Saudi Arabia's Hattan Al Saif wants to be 'the greatest' after finding true calling in MMA

First Saudi female to sign with lead promotion talks candidly about her battles with depression and how she is determined to make a name for herself in PFL

Powered by automated translation

On first impression, Hattan Al Saif does not strike you as a majorly talented mixed martial artist.

The diminutive Saudi Arabian with the huge smile, cropped hair and modish attire, speaks with a childlike enthusiasm for what has become her vocation. Her words are wonderfully expressive, the sentiment sincere.

So you’d never guess, initially at least, that Al Saif is a gold medallist from the International Federation of Muay Thai Associations World Championships, where last year she was named its “Breakthrough Female Athlete”.

Aged 22, she has claimed gold, too, at both the World Combat Games and the Saudi Games. And having transitioned to MMA, last month she signed with the Professional Fighters League (PFL), making Al Saif the first Saudi female to be taken on by a global MMA promotion.

Not that, upon meeting her, that’s particularly obvious.

“Yeah, yeah, I'm a whole different person outside of the cage,” Al Saif tells The National. “I'm the loveliest and the cutest and the nicest person you can ever meet.

“But we come to the cage, then no, I'm not the cutest and not the loveliest at all.”

Having taken up Muay Thai in 2021, Al Saif concedes the conflicting characters even took her a while to get used to. In fact, it still surprises.

“Literally, it does,” she laughs. “In my first competition in the World Muay Thai Championships, after my fight I went out of the ring, and I started talking to my coach.

“I was like, ‘Whoa, I felt something weird. I felt there was someone else who was fighting and having a big, big, big aggressive feeling and big anger feelings’.

“I felt like there was someone inside me that doesn't just want to fight but that would literally eat her opponent. I’ve never felt like this except in the ring.

“Outside, this feeling disappears. I start thinking about ice cream and some nail polish.”

Al Saif doesn’t mind trading make-up for MMA, though. The PFL contract provides a pathway to the professional game, and the chance to showcase her skills on a much grander stage.

In April, Al Saif will make her amateur debut in PFL Mena, the promotion’s new regional league made possible in part by an agreement announced last August with SRJ Sports Investments, an entity owned by the Public Investment Fund.

“It's a dream come true,” Al Saif says of joining the PFL. “To be honest, I never expected signing with a big company like PFL. It was something that I wished to do, but I always believed it's going to be hard for me.

“I thought I will have to show myself more and more in mixed martial arts so they can find me and take me. But, thank God, PFL came here and they were searching for the best in Saudi Arabia. They just found us, and I found my dream.”

Despite the PFL’s commitment to the kingdom, Al Saif concedes Saudi MMA is still very much in its infancy. Indeed, so much so, that she struggles to find women to train with, so must continually hone her skills in the gym with men.

Based in Riyadh, Al Saif is part of Fight Club KSA, which includes Abdullah Al Qahtani, a compatriot and colleague who joined the PFL last year. Since then, Al Qahtani has gone 3-0 in the promotion, his most recent victory coming on Saturday night, at “PFL Champions vs Bellator Champions” in Riyadh.

Al Saif, who could be found cageside at Kingdom Arena, screaming loudest, describes Al Qahtani as “so awesome”; indeed, it was he who helped her really begin her journey in combat sports.

While scrolling Instagram “like any other day”, Al Saif’s interest was piqued when she came across posts of Al Qahtani in action.

Ever more curious, she messaged the fighter directly, then peppered him with questions, all of which he took the time to answer. Eventually, Al Qahtani invited Al Saif to try out the gym for free.

From then, she was hooked.

“I went there and it's like love at first sight,” Al Saif says. “From the moment I stepped through that gym door, I felt like I'm in a whole other world.

“From the air, from the smell of the place, from the energy in there, I was like, ‘Whoa, I want to stay in this place’.”

Al Saif has certainly found her calling. You can hear it in her voice. However, the passion with which she converses betrays an incredibly tough life lived to this point.

When she was only 10, Al Saif lost both her parents within a 10-month period, needing then to be raised by her grandmother. She has since struggled with depression, and even harmed herself.

It has no doubt shaped Al Saif in some way – how could it not? – but, to her credit, she will not let it define her.

“I don't really count on my past for my attitude or my behaviour,” she says. “I always count on my future. I always tell myself that now I'm fighting not because of my past; no, now I'm fighting because of my future, because I want to have that greatest future.

“I want to be the greatest. Everyone is going to speak about me, everyone is going to know me. I always accept what God gave me, so I'm not mad or sad about what's happened to me in the past.

“No, I'm so, so happy for what happened to me, even if it hurts, even if it wasn't fair, because this is what God gave me because God knows that I was strong enough to go through all these things so I can reach the greatest place.”

Remarkably candid, Al Saif doesn’t shy from discussing her troubles. Rather, she wants to use the experience to inspire.

“Even before I started martial arts or combat sport, I always wished that one day I'm going to be a person who can show and help and guide other people who are in a very bad situation, or going through depression or whatever,” she says.

“I always wished to be a known person so I can share my journey and share my thoughts, so I can help others.”

Al Saif attributes her ability to deal with depression first and foremost to her faith. Yet combat sports has offered significant solace, too. By extension, MMA does now.

“I see MMA as the place where I can feel free,” she says. “Where I can show whatever I have.”

And that, it appears, is a lot. For sure, Al Saif is enlivened by what lies ahead with the PFL. She could barely contain her excitement last week, when despite not competing at Saudi’s inaugural PFL event, Al Saif laid out her clothes for the week in advance, filling her living room with outfits, shoes and accessories.

That feels more in tune with the young woman chatting now. Well, for a moment.

“Hurting people is my joy moments,” Al Saif says. “I would never be sad or scared of it. I'm in that cage to do whatever it takes just to take the victory.

“So I would never think about [my opponent] thinking about me, or that, ‘Oh my God, I might get hurt’.

“Sometimes the taste of pain feels delicious. You can go to the hospital with a big smile; you got the victory, so it's going to feel awesome."

It is an outlook, however unexpected, that could carry Al Saif far in MMA, that may make her a household name within the sport, provide her that platform to help others – all like she dreamt.

Asked what she will bring to MMA, Al Saif replies with characteristic gusto: “I am quite sure I will show the greatest style in that cage. Everyone is going to be amazed by my style, the way I move, by the way I hit, by my energy. Everyone is going to love watching me compete – I'm quite sure.

“I don't really have a specific thing that I can tell. But we can say I'm the athlete that’s always hitting and smiling in your face.”

Updated: February 29, 2024, 8:53 AM