The UAE capital will be the centre of attention for jiu-jitsu fans from around the world when the Abu Dhabi World Jiu-Jitsu Festival (ADWJJF) gets underway on Monday.
Including events for girls, boys, male, female, parathletes and the World Youth Championship, the fortnight climaxes with the ninth Abu Dhabi World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Championship (ADWPJC) which takes place from April 18-22.
The Festival might not be as high-profile as the Abu Dhabi F1 Grand Prix, Dubai Rugby Sevens or golf’s Dubai Desert Classic but it has become an emerging force that has grown rapidly since the inaugural edition in 2009.
Back then, only 260 competitors from 20 countries took to the mat at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre, while the home crowd showed their support for just 20 UAE athletes.
The numbers were still impressive given that the tournaments between 2009 to 2011 were held with no official jiu-jitsu organisation in the country.
With the opportunity of producing future world class stars, as well as stamping their authority in the sport, the UAE Jiu-Jitsu Federation (UAEJJF) was established in November 2012.
With the support of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, the country has caught jiu-jitsu fever and the growing sport has made a big impact.
This year’s ninth ADWJJF will see more than 7,000 athletes from 100 nations in action over 13 days at the IPIC Arena in Zayed Sports City.
With the highest ever prize money of Dh3 million (up from Dh2.5m in 2016) and extended dates, from 10 to 13 days, the 2017 edition will be the biggest so far.
The best of the best will once again be taking to the mat in the UAE capital with their sights set on reigning supreme.
Two-time black-belt 55kg champion and MMA rising star Mackenzie Dern and current World No.1 Jose Junior are just two of the big names returning to action in Abu Dhabi, alongside the UAE’s top-ranked Faisal Al Ketbi and Yahia Al Hamadi.
Free admission and family activities mean the venue will be buzzing and although it’s the UAEJJF’s most prestigious event of the year, it’s about more than just delivering a glittering spectacle.
As Abdulmunam Al Hashemi, chairman of the UAEJJF and the Jiu-Jitsu Asian Union, said: “Our aim is to leave a lasting legacy for generations to come through the teachings of jiu-jitsu.”
This year’s competitions cater to the growing demand for the sport and gives an opportunity for athletes of all abilities to showcase their skills in a competitive environment.
An important addition this year is the inaugural Para-jiu-jitsu competition, which has attracted 100 parathletes from 17 different nations.
It’s all part of the UAEJJF’s vision of making the tournament more prestigious than the World Championship, which is considered their major rival.
“The Abu Dhabi World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Championship is now an established brand within the sports calendar and it’s certainly come a long way since 2009,” said Muhammed Hussain Al Marzooqi, director of marketing and finance at UAEJJF.
“This is thanks to the continuous and solid support of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. His vision and continuous support has really expanded the global footprint of jiu-jitsu and we have really changed the sports profile in making the jiu-jitsu industry more global.”
The profile of not just the championships but the sport has made everyone take notice around the world including Brazil where jiu-jitsu has a vast following.
As well as the local competitions on the UAEJJF calendar, the governing body also introduced the inaugural Abu Dhabi Grand Slam Tour in 2015, where points are up for grabs to become the best ranked competitor.
With legs in Rio De Janeiro, Tokyo, Los Angeles, London and Abu Dhabi, the Grand Slam is a chance for athletes to test themselves against the very best and earn the right to qualify for the elite categories of the ADWPJC.
For Brazilian native Tiago Bravo, who will compete in the black belt 69kg division this week, it’s a dream for his compatriots to fly to the UAE for this competition.
“When you hear that Abu Dhabi is hosting a big tournament, then it’s something that all Brazilians want to try out and this means you would see (big) entry numbers at the National Pros (which counts as a qualifying event),” said the 31-year-old Al Ain resident.
“It’s not only Brazilians but it’s in all other countries. They know how big Abu Dhabi is because it really is the capital of jiu-jitsu.”
For Bravo, there was no doubt on which was the best tournament around. “If I had to choose one to compete then it would be the Abu Dhabi World Pro,” he said.
“The stage is amazing and the organisation is unbelieveable and in Abu Dhabi you get prize money if you win, so that can help you pay the bills.”
Like previous years, there will be no shortage of Emiratis in both the adults and kids categories. Last year, more than 4,000 took to the mats in all categories. With an eye on the future, the sport is taught to more than 76,000 kids as part of the curriculum in more than 70 schools in Abu Dhabi.
By introducing this initiative, the UAEJJF not only serves the elite but provides the platform for the nation’s stars of tomorrow to gain vital experience and emerge champions on home soil.
For Abu Dhabi-based Junior, he got a first-hand look at how kids embraced the sport, having worked as an instructor for Abu Dhabi Education Council for a year.
“There’s been big strides made by the UAE,” he said. “I think the TV coverage and the print media has played a crucial role in making this sport popular. This allows the kids to take an interest.
“People can see how the sport can change lives if they read or watch about it. Every year, families come and watch the competition and if children can be inspired, then it’s great news. It’s definitely growing and it’s something that everyone wants to do. All major sports clubs have their own jiu-jitsu squads while even the schools are asking for the sport to be included on their curriculum in the future.”
While the event will be broadcast live on Abu Dhabi Sports in the UAE and abroad, the UAEJJF have also lined up a number of workshops and lectures each day on different topics such as nutrition as well as health and fitness, aimed for those who want to enhance their knowledge in the sport.
With 2017 set to become another big success, the UAEJJF has plans to continue raising the bar.
“We have a lot of objectives that we want to achieve,” said Al Marzooqi. “We are already looking at the possibility of having a bigger festival which will involve even more of the community.”