A UWC and Cage Rage veteran turned MMA pioneer, Britain’s Tam Khan launched Dubai’s first and leading MMA training facility, Contender MMA Center, in 2010 hosting guests such as Wanderlei Silva, Royce Gracie, Anderson Silva and Amir Khan. The Dubai Fighting Championship CEO gave MMA PLUS an insight into his development in mixed martial arts and the pioneering work of raising the world’s ‘fastest growing sport’ in the world’s fastest growing city.
What lead you to begin an MMA career as both a fighter and promoter in Dubai?
“I was a typical boy growing up. My dad was not a fighter but we liked to watch Mike Tyson when I was younger, as well as Bruce Lee and Van Damme movies, etc. London is not like Dubai, in school you have fights, so I started boxing, just a local club. I was into combat, always being a bit of a naughty boy and then one day I saw some magazine, FHM or some lad’s mag, had an article on the Gracies, this “undefeated cage-fighter family”, “they’re the best” and I was like, “What is this?” I started looking into it and I realised there was a thing called ‘UFC’. We got a tape somehow from our local video store and watched it and I thought, “Wow, look at this Royce Gracie!” He was skinny, he didn’t look tough, it wasn’t like the Mike Tyson’s you’re used to, you know. This skinny guy in his gi is just tapping out these guys and he’s not even punching and we’re all like, “What is this?” We didn’t know all the moves. He was putting them to sleep with his legs. When I first saw him do a triangle choke against Dan Severn, I was like “Wow! This guy’s unbelievable!” I researched and it was only in California, it was nowhere in Britain. This was around 1998 or 1999. Funnily enough, there was one guy in my same area called Daniel Burzotta and I remember meeting him on the street, I heard he was a champion in this jiu jitsu thing and his family had a restaurant in town and I walked past and there was an advert, ‘Gracie Jiu Jitsu taught by Daniel Burzotta’. I walked in and said, “What’s this, you’re not a Gracie”, he said “No, but I trained with them in California”. He was a blue belt off Royce Gracie. I was like, “Really? You can teach this?” He said, “Yeah”. We were in a church hall we rented with a few mats, about 5 people.
As far as MMA went in Britain, there were maybe 3 names, Lee Murray, Ian Freeman, Lee Hasdale. This was before Bisping. We starting training jiu jitsu and I fell in love. I remember, on my first day, I was a big guy and there was this one kid who had a few weeks more training than me and he was sticking me in this armbar. I couldn’t beat this guy. I was like, “What the hell am I doing?” He just kept tapping me. I thought it was unbelievable and I fell in love with jiu jitsu. My coach became one of my best friends, to this day, he’s helped me so much. He’s a black belt now, from Royce Gracie. From there, we all started promoting it and the club became busy. Then we rented a gym, we had bags and it was the latest gym in Southend-on-Sea, Essex and he invited Royce Gracie for a seminar and we were all starstruck. I remember when he first came in, we were like, “Whoa, it’s Royce Gracie, you know!”. When he came, he just legitimised everything and I never turned back.
After that, MMA got bigger. The UFC got more mainstream. Then Tito Ortiz was an influence for me. He was the guy who made it more mainstream, you know. Between UFC 5 or 6 and 20 or something, I didn’t really see it, it kind of went downhill when Royce Gracie and these kinds of guys left. Tito brought it back to mainstream and Dana White bought Zuffa and from there it all went uphill again. Then MMA starting getting a bit more mainstream in London. Daniel and his brother formed a show called UWC in Essex and I made my debut in 2006. Daniel made his debut in 2004, I cornered him. He defeated Francis Carmont, who is currently undefeated in the UFC. Daniel beat him in the main event and won the title. On that same undercard, Michael Bisping was a kid making a name for himself. So I was around all these guys that were making it.
Hanging around people like Royce, I became really interested in the coaching side. I’ve been around and seen how the sport really works. I really have such passion for it.”
