To say the past few months have been a whirlwind for Hadi Omar Al Hussaini would be a gross understatement.
Already an accomplished mixed martial artist, the Emirati turned professional in June, then kick-started his new career by quickly dispatching two opponents in burgeoning local promotion UAE Warriors.
Only a few weeks ago, Al Hussaini packed in his bank job in Dubai to concentrate full-time on his passion, and spent some time recently at the renowned American Kickboxing Academy in Thailand, made possible by the fact he is coached now by its founder, and long-time trainer to some of the finest UFC champions in history, Javier Mendez.
What’s more, as part of preparations for a third senior appearance at UAE Warriors 23 in Abu Dhabi on Thursday, the flyweight has spent the latter part of camp honing his talent alongside Khabib Nurmagomedov and team at Nad Al Sheba Sports Complex in Dubai.
So, even this early into his pro career, Al Hussaini’s learning from the best. Clearly, it represents pinch-yourself stuff.
“I’m blessed,” he tells The National. “It’s a pleasure and an honour to train with the best. To be the best you have to train with the best, so it’s a great opportunity.
“My goal is not only to be a normal fighter. I want to be a legendary Emirati fighter that can compete with any level. Now I’m learning, just trying to get as much knowledge as a I can. Listen. Observe. Take it all in. For me, it’s a dream.”
It certainly sounds as such. The association with Mendez came about through mutual friends in Dubai, who during dinner would often mention Al Hussaini or showcase footage of him in action.
Al Hussaini then bumped into Mendez at the hotel check-in ahead of UAE Warriors 21 in September – that fight night, Mendez was cornering Kuwaiti Mohammad Alaqraa – and said he wouldn’t ask to take a photo with him until after he won his bout.
Al Hussaini duly defeated Emad Arafa by second-round submission, got the snap, connected on Instagram and met up for dinner.
Now he’s being mentored by the man who played an integral role in Nurmagomedov reigning supreme in the UFC until he retired, undefeated, as lightweight champion in Abu Dhabi last year.
“The camp’s been unbelievable,” says Al Hussaini, who joined Mendez, Nurmagomedov and team amid preparations for their fighters' bouts at UAE Warriors and this weekend’s UFC 267 in Abu Dhabi. “Even my first sparring session, Javier was in my corner and Khabib was in [UFC flyweight] Tagir [Ulanbekov's] corner. It was crazy. Training with them is incredible. The level is the very highest.
“Everyone there is hungry, they don’t have time to waste. And when Khabib’s there, when he’s around, he doesn’t let anyone waste a second. After training he’s still working with the guys. It’s amazing.”
Typically, training begins in the morning, followed by a lengthy break then another session at night, all at NAS Sports Complex, the facility owned by Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, the Crown Prince of Dubai.
"It's the best in the world," Al Hussaini says. "Seven-star. We're so fortunate."
There, the Dubai-born athlete, who took up MMA at university “by accident” before becoming a purple belt in jiu jitsu, is coached by Mendez, sparring a couple of times per week, discussing strategy, and generally soaking up any knowledge he can.
“He prepares me mentally more, keeping me sharp, keeping me ready... visualisation,” Al Hussaini says. “He’s got all the other guys to train as well, but he’s always there after every fight: ‘You need to do this or this’.
“He’s going to guide me. However, the work’s going to be on me. Coach Javier gives you the plan, what to work on. The whole time I’m taking notes to be a better fighter. He’s unbelievable, bro.”
Al Hussaini has been made to feel one of the team, too. Not long into camp, Mendez requested he leave his car and travel to training with them, then sit with everyone at the hotel buffet for lunch or dinner.
“It’s still the beginning, but I’m getting there,” Al Hussaini says when asked about settling in. “When training starts, there’s no jokes. Especially Khabib. He’s always there for the guys.
“Khabib's as great a coach as he was a fighter. When he’s around, everyone goes full. After every training session, we always sit down and he gives everyone feedback alongside Javier. They’re so professional; they know how it’s done.”
Patently, dedication is key. It’s why Al Hussaini took the huge decision to quit his job, understanding that to be a full-time fighter, and a successful one at that, he had to live a full-time fighter’s life.
Before his bout in September, he chose a month’s unpaid leave simply to prepare. That mindset, that 100 per cent commitment required if he is to achieve his lofty ambitions, has only been reinforced when working with Mendez and Team Khabib.
“I realise the more work you put in the better you become,” Al Hussaini says. “There’s no shortcuts. That’s why Khabib and the guys are the best.
“It's all about discipline with them. It's No 1. The pressure is unbelievable, for sure, but I’m just following what they do. A lot of things are new to me, but the discipline they have, the hard work... they never quit. It’s uncomfortable sometimes, but I’m enjoying every second of it.
"They’re like a family, that’s what’s good about them. Everyone pushes each other. When somebody’s down it’s like, ‘Hey, come on, let’s go.’ Most of them, they have fights, they have dreams. Most of them want to be in the UFC, want to be champions.
“Like Islam [Makhachev], [Zubaira Tukhugov], all these guys their goal is to be UFC champion. And I’m training with them, so why can I not also have a goal and participate in the UFC? I’ll just dedicate myself like them and, inshallah, one day I’ll be a star like them.”
Crucially, Al Hussaini emphasises that he is in no rush, despite the breakneck progress the past few months. Thursday’s bout against experienced Egyptian Hasan Abdelhafez forms the first test of a three-fight contract penned with UAE Warriors – “comfortably the best promotion in the region, I’m so thankful to everyone at Palms Sports” - and from there he plans on taking everything “step by step”.
Of course, though, the UFC remains the ultimate objective for almost every budding mixed martial artist.
“That’s the dream,” says Al Hussaini, who pays tribute also to the close work of coaches Tolly Plested and Gustavo Miranda, who aided his introduction to MMA and UAE Warriors. “Training with the guys from UFC, I don’t want to pump myself up. I know I need to do so much work. I’m not ready for the UFC yet. But I know if they can make it, I can make it.
“I just need more dedication, more hard work, don’t give up, believe in myself and just keep on training. The day will come. Like I said, I don’t want to take 10 steps ahead. Let me focus; I have a fight this week. It’s a tough opponent, he’s a big challenge for me.”
Al Hussaini is right to concentrate immediately on Abdelhafez, the sturdy southpaw who has 10 pro fights under his belt. His record stands at 6-4.
“He’s the only guy who accepted my fight,” Al Hussaini says. “Nobody wanted to fight me. Because after my two fights they saw I’m good on the ground. He’s comfortable on the ground also, but brother, I’m ready. I’ve been training with elite fighters. I did everything a fighter should do to prepare for a fight. The rest is in God’s hands.
“Getting the win and getting my hand raised is the main goal. That’s why I’m doing all this hard work. It’s a dream, and I’ll put everything I have. I’ll die for it, it doesn’t matter to me. I’ll put my heart and my sweat, everything just for me to win.
“This guy’s in my way. I’ll respect him as an opponent but hopefully I’ll get my hand raised and get the ‘W’ in front of my people, in my country, in Abu Dhabi. And look at who’s next.
“For me, this is just the beginning. Just keep on doing it and hopefully we’ll reach the top.”