Abdullah al-Qahtani trades jabs with a sparring partner at a gym in the Saudi capital Riyadh, surrounded by a dozen fighters running through their own drills on the crowded mat.
The humble setting is a far cry from where he’s headed: the bright lights of Madison Square Garden in New York City, where this week he and another Saudi combatant will try to put the kingdom’s mixed martial arts (MMA) scene on the map.
Combining elements of everything from boxing to judo and Muay Thai, MMA had a limited following in Saudi Arabia just a decade ago, but that started to change when the Gulf kingdom hosted the popular regional Desert Force competition in 2014.
The sport’s popularity has since soared with the rise of fighters from across the Middle East and the establishment of a national MMA foundation to develop Saudi talent.
Qahtani and his Jeddah-based compatriot Mostafa Rashed Neda are set to compete on Wednesday in separate bouts in New York as part of the Professional Fighters League playoffs — a star turn they hope will lead to global recognition.
“They are fighting to prove themselves,” said Peter Murray, chief executive of the PFL, an MMA promotion company that has come up in the wake of the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s success.
Saudi Arabia, Murray added, is strongly placed to become a wellspring of MMA fighters and fans.
“We think the talent’s there, and there’s a need for added capabilities, and we’re committed to that.”
Qahtani, known as “The Reaper”, told AFP he was more than prepared to square off against US featherweight David Zelner, despite training primarily in Saudi Arabia and being fairly new to the sport.
“This is an old-school gym,” he said of the spot where he often works out, its walls decorated with cartoon sketches of boxing legends Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson and sayings like “The coward dies a thousand times”.
“It’s not the best and it does not have the best equipment, but it has very good fighters.”