Martial arts opening new doors for people in the UAE

The martial arts scene across the UAE has seen a remarkable rise in popularity during the last few years, and with that have come new opportunities for those who dare dream

Kamran Khan of Pakistan has risen from working at the ports of Dubai to being a full-time trainer and successful kick boxer. Antonie Robertson / The National
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“It was awesome.”

Last week, the young man from Pakistan was in the middle of a hysterical crowd, watching his favourite kick boxer smash his way to a Dh1 million prize at the Global Fighting Championship in Dubai.

"Badr Hari is my favourite, I love the way he fights," Kamran Khan says. "I'm not talking about technique only, I love his passion. When he's in the ring, he's like a lion roaring."

Khan, 27, draws inspiration from his hero, but he, in turn, inspires others.

Khan moved to the UAE in 2006, first working for a steel trading company and then in shipping. A year ago, he decided his future was in kick boxing.

The UAE has seen a remarkable rise in the popularity of mixed-martial arts (MMA) and Khan has been part of it.

For two years, even after a long day at work, he dragged himself to whatever gym he could find. A year ago, he started training at Pride Fitness and MMA Training Centre in Dubai.

It proved to be a turning point in his life. The gym’s owner, John Pender, saw something in Khan and offered him a full-time job at the gym.

“I was looking to switch jobs and I did get better opportunities in other shipping companies,” Khan says. “But then Mr Pender, who was also my senior trainer, asked me to come and join him. At the end of 2013, they hired me as a trainer.”

The hours training alone came in handy. At first, he was given random training jobs.

“How to kick, how to punch, combinations, foot movements, things that are technically related to kick boxing. Then there was fitness and strength, and drills which we mix up during the classes,” Khan says.

“I already knew all those exercises from training here, and I was confident that I could train others.”

Exercise is one thing, fighting is another, but Khan developed so quickly that he was willing to give it a shot.

“Last month there was a competition in Dubai Marina, so I applied for it,” he says. “It was a good experience.”

He is being modest. Khan, in fact, won his first fight.

“It was my first official fight and I got a trophy up there,” he says, pointing at a ledge displaying prizes won by the Pride gym’s members.

“After that I became more confident. Now, I’m taking part in a sport that I was dreaming about even before I started training.”

Despite his lack of experience, Khan drew on the faith of his trainers to win.

“I was not nervous because the trainers had pushed me so hard for a year,” he says.

“They never let me get down, especially when I still had a full-time job.”

He concedes the demands of the workaday world got him down.

“A person who has a job and comes to training is more stressed, more tired,” he says.

“I was going to the ports and then coming here, and I felt that would not work for much longer. Maybe one or two months and then I will quit because I wouldn’t be able to focus.”

Some family members and friends shared those doubts.

“Everyone was so excited for me when I won,” he says. “But before that, some relatives were, like, ‘What are you doing, man? Focus on your job’.

“Others appreciated what I was doing, especially my dad, who encouraged me and told me to keep myself fit and energetic.”

That first victory left him feeling vindicated, especially in the manner it was achieved.

“It was my first time in the ring,” he says. “I was not nervous, I was confident. I wanted to do something, I wanted to prove myself for my family and especially my trainers. They were confident I was going to win. I wanted to do it for them and for my students, too.”

Even with big support that day, Khan was the underdog.

“I was fighting against a more experienced and heavier opponent; he was 78kg and I was 68kg,” he says. “My trainer asked me if I wanted to quit. I said: ‘What? You trained me for this moment, if I quit now it means the last year’s struggle and hard work is gone’.”

The result?

“I won by a knockout.”

The Global Fighting Championship night at the World Trade Centre opened Khan’s eyes to just how popular kick boxing is becoming in this part of the world. It is good news for him, personally and professionally.

He feels at home in his new job and in the ring, whether training or fighting. It may not be worth Dh1m, but to Kamran, it is priceless.

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