Every Friday evening in Dubai’s bustling Deira district, a sandy lot is transformed into the ring of champions. It is kushti wrestling night and Kala Pehlwan is ready to fight.
As the sun sinks below towering palm trees, dozens of men – many in tunics, others in T-shirts – begin to form a perfect circle.
Most are Pakistani or Indian, from the cross-border region of Punjab, where kushti is a beloved pastime. They are also a pillar of the United Arab Emirates’ workforce.
Veteran wrestlers, now referees, pour water over the inner ring to minimise dust.
A peanut vendor drags a rickety cart around the circle, tending to the crowd – now three rows deep.
“Clink, clink, clink,” ring out wooden cymbals with bells.
The wrestlers unabashedly strip down to their underwear, donning yellow, red, or even floral-patterned loincloths.
“Kala Pehlwan, son, come to the ring! Suhail, son, come to the ring,” cries out 50-year-old Mohammed Iqbal – a Dubai kushti fixture.
Glaring, the opponents swipe one another’s bodies with sand – a reciprocal move to counter sweat.
The day’s matches are quick – sometimes under a minute – and hard fought.
A foot is trapped between a rival’s legs, a fighter flips over his opponent’s shoulders to escape his grip. One pins his match down on his stomach and throws sand in his face before getting restrained by the referees.
Spectators dart into the ring to film fights. Others watch in rapture, breaking out in cheers at decisive moments in the match.
The winner is declared when a fighter manages to pin his opponent to the ground on his back.
If the fight starts going over 20 minutes, the referees declare a tie.
On this evening, Kala Pehlwan finds himself overpowered – and faced with a challenge.
“Find me a fighter that can beat me,” his opponent taunts.
Kala Pehlwan, 26, huddled with friends and came up with a plan. They would find a challenger — not from Dubai, but from their hometown of Muzaffargarh in the Punjab region of Pakistan.
Within days, they had gathered the money, throwing in 50-100 Dirhams (roughly $15-25, 12-20 euros) each to pay for a plane ticket.
“I can’t meet you tonight I’m going to the airport,” Kala Pehlwan tells AFP one Monday evening.
Two days later, AFP met Kala Pehlwan at his workplace, Dubai’s gleaming Waterfront Market.
Row upon row of ice-topped stalls are laden with fresh fish from Oman, Sri Lanka and beyond – a testament to the shipping hub that is Dubai.
The stalls bear the names of Emirati owners, but South Asians are the face of the market.
“We have connections from Pakistan at the fish market,” says Kala Pehlwan. This is where he learned about the kushti matches when he arrived in Dubai six years ago.
The brawny fighter enters the delivery area, crossing paths with his mentor, Mohammed Iqbal, who is pushing a cart of fish.
“When I enter the market everyone is excited. They recognise me and know my name. And if there is any problem, they come to help me because I’m famous,” Kala Pehlwan grins.
That evening, Mohammed Shahzad – the challenger from Muzaffargarh – tags along.
Dressed in a crisp, blue tunic, Shahzad, 22, says he didn’t hesitate when he received Kala Pehlwan’s call.
“The other fighter beat my friend and challenged him to find someone who can knock him out… so I came to Dubai,” he grinned.
No kushti, no life
Kala Pehlwan says kushti is a way of life back in Muzaffargarh.
“In our town, it’s a tradition to learn wrestling. Everybody grows up on kushti. They do not have bad habits like cigarettes or drugs. Everyone is trying to be fit for a fight.”
Kala Pehlwan – whose real name is Mohammed Arsalan – took his nom de guerre from a hometown legend who shares his fighting style.
He says a proper diet, coach and training are key to success. Eating right is his biggest challenge in an expensive metropolis.
Here, the fish market has some benefits.
“Fish is my favourite dish. It is the healthiest food because in Dubai, most things are coming in frozen form but fish is fresh. Every other day I am eating a fish from the market. We are getting free fish from our employer at the end of the day,” Kala Pehlwan says, returning to stack crates.
For Kala Pehlwan and many of his friends, Dubai is a temporary stage in life — a place to save cash before returning home.
They work hard and sleep in shifts.
AFP obtained permission to film at the men’s residence but was unable to because it would have disrupted the group’s sleeping patterns.
“We all have our jobs here. Some are porters, some work in the fish market,” Iqbal says ahead of a Friday match.
But kushti, he adds, “is our tradition. It’s where we come to de-stress.”
‘Better than fighting in anger’
Iqbal wrestled for more than two decades in Dubai before passing the torch to the next generation, whom he takes the time to train each evening before work.
“It’s not hard to get a space for these fights because in Dubai they always want entertainment and encourage us.
“The (authorities) say arranging fights like this is better than fighting in anger where you live or at your workplace,” said Iqbal.
