New fighters come into contention

The region's first gym dedicated wholly to mixed martial arts is expected to see a boost in the popularity of the fast-growing sport.

DUBAI // The region's first gym dedicated wholly to mixed martial arts (MMA) is expected to see a boost in the popularity of the fast-growing sport.

And enthusiasts are hoping it will eventually lead to a home-grown champion.

Contender MMA, a 4,000-square-metre facility, was launched on Saturday night, with Wanderlei Silva, an Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) middleweight and a former Pride Fighting champion, holding a three-hour training session for the students.

The project is the brainchild of Tam Khan, an MMA professional who has been working to promote the sport in the country over the past few years.

And the Briton was a proud man on Saturday night as his gym was filled with men, women and children, all keen to learn from the experience of "The Axe Murderer" Silva.

Azeddine el Moutti, one of the personal trainers of Sheikh Majid bin Mohammed, was also among the crowd, animated, asking questions and working excitedly on Silva's tips with his sparring partner.

"He is a really big name and it was really good to spend some time with him," said the 34-year-old Moroccan, who specialises in Muay Thai, a martial art from Thailand. "I wish we could have got more time. Still it was good."

He added: "A lot of people here in the UAE train in these kind of martial arts. I am a trainer and a facility like this is good for me." The gymnasium, on Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai, has punch and kick bags, large grappling and Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) mats, and a weights and cardio area.

But most importantly, for Ed Smith, it has a cage to train in.

Smith, a 33-year-old Briton who defeated Iraq's Rafat Shawe at the Abu Dhabi Fighting Championship Round 2 last month, said: "I think the gym is amazing. It's perfect I think. You've got everything you need here."

He added: "The biggest thing obviously is having the cage. It's the first cage in the UAE and that's exactly what you need for developing new fighters."

Silva urged the participants to "spread the word" about the gym and encourage more people to take up the sport, not necessarily to fight professionally, but as a physical activity.

Smith is confident that will happen. "I have been into MMA since like 14 years," he said. "You can see it's a fast-growing sport.

"Boxing is dead now. The era of boxing is over now. This is exciting; this is the new sport for the future. The kids also, they know about it. They play the computer games, they know all the fighters. Everyone's talking about it now.

"I started fighting four or five ago and you tell people you are in a cage fight, they don't know what you are talking about. Now everyone knows. You say you are fighting and they will start talking about it, they'll talk about the names. This shows you what a fast-growing sport it is. This is an ideal facility to sort of create a wave in the UAE."

"Many parents and children, when they hear about UFC or MMA, they are scared because they think their kids will return with broken nose or bones," el Moutti added. "This gym will go a long way in showing people what MMA is about and bring them closer to the sport.

"Then who knows, soon we might have a champion from here."