For a man who competes in the world’s most brutal sport – he makes his living by getting in a cage and punching, kicking and choking other men until, if things go right, they’re bloody, semi-conscious and insensible – Ahmad Al Darmaki appears a surprisingly sensitive soul.
He is the only professional Emirati mixed martial arts fighter. For the uninitiated, MMA is a combat sport that makes boxing look like tiddlywinks. Two men of roughly similar weight are stuck in a ring or cage where they fight until one either passes out or submits. Different organising bodies have varying rules but most stick to one original guiding principle: in the ring, fighters can largely do whatever they want apart from eye gouging or targeting the testicles.
If parallels were to be drawn to provide a holistic picture, in boxing, if you fall to the floor, your opponent stops, but in MMA, he continues raining blows. In boxing, the losers generally come away with bumps and bruises. In MMA, because padded gloves are rarely used, they often get carried away looking like they’ve been glassed.
Deaths aren’t common, of course. But they’re also not unheard of. Last month, in Ireland, at Dublin’s National Stadium, the Portuguese fighter João Carvalho was beaten so badly by opponent Charlie Ward that he never recovered. He died in hospital 48 hours after the bout.
It is a sport, in short, which many have called barely civilised.
When I say this to Ahmad – sitting in a vest and shorts in an Abu Dhabi café, his arms resembling rock hard golf balls covered by skin – I expect a rebuttal. I expect him to explain why MMA is actually an art form and a science.
Instead he nods in agreement.
‘It is too dangerous,’ says the 27-year-old featherweight who lives in Khalifa City, Abu Dhabi. ‘I know this. I look at my daughter every day. She is six months old. I know I need to look after my health so I can look after her. I know this sport is not good. There are risks, many risks. One bad punch and who knows?
‘Every day I say maybe I’ll make the next fight my last. Win or lose, maybe my last. Then I’ll walk away. It is not nice.’
‘But I am not rich man. And it pays well. So, for now, I continue.’
Ahmad is, if truth be told, not a very good fighter. Professionally, he has fought three times in three years and lost them all. Saudi Aziz Julaidan forced him into submission after just two minutes of his debut brawl; Sudan’s Nour El Din Essam won on a judges’ decision in his second; and, most recently, in October, the Ukrainian Artiyom Gorodynets saw him off too.
‘But this is not failure,’ he says. ‘I am the first of my countrymen to do this, so already this is an achievement. And what is failure? Failure is to give up because you lose. This is not the UAE way. I have heart so I keep going. What God wills will happen and if He wills I always lose, so be it. But I still have heart.’
The fighter is talking to Friday ahead of his next match on Tuesday (May 24) when he will fights Artiyom again at Abu Dhabi’s IPIC Arena. The contest is part of a night of MMA, which will see nine other bouts, all featuring international fighters from across Asia, Europe and America.
But if Ahmad hasn’t won before and got beaten by the Ukrainian the last time they met, what makes him think he can prevail now? ‘This time I am more serious,’ he declares. ‘This time I have been training better than ever; had experts around me. I know Artiyom’s moves, I am better prepared. This time, I think, I will triumph.’
Just as importantly for him, he believes, winning or losing, he is forging a path that others can follow. ‘This is inspiring for me,’ he says. ‘People come to me in the gym – other locals – they see what I have done and say they would like to do this too. I have shown them it is possible.
‘Maybe I have made it easier for them by being the first. Maybe someone I have inspired will go even further. That is something I can be proud of, I think.’
MMA is more brutal than most institutionalised sports and demands a certain indifference to win, yet Ahmad is very sensitive outside the ring.
Ahmad’s journey into MMA started while serving in the UAE army. After leaving school at 17, he spent six years with the military, including a training stint in the UK as a sniper. Apart from some limited time in Afghanistan, he has never been deployed in a conflict zone. But while in Britain, he took up boxing, and found he was good at it.
‘I enjoyed it, even more than MMA,’ he says. ‘But there was less opportunity. MMA seemed to be the best way to go.’
After leaving the army, he spent a year employed in an aluminium factory in the UAE, working amid vast heating tanks and kilns where temperatures reached more than 1,000 degrees.
That heat was horrible,’ he says. ‘Being in a ring after that, it is nothing. It is easy. Whatever they throw at me in the ring, it is better than the factory. As part of my training, I run in the desert, even in summer, and I will always think, this is not so warm.’
He quit after a year and took up training full-time under the watchful eye and sponsorship of his late mentor Mohammad Khalaf Al Mazrouie, who had seen Ahmad’s potential as a fighter during an amateur kickboxing contest. Since then, training has been his life’s nine to five.
‘The first thing I do when I wake up is run for an hour,’ he says. ‘Then, my entire day is built around my training schedule.’
That includes CrossFit, iron man challenges, long-distance swimming and cycling during the afternoon. Evenings are spent sparring in different disciplines such as kickboxing, freestyle wrestling and ju-jitsu.
His diet is strictly regimented too. A chef drops him off five specially designed and prepared meals every morning, and then he eats them through the day. They include lots of proteins – eggs, steaks, chicken – fruit, veggies, nuts and carbs.
‘It’s a good thing that I like pasta, rice and sweet potato,’ he smiles.
Training also means sleeping every afternoon for an hour or two. But he ensures he spends a couple of hours every day with wife Rabaab and baby Muna. As one of 11 siblings himself, he understands the value of family.
‘They are my world, of course,’ he says.
How does Rabaab and his family feel about his job?
‘They don’t like it, but she understands,’ he says. ‘She knows I must do this.’
And yet, as his upcoming fight gets ever closer, there’s just a slight sense that Ahmad might not do this much longer. His doubts, more than in any fighter I’ve ever met, seem to loom larger than his bravado. And I’m not wrong. His dream job, he says, is not being an MMA fighter. Instead, he’d like to be a commercial pilot.
‘But I left school very early,’ he smiles. ‘So, if not this, maybe a personal trainer. I hope to achieve that. It will be good for me. Helping others get fit, become great at their sport, inspiring them. Not too long from now, this is what I will do.’