On Instagram earlier this month TK MMA posted a picture of Emirati mixed martial artist Mohammad Yahya slumped to his knees and vomiting.
Yahya had just eaten a brutal body shot in training having not long broken fast during the holy month of Ramadan and the caption accompanying the grisly ordeal, said: “So you want to be a fighter?”
It’s an appropriate question because MMA is not a sport for everyone.
It’s certainly not a sport which will have been viewed as a genuine career path for someone of Yahya’s social standing as he began training at 15.
But the 23-year-old is a unique athlete and one the UAE should be extremely proud of as he became the first Emirati mixed martial artist to be signed up to an international promotion after Bellator handed him a four-fight contract this month.
For the uninitiated, it’s a significant step in putting his country on the MMA map as the Viacom-backed promotion are rapidly developing into a genuine competitor in a landscape dominated by the UFC.
Indeed, Bellator have stamped their own authority on a market which is beginning to gain mainstream notoriety with some of the biggest names competing under their banner.
The likes of Rory MacDonald, considered one of the best welterweights on the planet, former UFC lightweight champ Benson Henderson and GOAT heavyweight legend Fedor Emelianenko all head up an impressive roster which Yahya has now joined.
The Emirati is unapologetically ambitious and has no issue articulating his desire to one day fight for the UFC, but the blueprint is clear having been signed by Bellator.
Yahya will fight at lightweight, a division which is one of Bellator’s most talent-rich and has developed notable stars like their former champ Eddie Alvarez who went on to claim the UFC’s 155lbs title.
Although Yahya will humbly avoid the subject, at least for now, he is already something of a pioneer for UAE sport, but in being ‘the first’ there is undoubted pressure.
However, he is not just happy to carry the prestige but also embrace it.
“What can I say? A storm is coming,” he tells Sport360 sweat dripping from his brow and his breathe still broken having just come off the training mat at TK MMA.
“I’m not going to let this slip from my hands. This is my dream and I’ve worked hard for this so I’m going to go in there 100 percent and make sure I get the W.
“Having my country behind me is a huge motivation. Everyone wants to represent their country somehow and I’m representing the UAE in the cage and I hope I can make my people proud and put the UAE on the MMA map.
“Every fighter’s goal is to make it to the UFC and I’m no different.
“I’ve watched it since I was a kid and to be in the Octagon would fulfil a lifelong ambition.
“I’m 23 now and I want to be in the UFC when I’m 25, for sure. That’s the aim, that’s the goal I’ve set myself to be in the UFC in two years time.”
Fulfilling the prophecy requires an immense work ethic simply because of the dextrous nature of MMA.
The new generation of fighters are some of the most complete and well-rounded the sport has ever seen because they are brought up on MMA rather than transitioning from one discipline such as Muay Thai or boxing.
Yahya is demonstrative of the new gen having produced a submission finish to tap out Mahmoud Mohamed in May at Dubai Fight in just his fifth pro bout without throwing a single stand-up strike.
He already has four wins as a professional with his sole loss a controversial early TKO stoppage against Hassan Talal late last year.
But watching his fights, it’s easy to see why Bellator have taken notice and the hope is after a potential American debut in August or September, the promotion will head to Dubai.
“I’ll fight whenever,” Yahya says. “The first fight will hopefully be in America and then we will try to bring Bellator to Dubai.
“Tam (Yahya’s coach and owner of TK MMA, Tam Khan) has been talking to the bosses there and is trying to get a card here so it’d be incredible to be able to fight in front of my home crowd.”
Yahya hasn’t given potential opponents too much consideration – only stating that he will “genuinely fight anyone” in exciting bouts, rather than padding his records to get noticed.
Training out of Dubai at TK MMA, Yahya has a strong team to help nurture his talent. Former fighter Tam Khan is his MMA coach, Benjey Zimmerman, a key member of decorated UFC heavyweight Alistair Overeem’s team, serves as his striking coach while legendary kickboxer Gokhan Saki is on hand to train with, now that the UFC’s latest addition to the 205lbs division trains out of TK MMA.
It’s a “bulletproof” blend, according to Yahya, and the mix of experienced coaching and world-class training partners are married to the support of his country and crucially his family – though that initially wasn’t the case.
“My family didn’t think I was going to pick it up as a career and obviously no mum would want to see their son get punched or kicked in the face so in the beginning they weren’t really supportive,” Yahya explains.
“When they saw that I was winning my fights and I knew that this was what I wanted to do, my mum, my dad and my whole family got right behind me.
“I have my older brother who is not really into sports but he is so supportive and he has helped me a lot.
“He comes to every single fight and he always pushes me and pulls me up when I’m slipping.
“He won’t even let me drink Pepsi sometimes but it’s great to have him so invested in my career.”
Yahya’s parents are yet to see him fight live but he is hopeful that will change when he hits the big stage.
“My dad always want to come but I’m not sure about my mum,” he says.
“I don’t really like the energy of having my family there, though.
“For such an intense environment you want good energy around you and of course because she is so nervous it’s not great for my focus.
“One day when I reach the very top I hope they will come to see me fight.”
Yahya is under no illusions of the challenge ahead, but he is both inspired and motivated by the image of making his walk to the cage on a world stage draped in the UAE flag.
“There’s a lot of pressure of course but when I put that flag around me it sends chills down my spine because I know then that I am doing this for my country,” he says.
“I just want to put the UAE on the map and Bellator is one of the biggest stages in the world for me to do just that.”
“I used to love Chuck Liddell because of his knockouts but my favourite fighter is Rashad Evans. In his prime he was the most complete fighter I’ve seen in the UFC with takedowns, striking and the way he puts it all together.“
“I’ve already seen a lot of trash talk on the regional circuit so I’m well prepared for that.
