Our MMA expert Alex Rea sat down for an exclusive interview with Bellator's newest edition and the first ever Emirati MMA fighter to be signed to an international promotion
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.”