MMA champion Dakota Ditcheva hopes move to Dubai can spur global success

English mixed martial artist, who won PFL's European crown in Dublin, has relocated to UAE

PFL European flyweight champion Dakota Ditcheva has relocated to Dubai. Getty Images
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A self-confessed sun lover, Dakota Ditcheva didn’t exactly get the welcome she expected on her move to Dubai last month.

“It was a little bit of a shock,” the English mixed martial artist says of the inclement conditions that greeted her. “Well, I say a bit of a shock, but I'm from Manchester, so I’m used to the rain.

“Although, I didn't think I'd ever come here and see it. But it was a good experience anyway … for one day. That was enough.”

Fortunately, Ditcheva had already sampled Dubai before making the major decision to relocate there. She came out for the first time in January, following a few friends who have trodden the path before her, and “fell in love straight away”.

“Now I don't want to leave,” Ditcheva tells The National, sitting in a hotel coffee shop in Dubai Marina. “We've managed to sort out my visa, which is amazing; I feel very honoured to get the visa I did.

“So, yeah, everything's all good. Get to live in the sun and do some good training over here and meet a lot of new people. The opportunity is to just better yourself all around.”

Dubai, though, is not only for the immediate future.

“One of the main things for me is that I love fighting, but I'm not going to be able to fight for ever and I want to have that place where I can settle in the future,” Ditcheva says.

“Maybe open my own gym or plans for business and even a family – and I'd love to bring a family up here. So different factors have come together for this.

“Just training outdoors is a big thing for me. I feel like the happier you are in the morning with the sunshine, the easier it is to get on with your training. Sometimes I feel a little bit spoiled, but why not?”

It helps that Ditcheva has recently joined Paradigm Sports, the well-established sports business and media company that has had a Dubai base since 2020.

“We've got big plans already and we've only just started working together,” Ditcheva says. “Even their connections over here and the different things we've got to work on here is an amazing opportunity that I didn't even think I could get. I'm excited.”

With that in mind, and unlike the brief bout of precipitation she touched down to last month, the forecast for Ditcheva’s future is rather bright.

Aged 25, she reigns as the Professional Fighters League Europe flyweight champion having won the belt in Dublin in December. As such, Ditcheva boasts a flawless professional MMA record, with 10 wins from 10. Eight of those have come by knockout, another via submission.

Still, Ditcheva downplays her route to the present. Simply because of the promise of what is to come.

“I don't feel like I am a champion yet, in all honesty,” she says. “No, I feel like the European is a big thing for me to achieve, but I'm not satisfied with that.

“There's still girls out there that are better than me that I haven't beat yet. Until I've done that and I'm at the top, No 1 in the world, then I'm not a champion just yet.”

It’s opportune, then, that in less than two weeks Ditcheva embarks on her first PFL Regular Season campaign. The tournament offers the chance to progress to their play-offs and walk away not only as a world champion, but with $1 million in prize money.

Ditcheva begins the promotion’s inaugural flyweight season against American Lisa Mauldin at PFL San Antonio on April 4. Bellator champion Liz Carmouche and former UFC title challenger Taila Santos are also on the 2024 roster.

“I’m definitely at the right stage in this tournament now to be tested,” Ditcheva says. “I am always proud of my European title, but I feel I'm working my way to the top now.

“My goal this year is to come out world champion and I'm sure I'll do that, but I'm just excited for the high level of competition.

“I feel like some people get a little bit, ‘Will she be able to deal with the tougher competition?’. But the tougher the competition, the more motivated you are. So having these girls in the tournament now come from Bellator, who are quite experienced on the big stage, I’m excited I'm going to be able to get in and have a good fight and showcase the skills even more.”

That Ditcheva believes she’s still viewed as something of an unknown, that perhaps she remains underestimated despite the PFL Europe success, lights a fire under her anyway.

“Definitely, 100 per cent,” she says. “That's probably what comes out in the cage. I always have a point to prove when I get in. I suppose all those people who doubt me a little bit make me come out fighting even more.

“I definitely feel I'm still a bit of a surprise. I think I always will be. We talk about this all the time with my family: people always seem to say, no matter who I fight, that my competition's not good enough or I’m just smoking through them all.

“But they don’t realise these girls fight each other, and they don't smoke through each other. It's just me. People don't seem to want to give me that bit of credit yet, which is fine. That keeps me humble as well.