“I’ve been trash talked a lot by Gulf fighters and they’re the worst trash talkers ever.
“One guy made a video about me and it went viral. It’s actually my biggest win in terms of shaping my career because Ali Al-Naemi was cussing me on YouTube and calling me Baby Face. Then I made him give up as he didn’t come out for the third round.”
“I love Conor McGregor and marvel at what he’s done but I don’t actually think he’s the best fighter in the UFC.
“Obviously he’s one of the top fighters and I really appreciate his movement and timing.
“Every fighter should master their movement because it’s so key to what we do.
“With Mayweather, I obviously want him to win but he has no chance. He’s in it for the money and he knows it himself but you can’t knock him for that.”
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Floyd Mayweather’s super-fight with Conor McGregor is building momentum as the Mirror have reported the MGM Grand in Las Vegas has been booked to showcase the bout on August 26.
McGregor teased fans on social media last night by posting a cryptic message on his channels as he said “Something BIG is coming”.
And Mayweather’s promotional company has reserved the MGM Grand, a venue he fought at for the final 12 fights of his career, with ‘Money’ widely expected to come out of retirement to face the UFC lightweight champion in a crossover spectacle.
McGregor confirmed last month he had completed his side of the negotiations with UFC president Dana White then proceeding to open discussions with Mayweather’s adviser Al Haymon.
The undefeated 49-0 boxer has been pictured sparring while the Nevada Athletic Commission’s website has a boxing event booked by Mayweather Promotions on their calendar for August 26 with ShowTime, Mayweather’s long-time broadcast partner, televising the projected £500million clash.
McGregor celebrated becoming a father for the first time last month and hasn’t fought since becoming the UFC’s first simultaneous two-weight world champion after stopping Eddie Alvarez in November at UFC 205.
The Irishman has never competed professionally in boxing while Mayweather is widely regarded as one of the best ever.
When WME/IMG purchased the UFC for over $4 billion in 2016, even the most diligent observers won’t have envisaged quite how painful the teething problems would be.
They certainly won’t have predicted that the UFC’s ultimate company man, longtime flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson, would be the one to bite them the hardest.
Indeed, it’s indicative of just how poorly this year is playing out for the company that it is Johnson of all people who is the latest to speak out of term.
The narrative of 2017 has been one smeared by weak pay-per-view sales, injury-hit cards and a growing tide of roster discontent as athletes continue to voice their dissatisfaction at how they are treated or how much they are paid.
But the latest most explosive example is deeply concerning for the owners on a number of levels.
To paint the entire picture, Johnson’s swelling anger is aimed squarely at UFC President Dana White and matchmaker Sean Shelby who he accused of “bullying tactics” over his next opponent.
After decimating Wilson Reis in April to knock off yet another 125lbs contender, ‘Mighty Mouse’ moved level with the great Anderson Silva on a record 10 straight title defences.
In doing so, he not only cemented his status as the No1 pound-for-pound fighter on the planet but he also added credence to his GOAT claim as attentions turned to possible opponents for his record-breaking bout.
No3 ranked Ray Borg, bantamweight champion Cody Garbradnt and former 135lbs title holder TJ Dillashaw were all suggested, but it’s the latter’s inclusion on that list which has drawn the ire of Johnson and sparked the dispute.
His anger it seems has stemmed from White’s appearance earlier this month on the UFC’s ‘Unfiltered’ podcast where he labelled Johnson’s refusal to fight Dillashaw as “insanity”.
He responded by releasing a lengthy and impassioned statement released via MMAFighting.com last week, in which he wrote: “For years, I have been a company man and kept quiet, accepting fights, doing as they asked and always remaining humble and grateful for the opportunities provided to me through mixed martial arts.
“Unfortunately, UFC’s mistreatment and bullying has finally forced me to speak out.”
No matter how you unpack Johnson’s chagrin, his vexation is not a good look for a promotion obsessively seeking legitimacy among other prestigious sports leagues like the NFL and NBA.
One week they are opening up a $12 million performance institute in Las Vegas but then the next they stand accused of mistreating the most talented fighter on their books.
And it raises plenty of questions for White’s hostile and oppressive approach because it’s difficult to imagine the NBA disparaging LeBron James or the NFL vilifying Odell Beckham Jr. in the way he has Johnson.
Ultimately, the champion feels disrespected and he has every right to because his reasons for turning down Dillashaw are perfectly valid.
After all, Dillashaw has never fought or even wrestled at 125lbs and if he can make weight, it’s not a healthy process to be advocated.
Mini Mouse or Mighty Mouse? Dont be scared! This is the fight game, I've takin title fights on 24hrs notice. I'm already waking up at 143lbs pic.twitter.com/5TMS8zbXAX— TJ Dillashaw (@TJDillashaw) June 5, 2017
Miss weight and Johnson’s shot at history disappears, make weight and beat him then the division will be left in disarray because you can guarantee Dillashaw won’t remain at flyweight.
It’s a fight which makes little sense and White’s aggression may have been accepted in the past but it’s no longer useful.
The friction doesn’t appear to be easing off anytime soon with the UFC supremo firing back yesterday by questioning his bully tag and claiming Conor McGregor as the No1 fighter on the planet because, “he’ll fight anybody, anywhere, anytime”.
Something has to give and money is the answer. If the UFC is so intent on matching Johnson and Dillashaw up then they should dig deep into their wallet and pay the man.
If he hasn’t earned the right to pick his opponent then he at least has earned the right to be paid.
Light-heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier suggested the UFC fork out $1 million for Johnson and make the fight.
In the short term, paying that sort of money will be a kick in the teeth but the long term side effects of continuing this public spat could be far more wounding.