A sports management agency that counts among its clients Conor McGregor and Manny Pacquiao has set up a Dubai base, with the ultimate goal of unearthing future Middle Eastern world champions in combat sports.
Paradigm Sports Management, a multi-platform sports business and media company headquartered in Los Angeles, launched its Dubai office earlier this month as it seeks to develop talent and align ventures in the region.
Founded in 2009 by Baghdad-born Audie Attar, Paradigm boasts a stable of elite fighters, including McGregor, Pacquiao, current UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya, and Muhammad Mokaev, one of the most exciting prospects in mixed martial arts (MMA). Their star Iraqi athlete Amir Albazi, meanwhile, made his UFC debut last month at the inaugural Fight Island in Abu Dhabi.
Having now established a genuine presence in Dubai, Paradigm believes the infrastructure is in place to discover and nurture potential stars in the Middle East – much like it has done in the United States, Europe and China.
"Truly to be the top in class in any industry you have to be a global company," CEO Attar tells The National. "You can't ignore the Middle Eastern market. Not only do I have emotional cultural ties to the place and I've always wanted to do business in some organic fashion, but the market's growing.
"You see the rise of fighters now and the quality of fighters improving; you see the Fight Island component; how Bahrain and his Royal Highness [Sheikh Khalid bin Hamad Al Khalifa] has started KHK MMA and Brave out there to develop more fighters; Saudi Arabia now getting involved and how they brought [Anthony] Joshua-[Andy] Ruiz II there and what the plans are for the future.
“The region has grown up. MMA is here and it’s here to stay and continue to grow. So it’s just a no-brainer to have a base out there.”
Attar has appointed Azhar Muhammad Saul to head Paradigm’s global push. A Dubai resident of six years, Muhammad Saul knows the region well, while his experience includes management roles at Bloomberg LP, Thomson Reuters and IHS Markit. He joins Paradigm as senior vice president of strategy and business development.
“We firmly believe from an economic standpoint that the crucible of growth going into 2021 will be in the UAE,” Muhammad Saul says. “It’s perfectly situated, equidistant to the major capital markets of Asia and Europe.
“Audie and I talk about it a lot: we’re 25/8, we’ve constantly got our finger on the pulse across Asia, the Middle East and Europe, and a huge team back in the home base in Los Angeles. We’ve got Legend Fighting Championship, the premier MMA promotion in China. In addition to the elite European-based fighters fans are very familiar with, we also manage some of Asia’s top MMA talent such as Li Jingliang from China; that is another growth market.
“Being in UAE meant being in the epicentre of global growth going into next year, but also where the [UAE] leadership has quite frankly been outstanding in its support for combat sports. The support from Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed and Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed with the ADCC, the mandating of [Brazilian jiu-jitsu and kickboxing] in schools and with the police force illustrate how much advocacy the leadership here have for martial arts. There is an exciting blend of experience and talent being created here. So that was another factor to be based out of this region.”
Investing beyond its athletes
While Paradigm prides itself on a “fighter first” approach, Attar says the company will continue to evaluate other possible investments in the region, be that partnerships, event management or sponsorship opportunities.
Its track record is impressive: Paradigm launched the August McGregor lifestyle brand, which has former two-division UFC champion McGregor at the forefront.
Attar says his agency’s most prominent athletes could very well visit the region to collaborate on projects – McGregor included.
“We’re going to continue to do what we do and I’m confident we’re going to continue to find the success and set the precedent as we’ve been doing in the sport,” Attar says.
“There’s no argument as to what we have been doing the last 10 years. As I like to say, and this is an old football saying, the scoreboard doesn’t lie. Ultimately, we’ve just got to keep our head down and keep working.”
Middle Eastern talent
For Paradigm, Albazi represents proof of what the Middle East has to offer in fighter talent. Born in Baghdad, he fled war-torn Iraq aged seven and eventually settled in the UK via Kurdistan, Syria and Sweden. Last month, Albazi defeated Malcolm Gordon at UFC Fight Night 2 in Abu Dhabi.
“The amount of talent and diversity of skills in the region is very encouraging,” Muhammad Saul says. “For us, there’s so many of the Amir Albazi storylines that are dotted across our region, so we feel we’ve got a fantastic global platform to bring those storylines out. It’s great for our region to have these positive new stories coming out of growth and fulfilling potential.”
Attar adds: “You’ve seen some of the recent signings, from Amir to [Dagestani] Muhammad [Mokaev] that we obviously feel like we have an eye for talent. We have the ability to help them become not only the best athletes they could be in the sport, but the best versions of themselves. Which is our process, it doesn’t happen overnight.”
Attar and Muhammad Saul have already earmarked prospective additions to the Paradigm roster – the company also represents clients in American football and football – saying interest from within the region has piqued since the company announced its latest move.
They insist the calibre of fighter in the Middle East is comparable to the more established hotbeds of MMA around the world.
“Definitely, because you see an emerging market that’s working not in just one country, but you’re starting to see more countries really start to develop fighters,” Attar says.
“And as that number grows per section of the region, you’ll start to see not only UFC, Bellator, promotion-ready type fighters, but champions. Which is going to be the biggest thing that will happen to the region; when the first champion emerges, no matter what country he or she is from. That always sparks a certain level of interest, a connectivity. Because, at the end of the day, that’s what fandom is: we all want to root for someone from our city, our country, someone we know, someone we identify with.”
With the talent-pool growing, and one of the industry’s leading management companies determined to cultivate that, Attar has high hopes for what the next 12 months will bring – even amid a global pandemic he says Paradigm has tackled, and will continue to tackle, “head on”.
“We’d love to have achieved signing the best and the brightest stars that are coming out of the region,” he says. “I would hope within a year’s time we have a budding and approaching future champ that we’re seeing develop right before our eyes.
“I would hope we would’ve executed some other large events within the region; that we would’ve closed at least one new venture that we’re launching.
“I would say look for more of the region to be represented in the sport. There’s a lot of big things happening, so that’s the tease I’ll give you.”