“I'll just keep silently proving that I can keep doing this to all the girls and I'll be happy to do that. I don't need anyone shouting about me. I'll just do that in the cage.

“I mean, my finishes speak for themselves; that European tournament, I stopped all of them.”

Even given the rocketing record, and the soaring profile on social media – she has more than 126,000 followers on Instagram alone – Ditcheva maintains a mature head on still-young shoulders.

For that, she says, she has her family to thank; they play a pivotal role in her career. Her mother, Lisa Howarth, is a multiple-time world kickboxing champion, who introduced Ditcheva to combat sports at the earliest opportunity.

Remarkably, she had her first fight aged four, before her mother decided to pull her back from the sport. Instead, Ditcheva focused on gymnastics, football, netball and basketball until she was around 12 or 13, when she opted to return to her original passion.

She went on to represent Great Britain with distinction in Muay Thai, capturing gold at the 2016 International Federation of Muay Thai Associations World Championships.

“I came back to [combat sports] myself and then mum didn't have a choice,” Ditcheva says. “Then I just took off straight away and I was just fighting and fighting. And I've ended up here now.”

Irrespective of her mum’s reluctance some time ago, Ditcheva describes her as “the face behind it all”. Also, quite handily, combat sport is clearly in the genes.

“Yeah, I feel like I've got a bit of a cheat code there,” Ditcheva laughs.

The familial support network extends to her brothers: Ditcheva’s older sibling does the pad work during camp and is a reassuring presence in her corner on fight night. Her younger brother plays his part, too, even if he “just loves tagging along for the ride”.

With the PFL Europe title triumph coming a few weeks before Christmas – Ditcheva’s grandmother, 88, was in attendance for the first time, and spent the night singing, dancing and celebrating – the accompanying $100,000 winner’s cheque was conveniently timed.

Apparently, her brothers had spent the money, figuratively, before the bout. Ditcheva, not so. Even now.

“I've actually saved a lot of it,” she says. “We want to get into property, so we've been really sensible with it. But [my brothers] got a few presents. One of them got a Dyson hair dryer that he wanted for his curly hair or something. The other got shoes.

“Slowly they're pulling things out of me, but I couldn't do it without them, really. I'm happy to share everything.”

That includes the PFL Europe belt.

“It’s at home,” Ditcheva says. “I said I would leave it for my mum and dad. They've sacrificed as much as I have in this sport to give me these dreams. I always said that my first belt was going to go with them, and it's staying at home.

“After a few days, I was a little bit like, ‘Right, that's it. Now forget that belt, on to the next thing’. But everyone's still asking to see it and wants a photo with it.

“My family came around for Christmas Day. I was actually ill, but when I got up in the morning the next day, everyone was sending me photos. They'd all been taking pictures with it. They're all still buzzing about it, whereas I'm focused on the next thing now.”

And that's PFL Global. To prepare for this next phase in her career, Ditcheva has travelled to Florida, not to chase the sun, but to develop her already-impressive skill set.

There, she trains at the renowned American Top Team, the stable that has produced a succession of pro MMA champions. The role of honour includes Joanna Jedrzejczyk, Tyrone Woodley, Glover Teixeira, Johnny Eblen, current UFC flyweight title-holder Alexandre Pantoja and Kayla Harrison.

A two-time Olympic gold medallist who next month debuts in the UFC, Harrison has also twice been crowned PFL world champion. She is therefore a more-than-decent sounding board at ATT.

“She's done the PFL tournament so many times now and she's had such amazing success,” Ditcheva says. “To have someone like that around me in the gym that's gone through the same path is amazing.

“I've trained with her on the mat, and she always gives me little tips and techniques. If I can just follow what she was doing, then I'll be happy.”

Significant delight, too, would come in making a statement this year across the Atlantic.

“I will, 100 per cent. Because I know in myself what I'm going to do, that this is my time now and I've got to take it,” Ditcheva says. “Same last year; I had to take that role in the Europe tournament, and I'll have to do that this time. We want to keep going in the direction I'm going.”

Success in the US and then back, presumably, to what will become her home in Dubai. Hope, next time, the weather plays ball.

“I'll be here as much as I can,” Ditcheva says, although granted, that’s before she experiences a UAE summer. “It gets pretty toasty, doesn’t it? I've been warned.

“But I love the hot weather. So I can't complain too much, can I?”

Updated: March 27, 2024, 1:07 PM