A stranger in a strange land.
Although it is absolutely cliche to be saying it as an American traveling abroad and landing in the world of Islam, that doesn’t take any truth away from the sentiment. Immediately upon landing in the Kingdom of Bahrain, the reality of the differences between the culture I experience domestically and the one I would be spending the next three days in were stark. A variety of languages and dialects buzzed through my ears, and my eyes did their best to decipher the signage.
In those moments, an immediate gratitude for arrows and symbols was felt, and a much deeper appreciation for the simple things formed.
After spending 16 hours on multiple flights, I had finally arrived in Bahrain, and long after the taxi had ushered me to my hotel, exchange rates, time-zone jumps and airport Wi-Fi mishaps all cluttered the brain. All I knew going into this trip was that a new MMA team was forming and that Sheikh Khalid bin Hamad was leading the charge to bring the fastest-growing sport in the world to the Kingdom of Bahrain.
The only additional information received was that a collection of UFC fighters that included former lightweight champion and current featherweight contender Frankie Edgar and Dagestani smashing machine Khabib Nurmagomedov would also be involved, in addition to SBG Ireland coaching guru John Kavanagh bringing some of his young talent to Bahrain from Dublin to join KHK.
Also let’s not forget about Renzo Gracie simply because there is nothing about Renzo that is even slightly forgettable. As Edgar would say during his stay, “I’ve known Renzo for years and I’m still hearing new stories to this day.”
While those players being present was enough to spark the type of interest it takes to journey halfway around the world, the greater mystery that lingered above the light of the laptop on the first night on the shores of the Persian Gulf was how all of those pieces fit together. In less than 24 hours I would have those answers and get a front-row seat to see how a sport I’d covered for years was taking hold in a place where it didn't have a footprint six months ago.
“It takes less than 40 minutes to travel from bottom to top in Bahrain.”
Those were the words the driver explained to me as we zipped north on the highway heading to the new KHK MMA Team gym. Because of flight delays and a couple swell times in customs, I missed the nationally televised press conference that would be the grand unveiling of KHK. I was still able to catch a replay the next morning in my hotel room and can honestly say it was strange, albeit exciting, to see MMA on such a platform.
On one side of Sheikh Khalid was Gracie, and on the other side was Edgar, and they watched as every member of the newly formed squad came up one at a time to receive his official contracts. Granted, pageantry is commonplace where royalty and official kingdom business are concerned—and make no mistake about it, KHK’s growth will involve foreign relations—but the point of the press conference was a straightforward announcement.
Watching the teleconference was my initial exposure to KHK, but I would get a much better understanding by seeing the fight team in action during my first full day in Bahrain.
Upon arriving at the training facility, I was greeted by Mohammed “The Hawk” Shahid, who is also the team manager and works hand-in-hand with Sheikh Khalid in how talent is groomed at the grass-roots level in Bahrain. Sheikh Khalid and Shahid decided the best method of growing KHK was to do a series of public tryouts, with each drawing thousands of spectators.
“All of those people came to just watch the tryouts,” Shahid told Bleacher Report. “That really showed us how excited people are for MMA here. We know there is a lot of work to be done, but we are committed to building a great team here at KHK.”
The team at KHK is also advised by World Series of Fighting vice president and MMA staple in the United States, Ali Abdel-Aziz. While Abdel-Aziz doesn’t serve an official role in the system, his Middle Eastern roots and friendship with Sheikh Khalid have created an avenue for up-and-coming Bahraini talent to gain exposure to some of the premier fighters competing around the globe. Abdel Aziz lends his assistance and knowledge about the sport to advise Sheikh Khalid and Shahid on talent and team structure.
“I have accomplished so much in MMA but never contributed anything to the Middle East,” Abdel-Aziz said. “Now I have the opportunity to help a wonderful guy like Prince Khalid. I believe he has the right team in place. Mohammed Shahid is the team manager and he will do a great job for them. He is very passionate. I will help them with anything they want.”
That afternoon at the KHK gym, former UFC and current Titan FC fighter Alex Soto and his squad all hit the training mats for a grappling session. SBG Ireland’s highly touted prospects Frans Mlambo and James Gallagher worked out with a variety of fighters, with Kavanagh rolling during the session as well.
