‘Al Batal’, the reality show on Fox Movies based on the sport of mixed martial arts (MMA), returns for a second season this autumn.
The competition brings together 12 professional fighters and two world-class MMA coaches, including ‘Magical’ Ray Elbe.
Elbe is a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, veteran of MMA and appeared on Season 9 of The Ultimate Fighter, an American reality series centred on an MMA competition.
Sport360° caught up with Elbe to get his thoughts on ‘Al Batal’, his time abroad and his transition to coaching.
How did you get the nickname ‘Magical’?
I wish I could have picked a nickname like ‘The Executioner’ or ‘The Hitman’ or something really cool. I’m really good at Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, that’s my trademark.
When the sport first started, it wasn’t on TV like it is now and not everyone was familiar with the ‘arm bar’, ‘the triangle choke’ and the actual locks that finish a fight. So to the average spectator, it looks like the guy on the bottom is getting beat up.
There was a promoter who would usually be in rare form while calling the fight to the crowd at the end of the night. One of the things he started to say was ‘this next guy is going to get beat up for the entire round and magically win’. So that was kind of how the nickname started and my friends thought it was funny, my promoter thought it was funny and next thing you know it stuck.
I guess I got it because my submission skills were good and at the time, the general audience watching thought I magically won.
What did you gain from your time in Phuket, Thailand, developing MMA?
I’ve been really, really fortunate to travel, that’s something my career has blessed me with. Besides Thailand, I’ve fought Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or MMA in 15 different countries around the world. Living in Thailand, it gave me a real opportunity to experience the different types of fighters.
Obviously there’s nowhere else in the world that has good Muay Thai training as Thailand, but it also gave me an opportunity to interact with so many cultures in fighting.
Living in Kuwait now, how’s the experience been of being a pioneer of MMA in the region?
One of the nice things about being in the Middle East is there’s a decent amount of disposable income to get behind youth projects and start-up groups. I think the big thing that needs to grow along with it is the professionalism with the athletes.
When you’re dealing with a country where the sport is fairly new, a lot of the instructors in the region they have no real credentials. When they get into a situation where they’re teaching the actual sport behind MMA, it’s like me teaching chess when I’ve only played checkers. ‘Well if this works in checkers I’m sure it will work in chess because they’re both board games.’
Promoters are so anxious to put on events that they’re bringing in under-qualified athletes and because there are so few legit coaches here, it’s a repetitive cycle. Unfortunately, especially in Kuwait, they don’t have the real backing of the government like in the UAE which has a resource pool of knowledgeable instructors.
What’s the transition been like from fighting to coaching?
When you’re actually in the fight and you’re the fighter, it’s nice because you can control the action that happens.
As a coach and especially when you’re dealing with fighters who are new to the sport, you realise their fight IQ isn’t as high as some of the other veterans. It’s really difficult to one, get your fighter to believe in your strategy or the gameplan that you put together.
Then two, to actually get him to implement that strategy in the heat of the battle when he gets punched in the face and he gets kicked to still remain calm during that traffic accident and put himself in the best position to win that fight; that’s what makes this sport so pure. When you see a guy that is losing and breaking down in tears, you see that it’s a lot more than just dieting and running.
When will we see you return to the ring?
I’m already negotiating with a couple of promoters. Once I feel like I’m about six or seven weeks out from competition shape, I’ll start
seriously contacting promoters and try to look for something to happen. Hopefully, I’ll be back in the ring by the end of 2014, that is kind of what my goal is.
How did being on The Ultimate Fighter prepare you to be on Al Batal?
The truth of the TV show is that it’s very undocumented, it’s very unscripted and very real to the emotion.
While being on The Ultimate Fighter definitely helped me prepare for the pressure of having cameramen around and things like that, having been in the sport for so long and experiencing the highs and experiencing the lows really put me in a position where I was able to do what the show requires in such a high-pressure situation. In my opinion, having over a decade of fighting experience was a lot more valuable than having appeared on another TV programme. It’s a lot of stress for these guys, I’ll tell you that.
What can viewers expect to see on the show this upcoming season?
When I came I wasn’t sure culturally what they were going to be capturing, editing and filming to make it a hit in the Middle East. They brought in fighters from all over the world.
They’re Arab, but some of these guys flew in from California, some of these guys flew in from Sweden, some of these guys flew in from France, some of these guys flew in from Canada. I’d say there’s probably about four or five of these guys that could definitely compete in the UFC someday. A couple of these guys are good enough and skilled enough to probably compete right now. This show itself has a couple of really good athletes.
The drama from the reality TV side of it, it will be an entertaining season when you throw together 12 individuals from all over the world with type-A personalities, there’s going to be serious drama that goes on.
It seems absurd that David Haye’s boxing career should feel unfulfilled or his achievements be tainted in any way.
Yet, however harsh it is, people have short memories and the 33-year-old’s dalliance with celebrity and spells of inactivity have undoubtedly warped the perception of him as a sportsman.
This is a fighter who became the undisputed cruiserweight champion of the world at 26, a former heavyweight champion and one of just eight two-weight world champions in the long history of British boxing.
But mention his name and you are more likely to hear about the manner of his defeat to Wladimir Klitschko, or his appearances on reality television.
There’s no shame in losing to the younger Klitschko but it’s a measure of Haye’s talent that people expected more.
The real shame is that his loss to the ruthlessly efficient Ukrainian powerhouse remains Haye’s defining moment to date.
People should talk about his sensational capture of the cruiserweight crown, where he climbed off the canvas to knock out Jean-Marc Mormeck in Paris in one of the most underappreciated away performances by a British fighter.
