No holds barred as fight is on to develop young talent

As former club mates and now ring masters, two freestyle wrestling enthusiasts have joined forces and are grappling with an initiative to increase interest in Abu Dhabi.

ABU DHABI // For freestyle wrestling enthusiasts Ryan Sargeant and Calum McNeil, the world is a small place. The pair, then students, first met at the same club in Canada, where they trained and tussled together in the sport they both loved. Years later, after a chance meeting on the mats at the Abu Dhabi Wrestling, Judo and Jiu-Jitsu Federation [ADWJJF], the duo have joined forces again. This time, however, it is not about them.

As co-trainers in the federation's youth wrestling programme, an initiative they launched, Sargeant and McNeil are handing down their hardened skills to the next generation of would-be mat masters. "We've only been active for four months and our first year is all about establishing a base," said McNeil. "This phase is all about getting as many kids interested as possible; we've starting with a set of committed expat kids."

The long-term plan, however, is to encourage young Emiratis to sign up. "The programme gives kids the opportunity to participate at any level they chose," said Sargeant. "Whether it is recreational, or to develop technically, we give them the support. "At this stage we're focused on the expat kids because it's been easier to tap into that community. But our goal is to get expat and Emirati kids working together - that's the next stage and I don't think it will be overly difficult tapping into that network."

McNeil added: "Our first priority was to get a successful programme up and running. There are centres and programmes across the UAE which have Emiratis enrolled and at some point we'd like to get to the level where our kids can compete against them. It shouldn't be too far away if we keep getting the numbers." With superior wrestling skills a much-valued commodity for mixed martial arts combatants, Sargeant and McNeil are hoping to tap into the sport's international boom.

"If MMA is going to grow here, and there is every indication that it is, then there's certainly a role for wrestling," said Sargeant. "The sport has had a massive impact on both mine and Calum's lives; it's helped make us the people and coaches we are today. "We know there are tremendous benefits from participating in the sport, whether just for basic fitness or personal-improvement aspects such as character-building, commitment and discipline."

The trainers' primary method of ensuring their students learn and hone basic skills has been the creation of a fun environment where controlled play-fighting - but with purpose, structure and some technical support - is the key. Open to boys and girls, more than 20 youngsters regularly attend Sargeant's junior classes (six to 10 years), while 10 to 15 sweat it out in McNeil's senior sessions (11-16 years). The ever-increasing numbers, according to the pair, are testament to the federation's unwavering backing which allows their hard work.

"We're working as volunteers under a no-fee structure but we're getting support from the federation," said Sargeant. "The wrestling is not at an advanced attention level yet but if your child wants to get involved there are a number of class options aside from just ours." McNeil agrees. "There's a real buzz to the federation these days," he said. "When I first got here three years ago I couldn't believe the quality of the facilities. But there was nothing combat sports-wise for kids - the place was dead. "In the past 18-24 months, this place has gone from having no atmosphere and no people to being the city's undoubted centre of combat sports."