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How Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Became the UAE’s National Sport, Explained

Who would’ve thought?

“It is impossible to think about jiu-jitsu without mentioning the impact that the UAE has had and helped on the growth of the sport,” says Marcos “Ratinho” Santana, a highly accomplished Brazilian athlete-turned-head-coach and co-founder of Roger Gracie Jiu Jitsu academy in Dubai. 

For those that may not be aware, the UAE happens to be one of the planet’s hubs for combat sports, particularly UFC in recent years, as Abu Dhabi’s notoriously famous ”Fight Island” allowed the world’s biggest Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) franchise to plow through and take place during the COVID-19 pandemic. Interestingly enough, it turns out that the Gulf State has a much longer history and richer connection to the sport than most would expect. But how has the UAE forged this position? 

Much of the credit for the UAE’s impact on the sport must go back to Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed, National Security Advisor of the country, who claims to have developed an interest in jiu-jitsu and began training as a student in San Diego, after watching the first edition of televised UFC in 1993. Since then, it has been commonly argued that the Sheikh has made two major contributions towards the discipline— both on a local and international level— launching the Abu Dhabi Combat Club, commonly known as “ADCC,” known as one of the region’s, and world’s, most important combat gathering.  

Notably responsible for the ADCC Submission Fighting World Championship, the biennale event is widely considered to be the first jiu-jitsu and grappling event to broadcast the sport to such a wide audience. While between 1998 and 2003, it was exclusively held in Abu Dhabi, it has gone on to be hosted in Brazil, China, Finland, Spain, the UK, and the US in following years, sharing the excitement with millions despite initially attracting smaller crowds. 

Having now grown into an unmissable happening for aficionados and fans, the numbers the tournament generates today can serve as a testament to the catalyzing role it plays in the arena. The 2022 edition of the event alone, which was held in Las Vegas, saw $800,000 worth of tickets sales, a prize pool of $350,000 dollars, and individual sponsorships of athletes reaching up to $100,000. In other words, ADCC may be one the biggest sporting events you’ve never heard of, and it takes its roots from the region. 

Additionally, the Sheikh also sought to bring the sport to the UAE and popularize it even further. This led to the founding of the UAE Jiu-Jitsu federation (UAEJJF) which organized the very prestigious Abu Dhabi Grand Slam Jiu-Jitsu World Tour: a series of combat tournaments held across the globe. When talking about the impact the federation and the global competition has had so far, Rathinho cites the professionalism brought to the sport by the Abu Dhabi Jiu-Jitsu Pro and the UAE Jiu-Jitsu federation as a major factor in the impact of UAE on the sport. He noted that these organisations run “the most-well organised tournaments in around the world.”  

The Sheikh’s mission to popularize the sport was given a major boost when Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan, the UAE’s ruler, designated jiu-jitsu as the country’s national sport. In 2008, it was introduced as a compulsory subject in the Abu Dhabi public school curriculum and by 2016, 130 Schools were teaching jiu-jitsu, with over 76,000 students taking part. Coaches have been actively recruited from overseas to teach in local schools, to armed forces, the law enforcement, as well as other public departments, increasing the talent pool in both teaching and fighting in the UAE. 

Ratinho referred to the inclusivity of jiu-jitsu as a sport that can be practiced by anyone regardless of age, size, or gender. Given the sports’ rapid spread in the country, he suggested that it is a tool “that brings people together” and equips individuals with “more energy and confidence to deal with daily challenges that are inevitable in life.” The proliferation of the sport has already begun to reap some rewards, with Zayed Alkhateri becoming the first UAE national black belt champion in the Abu Dhabi Pro. 

 “The seed is planted, and the future is bright” according to Ratinho, and as jiu-jitsu becomes cemented within the fabric of society, it seems the Emiratis have found a modern iteration of the Arabian Peninsula’s warrior past.

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