Carl Douglas could have been thinking of the UAE when he sang “Everybody was kung fu fighting.” This country seems to have found a new way to stay fit. With Abu Dhabi hosting the World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Championship in April and Fox TV’s first all-Arab mixed martial arts (MMA) reality TV show generating a lot of attention, it’s fair to say that the world of martial arts is exploding in the UAE.
Video: Learning Aikido in Dubai
Today there are schools training Brazilian jiu-jitsu, muay Thai, MMA, judo, ninjutsu, aikido, capoeira, krav maga, karate, kung fu, EBMAS (Emin Boztepe Martial Arts System), kick-boxing, tae kwon do and many more forms. Industry insiders estimate that there are around 3,000 practitioners in Abu Dhabi and another 5,000 in Dubai.
Sensei Mohammad Iqbal, a karate and kobudo teacher who operates more than 10 schools in the UAE, says that there are a number of factors behind the rapid increase in the popularity of martial arts. “As people try to combat lifestyle diseases like obesity and diabetes, they are recognising martial arts as an excellent form of all-round fitness,” he says. “The training is no longer the hard, military-style regime that it once was. Modern scientific developments now make it easy for everyone at almost any age to learn martial arts.”
Mohammad has witnessed a huge increase in the uptake of his classes, and it’s not just big, burly blokes who are taking part. “With the way things are around the world, safety and security are growing concerns,” he says. “People are sending their kids to start training early and many women are enrolling too. Once they start, they realise the many benefits of martial arts training that go well beyond the initial reasons for starting. And they get further motivated when they realise that martial arts principles can be applied so well to their daily lives too,” he says.
Sensei Agrinsan Agor, an aikido teacher, has noticed a similar trend. “From personal experience, I am positive this is happening,” he says. “I have seen more people enrol for my classes. Aikido is now being recognised as a non-aggressive yet dynamic form of self-defence, which attracts men and women of all ages and different nationalities.”
Agrinsan believes that the patronage of the ruling family of Abu Dhabi has helped the spread of martial arts. Jiu-jitsu and MMA practitioners can count themselves in good company. The Abu Dhabi Combat Club was founded by Shaikh Tahnoun Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, after he was introduced to the sport during a trip to the United States.
Abdelaziz Cherigui, who is a head coach for the Arab MMA reality TV show Al Batal, credits Shaikh Tahnoun, who studied jiu-jitsu with mentor Renzo Gracie (a member of the founding family of Brazilian jiu-jitsu), with the development and implementation of UAE Jiu-Jitsu (with the support of the Ministry of Sports). “We feel the enormous work that has been done thanks to his initiative and we imagine that there is still a lot of work to do,” he says.
Thabet Agha, winner of the first Al Batal, says the show was vital for him to progress. “When I initially started off at Al Batal, my motivation was purely for the platform it offered,” says the Syrian. “Taking MMA from the confines of the gym and a hobby to more mainstream, it provided an opportunity for fighters like me to showcase their skills and more importantly compete. We now have a platform.”
Sifu Amir, EBMAS UAE’s chief instructor, remembers a time before martial arts took off here. EBMAS is a derivative of the Chinese martial art wing tzun that was developed by Turkish-American Emin Boztepe. “I started to teach in Dubai in September 2006. Back then, there were not too many places teaching other martial arts. At EBMAS UAE we teach wing tzun, kung fu and latosa escrima [Filipino martial arts].
“In the beginning it was very difficult to introduce EBMAS to new students, but in time things got much better. In the past year, besides seeing an increase in the number of students, we were also able attract new instructors and help our martial art grow. We now have 11 official instructors in our organisation.”
As the UAE’s population grows and the cultural mix gets richer, more martial arts make their way here. They have also become a good way to meet new people. Graduado Boto, an instructor of Capoeira, says, “There are many different martial arts coming to the region lately and people are very keen to try them. Most martial arts are a good way to keep fit, learn something new and socialise.”
It’s not hard to see the appeal of martial arts for a lot of expats keen to understand a new culture. Hungarian Mark Molnar, executive chef at Karma Café, has been training in Bujinkan ninjutsu for the past six months. “I love everything Oriental, especially Japan,” he says. “I discovered that the unique traditions of this ancient martial art hold good in today’s life, too. Training in this form makes a lot of sense to me as it helps me with balance, mentally, physically and even spiritually. From simple basics like correction of my posture and the optimum way to walk, to concepts like using the body as a fulcrum to disarm the opponent, the applications of this martial art to life are tremendous.”
Randall Yogachandra, founder and COO of iSee Entertainment, which created Al Batal, can’t see the demand for martial arts slowing down. “People are asking for more events, classes are getting filled, companies are starting to see the potential in promoting it and Arab culture is starting to really accept and understand martial arts,” he says. “I can almost guarantee that any corner of the city you go to, there’s a gym, and that gym offers some type of martial arts course or training.”
Martial arts attract both Emiratis and expats. Gyms and clubs are going all out with promotions, and most people are more health-conscious now. But with such a large number of practitioners, how do you find a good teacher? Alexander Ivanov – a first-generation non-Chinese inheritor of wudang kung fu and fifth dan in shotokan karate, has the short answer. “Don’t join schools that promise everything fast,” he says. “There’s no fast way.”
Hassan Osman, a second-dan black belt in Bujinkan ninjutsu, adds, “If you’re learning a martial art for self-defence, keep in mind that on the street no one cares what colour your belt is. Schools that say ‘we’re a black belt school’ or ‘black belt in a year’ are selling you a marketing idea. They are not actually interested in developing you as a martial artist.”