds is not difficult.

“And it's in my hometown, my arena. I’ve fought there four times already with UAE Warriors, defended my belt there three times. It's going to feel like home.”

Yet, admittedly, that can bring its own burden.

“I’ve never fought for that type of crowd,” Yahya concedes. “But I feel like I'm ready, ready for the storm.

“The thing is, with pressure, the way I handle it, sometimes I’m too calm, which is not good. I learnt I can’t be. I need the fire; I need the nerves. Sometimes I’m not nervous, I’m scared.

“I’ve experienced a lot on the way up: wins, losses. From my losses, I learnt what more I need to be, how I need to be. And now I think it’s the best time for me to be in the UFC – because there’s no more losing for me.”

If Yahya sounds supremely confident, he ascribes that to his work ethic. His dedication has taken him this summer to Thailand to hone his skill set, part of a seven-month training camp in all, getting primed for comfortably the most significant moment of his career thus far.

“I never really go on holiday, never do anything,” Yahya says. “I’m always on my craft. Everyone’s like, ‘What’s wrong with you? Go and enjoy yourself’. Even my mum, my dad.

“But they’ll realise one day. I just want to do what I need to do. Since I was a kid, I promised myself I’ll do it. And I’m on the way.”

Yahya has visualised the walkout at UFC 294, the capacity crowd at Etihad Arena – the event sold out within days, much to his friends’ annoyance – defeating Peek in such fashion that UFC president Dana White can only book him another fight. Even his moment on the mic afterwards.

Making his bow at lightweight, Yahya sees his future a division below at featherweight, where he vows to showcase his deadeye striking.

“I think it’s one of the best in the world right now,” he says. "I can talk a lot, but I will prove it.”

Clearly, October 21 cannot come soon enough.

“I promise it’s not going to be a boring fight,” Yahya says. “I have a really good dancing partner; he’s going to come to bang.

“Hopefully it’s Fight of the Night. I know it's hard, and I'm not there just to be in the UFC one time. So let’s put on a show and be Dana’s favourite.”

Updated: September 13, 2023, 2:41 AM