Faisal Al Ketbi has won laurels for UAE in various Grand Slams introduced by Abu Dhabi across the globe. Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

Abu Dhabi: It was in 1993 when Shaikh Tahnoun Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, National Security Adviser, came across a sport which was a mixture of different martial arts.

The sport was called ‘submissive wrestling’ then. A perfect tool to channelize the country’s youth energy and drive them into the path of healthy living to build a strong nation.

Known as the ‘Black belt Shaikh’, he became a huge fan of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) in the USA and of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu particularly.

Having picked up the sport big time, Shaikh Tahnoun introduced the sport to the people in the UAE when he returned to Abu Dhabi in 1998.

Later, thanks to the vision of His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, the sport was revolutionised and it soon started to gain interest among the masses. The sport had a new lease of life and a home where it has flourished beyond imagination. A little over two decades later, the sport is all set to make its debut at the Asian Games in Jakarta thanks to the persistent efforts from the UAE.

This is a watershed moment for the sport that now runs through the veins of every Emirati since being introduced in all sectors – from schools and universities to the army.

The face of UAE Jiu-Jitsu – Faisal Al Ketbi – was just 11 years old when he picked up the sport after parting ways with wrestling. He has virtually grown up practicing Jiu-Jitsu and has seen its rise.

Now a black-belt holder, Al Ketbi, who has won laurels for UAE in various Grand Slams introduced by Abu Dhabi across the globe, is keen to stamp his authority in the Asian sporting extravaganza with a gold.

“All my preparations have been keeping in mind the Asian Games. It is a very important event for me and I really want to do well,” Al Ketbi said in an interview with Gulf News.

The 30-year-old, who is known for being guarded and keeping to himself ahead of a tournament, will be hungrier than ever especially having lost out on the Abu Dhabi World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Championship earlier this year.

He was devastated after missing out on gold to Brazilian No. 1 Isaque Braz in front of the home crowd. Sadly, it was the third time in a row since being elevated to black-belt status three years ago, that he has missed out on a title.

However, Al Ketbi, who has competed in all 10 editions of the Abu Dhabi World Pro and won 11 gold medals, two silvers and a bronze in the blue, purple and brown-belts, is UAE’s best bet for the Asian Games.

UAE has also fielded Zayed Al Kaabi in the same category as Al Ketbi and the former too will be keen to rise to the big occasion.

“Yes, the preparations have gone well and we are hoping that our Jiu-Jitsu fighters would do well. Asian Games is huge for us because our hope of winning gold medals is mainly with Jiu-Jitsu. The information that we have received from the Jiu-Jitsu Federation is that our fighters have received the maximum level of preparation,” said Aref Hamad Al Awani, General Secretary of Abu Dhabi Sports Council.

“It was a new sport for the region when it was introduced here. The exposure we gave for the sport to be promoted everywhere has been huge. His Highness Shaikh Mohammad’s vision has played a great part. When we started we never thought that the sport would get the recognition that it has achieved today,” revealed Al Awani, adding that the biggest challenge was convincing everybody about the new game.

“When a new thing is introduced then there is always a challenge of overcoming the resistance. But our leaders have been persistent. Especially, with Shaikh Mohammad being there, everyone knew he is supporting a sport with very high expectation and has high goals. Now that we have achieved that, some medals in the event of Olympic feeling will be a great accomplishment,”

Also keep a close watch on youngster Hamad Nawad, who heralded his arrival into the big league by clinching gold in the Abu Dhabi World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Championship in April.

The 18-year-old, who will be leading the challenge in the belt 56kg had echoed the same sentiments as Al Ketbi.

“The World Championship was special but that was immediately behind me after the final bout. Next is the Asian Games and my focus is now on that,” a confident Nawad said.

Omar Al Fadhli, taking part in the 62kg weight category along with compatriot Saeed Al Mazroui is another youngster to watch out for, having impressed in all age groups. Al Fadhli, 18, has clinched eight golds this season and more importantly, won the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in Turkmenistan — both trial events ahead of the Asian Games.

Others medal prospects are Taleb Al Kirbi, Humaid Al Kaabi – both in 69kg. Mohammad Al Qubaisi and Saud Al Hammadi will be leading the challenge in the 70kg category, while Khalfan Belhol and Mohammad Haitham Radhi will be looking to finish on the podium in the 85kg category.

In the women’s section, the UAE have ensured to go with the best four who have become household names in a short span - Wadeema Al Yafie, Mahra Al Hanaei, Bashayer Al Matroushi and Hessa Al Shamsi. Al Yafie and Al Hanaei will battle for glory in the 49kg while Al Matroushi and Al Shamsi will be vying for medal in the 62kg category.