Midway through the practice, the Dagestani contingent led by Nurmagomedov and Islam Makhachev joined in. The Russian fighters had logged late hours in the facility the night prior and came back refreshed to hit Saturday’s run full-tilt.
As Nurmagomedov walked around the mats, offering his assistance and grappling expertise, the thud of Makhachev slamming his shins off pads during a mitt session thundered through the gym. KHK team member and wrestling coach Eldar Eldarov hit the mats to instruct the fighters on technique, and it wasn’t long before bodies were literally flying through the air at various points of the practice.
Educations in MMA never come easily, and there were no shortage of lessons being handed out at KHK long after the desert sun, or as Kavanagh would later point out, "the last standing bit of mirage of an already downed sun," disappeared.
An easy-natured vortex of philosophy and ideals, that John Kavanagh. An intriguing man indeed.
And while it was clear that KHK is in the early stages of its conception, the team’s vision was also clear as well. The goal of the Bahrain-based collective is to build a unit formed of the best domestic talent available while bringing in fighters like Nurmagomedov and Edgar to expose the roster to elite-level talent.
The ultra-talented Dagestan-born fighter has been a nightmare in the ranks of the UFC’s lightweight division since hitting the biggest stage in the sport back in 2012. He is potentially one fight away from a title opportunity, so having Nurmagomedov as a KHK representative will serve to bring spotlight to the team in addition to the shared knowledge that comes from having the undefeated title contender training with the Bahrain-based squad.
That’s a strong move for a team whose focus is bigger than just building a great fight team in its home country, as Sheikh Khalid’s vision is to bring MMA to Bahrain on a much larger scale. And from some of the things I witnessed firsthand, those efforts appear to be working.
“I received a message from Mohammed Shahid telling me that Sheikh Khalid was very interested in my joining the team,” Nurmagomedov said. “It is great for me, my family and teammates, and I will do everything I can to make our team at KHK one of the best in the world. Sheikh Khalid has done a great job with giving his attention and creating a great opportunity for the fighters on this team. He wants to make his team in Bahrain one of the best in the world, and I believe we can make that happen.
“There is a lot of work to be done, but everyone in the gym is committed to working hard,” he added. “Joining KHK is great for me, my family and teammates. And it is great for MMA in Dagestan. I went to the U.S. to make my name in MMA and now we are doing our part to help share the sport around the world. We are focused on growing a great team in Bahrain and I believe that will happen.”
Although it would be impossible for a man of his stature to escape the essence that comes with royalty, Sheikh Khalid’s drive and focus in regard to KHK and MMA in general was absolutely noticeable. Not only did he attend the training session at KHK but also participated in the practice as well.
There is nothing soft about what goes into putting the human body through a grappling session, and watching a member of a royal family work past a closed guard was a sight to behold. Khalid’s tenacity and athleticism was impressive to say the least, as the Sheikh rolled with a multitude of partners during the session.
As the training was drawing to a close, Mlambo squared off in a sparring session with one of his fellow amateurs, while Khalid sat at the edge of the mat, paying keen attention to the slick footwork involved in the Black Mamba’s striking attack. After several rounds and many straight right-hand counters and power slams were exchanged, the practice came to a conclusion, and fighters and coaches floated around to assess the session with the KHK squad members, because that is the culture that is being built at KHK.
Rather than scoop up a bunch of notable and experienced names to wear the logo and represent the fight team, the core group at KHK is focused on building things up from the ground level. They started with the formation of an amateur team, and now they are at a point where they are getting ready to shift that focus to the professional ranks. They aren’t just looking at the bigger picture; they are willing to do the work it takes to establish themselves and Bahraini MMA as a fixture on the global scene.
It is going to take a lot of work to accomplish their goals, but the drive and the moxie to make that happen seem to be in large supply. Outside of the established names on the team’s roster, the rest of the collective talent is still in raw form, but that was the intention of the men behind the construction of KHK. They want to plant the seeds of a fight culture in Bahrain, and from what I saw over a several-day span on the island nation, that is currently underway.
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.