Kala Pehlwan says he can earn 500-600 Dirhams ($135-$165) on a good night – the money collected in a plastic bag by the referee and champion – but kushti is not about money.
“We can’t enjoy life, we can’t have a good time if we don’t have wrestling in Dubai,” he said.
When Friday night comes around again, it’s the visiting challenger Shahzad who wins.
Provided by AFP Sport
With video gaming events gaining in popularity the world over, Dubai is set to get its very own dedicated esports stadium which will be a first for the UAE.
Named the Dubai X-Stadium, the project has been jointly initiated by Dubai Media Office and TECOM Group. Once complete, the esports stadium will establish Dubai as a regional and global hub for hosting video gaming events.
Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and chairman of the board of trustees of Dubai Future Foundation has endorsed the project under the Dubai 10X initiative.
“We are living in a world where digital culture is reshaping all aspects of life, including sports. This has led us to develop the concept of Dubai X-Stadium, which will consolidate Dubai’s status as a key digital economy hub,” Mona Ghanem Al Marri, director general of the Dubai Media Office said.
#Dubai X-Stadium will establish Dubai as a premier destination for digital video gaming competitions through the joint project between @DXBMediaOffice and @TECOMGroupDubai#Dubai10X @Dubai10X
— Dubai Media Office (@DXBMediaOffice) April 15, 2018
“The idea aims at attracting millions of esports gamers, spectators and enthusiasts from around the world and offering them unique on-line and in-person experiences,” she added.
The global video gaming industry is currently valued at $99.6 billion with revenues estimated to cross the $1.5 billion mark by 2020. As such, the Dubai X-Stadium is poised to play a vital role in this segment upon completion.
Esport events provide the perfect confluence of the media, gaming and event industries and are a huge hit among the younger demographics the world over.
“TECOM Group, a member of Dubai Holding, is proud to take part in conceptualizing the Dubai X-Stadium, where we seek to attract and harness the creativity, talent and innovation of young generations, which is largely in line with our strategic vision in TECOM Group,” said Malek Al Malek, CEO of the TECOM Group.
England’s Ethan Hayter will get another chance to bolster his burgeoning reputation at the Commonwealth Games this week.
The 19-year-old was compared to Sir Bradley Wiggins by team-mate Ed Clancy after a star turn in helping Great Britain win the team pursuit at the UCI Track Cycling World Championships in Apeldoorn at the start of last month.
It is a comparison the Londoner is keen to downplay, but speaks to his enormous potential.
“I don’t know if that was a bit in the heat of the moment,” Hayter said of Clancy’s comments.
“I did a good ride and obviously I feel like I am capable of doing well in the future but I don’t know how far you can compare us without putting pressure on myself.
“I think it was funny, is how I’ll put it. But I don’t want to keep being compared to him. I’d rather be myself.”
That said, Hayter admits receiving such praise from a three-time Olympic champion meant a huge amount to him – almost as much as the gold medal around his neck.
“Even though you’ve just won the worlds, it was actually more of a confidence boost,” he said.
Hayter will test himself in the team pursuit, individual pursuit, points race and scratch race in Brisbane once racing gets under way on Thursday, having also been named as a reserve for next week’s road race on the Gold Coast.
Britain enjoyed a successful World Championships in Apeldoorn, in the Netherlands, picking up six medals in all, but were helped by the fact Australia were largely absent – their focus firmly on being ready to shine on home soil in this event.
“I think obviously they’ll come here really strong,” Hayter said. “They’ll hit it really hard whereas for us our focus remains on the Olympic cycle.
“The worlds was a big stage for us. We’re going well now but not as good as at the worlds, and obviously not as well as whoever the team will be at the Olympics. We’re doing quick times though, so we’ll have a good chance to beat them.”
Another rider who impressed greatly in Apeldoorn was Emily Nelson, who took silver as part of the team pursuit squad before winning gold alongside Katie Archibald in the Madison as a late replacement for Elinor Barker.
At the Commonwealth Games, Scotland’s Archibald and Wales’ Barker go from team-mates to rivals – a change Nelson finds refreshing.
“There’s eight of us from Britain who are really strong, but here you have Katie and Elinor, both Olympic champions, racing for different nations as well as the England girls, and Neah Evans from Scotland making up a really strong field,” the 21-year-old said. “The dynamics of the racing will be really interesting.”
Laura Kenny was part of the Britain squad that took team pursuit silver in Apeldoorn – racing just six months after giving birth – but she will not compete here as others get their chance.
“For the team pursuit, although the Britain squad is split up the four in the England squad are really strong so it’s nice to see different faces in the squad as well,” Nelson said. “They get a chance to show what they can do.”