His defeat of Nikolai Valuev should also jump out.
While the fleshy Russian may have been ponderous and crude, Haye, one of the smallest heavyweights in the division, found a way to beat the biggest, again, away from home.
Yet the image of him sat in a post-fight press conference in Hamburg with a damaged toe on display is more prevalent than him standing, arm-raised in victory, in the centre of a ring in Nuremberg 18 months earlier.
Two years away from the sport and a series of cancelled fights have further diminished a legacy that should be enshrined by now and rather curiously, a multi-weight world champion stands on the brink of a comeback with perhaps more to prove than ever.
But if Haye can realise a new set of goals, the question marks will be replaced by exclamation marks.
“The dream scenario for me is maybe two or three fights, then some type of eliminator and then to challenge for a version of the heavyweight title,” he explains.
“Whether that’d be with Wladimir Klitschko (the WBA, IBF & WBO champion), or whoever holds the WBC title at that time.
“Then win that title and defend it, and then unify, going out there and winning all the belts together. That would be my perfect schedule for the next two or three years.
“I’m pretty confident I will be back to my best. I’m not that old, I’m 33, nearly 34.
“I haven’t got too many miles on the clock and not had many beatings in my 28-fight career. I feel I still have a lot to give.”
The landscape has changed somewhat since Haye pulverized his way to the top of the rankings.
Vitali Klitschko has retired, with his WBC strap now worn by the relatively unknown Canadian Bermane Stiverne, who is set to defend the famous green belt against his mandatory challenger and Haye’s former sparring partner, Deontay Wilder.
And with all the other versions of the title the property of Wladimir, the WBC might prove the most attractive avenue for the Londoner.
“Stiverne versus Wilder is an exciting fight,” he says. “Both are good fighters and are big punchers and I think it’s about time that we got some interesting 50/50 fights for the heavyweight title.
“Watching Wladimir hold and lever his way to victory against guys who are 200/1 underdogs; people don’t really want to tune in for that. People are interested in Stiverne even though they never heard of him before.
“He’s a heavyweight who lets his hands go, but he’s vulnerable, so putting these guys together makes it exciting and I’d like to get into the mix sooner rather than later and have some fun fights for the fans.
“Wilder has his sights solely locked on winning the title and fingers crossed he does do that because he’s an exciting guy, he’s a nice guy. I’ve brought him over to the UK to help me prepare for fights as my sparring partner and he did a great job. He gave me great rounds.
“He has big, exciting punches and has won all his fights by knockout. He’s at the point of competing for a world title. I’m not there yet and I have to get myself into position.
“It took him 31 fights to get into position for that title and it would take me at least two or three fights to get into that. So I plan to take it one step and fight at a time.”
One fight we are unlikely to see, however, is a showdown with Tyson Fury.
Haye was set to face his fellow Briton before shoulder surgery intervened, but it is not something he wants to revisit.
Fury takes on Dereck Chisora in an eliminator for a WBO title shot, but asked if Fury was on his radar, Haye replied: “No, definitely not. That fight was made last year just as a marking time fight, a way to keep the fans happy and for me to stay busy.
“But that fight didn’t happen twice in a row. He’s now fighting Chisora for the mandatory spot for Wladimir’s title.
“So if he wins or loses that he’s going in a different direction than what I’m going in so I wish him luck. I’m not sure how he’ll get on with Chisora though, I think that’s an interesting fight.
“But unless Tyson Fury was to actually win the world title from Wladimir then I have no interest in fighting him to be honest.”
What Haye does have an interest in doing though is fighting in Dubai.
The emirate now boasts a Hayemaker Gym, while last week saw Haye attempt to set a world record for the biggest ever boxing lesson at Dubai Sports World.
He intends to make his comeback in the UK in the next few months, but fancies another outing in the UAE before the end of 2014.
“I’d love to get into the ring in September or October,” he said. “And I’ve always wanted to fight in Dubai when the weather cools down.
“I want to fight in September or October in the UK, so perhaps in December – then Dubai would be absolutely perfect.
“I don’t have a world title so it’s not like I have to cater for any one particular broadcast.
“I know there’s a lot of big boxing fans and also the expat community. Dubai definitely has the infrastructure and already hosts some mega events. I don’t have a contract with anybody currently, so if there’s ever a time to do it then it is now.”
Two-time Olympic boxing gold medallist Vasyl Lomachenko won a world title in just his third pro fight with an impressive majority decision over Gary Russell.
Ukraine’s Lomachenko improved to 2-1 with one knockout in his pro career as he captured the vacant World Boxing Organization featherweight title with victory over the previously unbeaten Russell on Saturday night.
By claiming the belt, Lomachenko matched Thailand’s Saensak Muangsurin’s record of winning a world title in only his third bout as a professional.
Lomachenko’s ambitious bid to win a world title in his second pro bout ended with a split decision defeat to Orlando Salido in San Antonio, Texas, on March 1.
But while Lomachenko didn’t take Salido’s belt that night, Salido didn’t keep it as he was stripped of the title for failing to make weight.
That opened the door for Lomachenko to have a second chance to claim the vacant crown against Russell. “I’m very, very happy, very excited to be a world champion,” said Lomachenko.
Two judges awarded the 26-year-old Ukrainian the decision by a score of 116-112, while the third judge saw it even, 114-114.
“I thought it was a fair decision,” admitted Russell, who fell to 24-1 with 14 knockouts. “I didn’t stick to my game plan like I should have.”
On the same card in an outdoor ring at the StubHub center, California’s Robert Guerrero won a furious 12-round battle with Japan’s Yoshihiro Kamegai.