From Angola to Mongolia, Jordan to Slovenia – jiu-jitsu is a sport on the move. The martial art is currently experiencing major global growth, helped in no small part by substantial investment from the United Arab Emirates.
The Abu Dhabi Grand Slam Jiu-Jitsu World Tour (akin to golf’s Rolex Series) bears the name of the UAE capital while the last week in April saw the sport’s best players congregate at the Mubadala Arena for the season-ending Abu Dhabi World Pro Jiu-Jitsu Championships.
That headline sponsorship has brought the emirates major influence in the combat sport’s governance. The Jiu Jitsu International Federation’s (JJIF) headquarters is now located in Abu Dhabi and His Excellency Abdulmunem Alsayed M. Al Hashmi, the Jiu-Jitsu Asian Union president, sits on the JJIF board alongside fellow Emirati and UAE Jiu-Jitsu Federation CEO, Fahad Al Shamsi.
Al Shamsi has been heavily involved in driving jiu-jitsu’s popularity over the past decade and is proud of the progress made.
“Many people ask why jiu-jitsu has been our focus,” Al Shamsi tells Sport Industry Insider. “The truth is, the sport represents many values that are important to the UAE people. It promotes discipline, respect, friendship, self-confidence, determination. These factors, along with the health benefits, were attractive.
“We have had problems with high levels of obesity and the UAE has for a long time believed that access to sport can be our best tool for taking care of these issues. Jiu-jitsu is great for health and importantly it is very accessible to people of any age, gender, weight class. It is an open sport.”
HE Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, Minister of Tolerance, HE Sheikh Tarik bin Faisal Al Qassemi, Panagiotis Theororopulos
President of the Ju-Jitsu International Federation, and HE Abdulmunam Al Hashemi, Chairman of the @uaejjf, awarded the heroes in #ADWPJJC19 pic.twitter.com/v5il5m4PaQ
— UAEJJF (@uaejjf) April 26, 2019
Given the UAE only began developing jiu-jitsu in 2008, their rise to power in the sport has been impressively swift. An all-in approach from the UAE government has enabled jiu-jitsu to quickly flourish, with investment in education arguably the most important step.
“Introducing a comprehensive schools programme was key,” Al Shamsi explains. “Making it part of our children’s lives. Early on we were testing things, testing how it would be received. We found a good response from the schools and from society. This has been fundamental to the growth.
“Abu Dhabi is known around the world for having the infrastructure to host world-class sporting events like the F1, golf and Asian Cup. But it is important also that we invested in the grassroots, in our people. We are lucky as lovers of sport to have leadership that recognises this and understands the impact sport can have on changing people’s lifestyle.”
This bottom-up approach to jiu-jitsu was somewhat unusual for the UAE. For many years, the elite sporting events have come first, with the hope that inspiration to participate will follow. This time however it was grassroots first, with immediate success not high on the agenda.
“Patience and commitment are important values in jiu-jitsu; it was important to exercise them in governance of the sport, too.”
“If you start by demanding results you don’t give room for the sport to breathe,” Al Shamsi says. “Honestly, it was the last priority for us when we started. Yes, we brought in great coaches from around the world but we also built a great coaching programme training local coaches. For the sport to be sustainable you need your own people.
“We wanted to build something that would have a positive affect for future generations. Patience and commitment are important values in jiu-jitsu so it was important to exercise them in governance of the sport, too. It was about the long-term health of our citizens.”
That patience certainly appears to be paying off. At the 2018 Asian Games, Hamad Nawad and Faisal Al-Ketbi won gold for the UAE, who topped the medal table after also taking home five silver and two bronze medals.
“Now that jiu-jitsu is established, our next goal is to build a strong national team to compete internationally. We have 18 community clubs all over the UAE and an elite training centre in Abu Dhabi. We are building three more – one in Al Ain, one in Shahama and one in Dubai, which should bring us to a higher level, to win championships around the world.”
As General Secretary of the Jiu-Jitsu Asian Union, Al Shamsi played a key role in successfully lobbying for jiu-jitsu to be included the Asian Games for the first time. Unsurprisingly the next target is the Olympic Games proper.
“Yes, we want it to be in the Olympics,” he says. “It is our job to convince the IOC that jiu-jitsu, through the quality of competition and number of countries involved, deserves a place. We have already started this process and are working towards this goal. We have good support from the Olympic Council of Asia and I think in time the IOC will be convinced.
“We are not in a hurry, though. I don’t think Paris in 2024 is realistic but 2028, yes. The Asian Games in Jakarta was a big step and we expect to be in the next Asian Games in China too. We try to use what happened in Asia as a case study to the IOC. There is jiu-jitsu on every continent; the sport deserves to be included.”
More than 100 jiu-jitsu tournaments take place globally each year, with Grand Slam World Tour events in London, Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo Los Angeles, Abu Dhabi and, from next season, Moscow. The piece de resistance, however, is the Abu Dhabi World Pro Jiu-Jitsu Championships. It attracted more than 5,000 players across age and weight categories this year – all chasing a share of jiu-jitsu’s most lucrative prize pot of $600,000.
“The World Pro tournament is now the pinnacle of the sport,” Al Shamsi explains. “The sponsorship we have means that Abu Dhabi is promoted across the world but this is the event everyone wants to participate in. The players must qualify so we have the very best competing.
“We have a fantastic infrastructure for jiu-jitsu here and it is great to welcome so many people from different countries to Abu Dhabi. Our arms are open to players and other federations; we want to share our experience, to exchange ideas and to keep growing the sport.”