With the great wealth that Dubai is known for, how much potential do you feel the sport has on a domestic level in terms of investors and bringing over high profile fighters to compete, is there anything in the pipeline?
“There’s a lot of potential but when people see Dubai, they see money. But in Dubai it’s actually very difficult because it’s a new sport here, we’re a few years behind the west. There’s a stigma because it’s very brutal and bloody so sponsorship is very tough here, I’ll be honest. You name a potential sponsor and I’ve been there, showing presentations about safety. They say, “We love the idea, we love the sport but our manager thinks that to put, I don’t know, for example, Pepsi with bloody sports, is not the way”, so it’s been very tough to get the show that we’re doing. DFC4 has been years of hard work. Even before I started DFC, just trying to get sponsors for kids in the gym was tough, you know. Parents are reluctant because it’s cage fighting. But now after one year exactly, it’s our fourth show and I’m bringing out fighters like Paul Daley because it allows me to get that exposure to the masses. So at Paul’s fight, they’ll see the other talents. My whole undercard is all local talent. I want to breed the local guys and give them a chance. Back in the day, we fought in school halls with people smoking, no glitz, just turn up at 16h00. We’re giving them big screens, walk-outs, public weigh-ins. It’s like UFC, so they’re going to feel like a star.
We’re trying to give them promo videos, get them out on social media so people will recognize these guys. I want to make them feel like they’re GSP, like Anderson and I think with the signing of the main sponsor, SkyDive Dubai, and Alchemy Projects who’ve had concerts with 50 Cent, Nicki Minaj, they’re the biggest events company in the Middle East by far, they’ve jumped on board and the only way is up now. With this show, we’ve gone to a bigger arena and it’s not like we’re bringing out has-beens, Paul Daley is a current top fighter who was sacked from the UFC, not for being a bad fighter but for an illegal manoeuvre. He was the most dangerous fighter in Bellator. In Strikeforce, he knocked everyone out. The only guys who have beat him are the world’s best. Nick Diaz and, Josh Koscheck had to control him for 3 rounds on the floor so this guy is the crème de la crème of strikers, in my opinion. He’s exciting, he comes out to strike and to have him headline, he’s so excited himself, he just can’t wait. It’s brought that buzz, which we needed just to get exposure to show sponsors, this is the sport.
We’re going to stream live for this event, internationally so everyone can see Dubai and Dubai FC. We’ll be the first company in the Middle East to have streaming. So it’s slowly building. We don’t want to run before we can walk but this show is different because of our guests alone. We’ve got Gökhan Saki, Royce Gracie – if it wasn’t for him, there wouldn’t be a UFC, he’s a pioneer of the sport. We’ve got all these big names coming to watch, as well as local royalty. So it’s going to be a real good event and I just hope the public give it more of a chance here. They’ll see it and then sponsors will jump on and then slowly, things like this will not just help us but every other promotion who opens a gym. It’s going to make the sport bigger. I want it to be a hub here, like Thailand is for Thai Boxing. I want fighters to say, “That’s the place to be”, like a new mecca of MMA outside of the States.”
How much of an impact has there been since opening the Contender MMA Centre/Glory MMA Fitness?
“Honestly, when I opened that gym, it really took MMA to another level. If anyone outside of Dubai typed ‘Dubai MMA’ it was Contender that came up, or myself. This new facility we’ve got will take it to the next level. We’ve got a swimming pool, a health spa, etc. It’s huge. I want it to be more of a hub. Not just for beginners but I want international fighters to take camps here. That’s my aim. I want the Paul Daleys, the GSPs, the Condits to say, “Let me go to Dubai, camp up there for a few weeks”, get the altitude, get the heat. I did seminars here with Royce Gracie and Wanderlei Silva. I have people like boxer Amir Khan and Jean-Claude van Damme come to my gym. It’s more popularity this way and we’ve marketed it well and it helps build the promotion because it’s like a hub.”
How does the public awareness of MMA in Dubai differ to the UK?
“In Dubai, they still see it as a little bit thug-related, bloody sport but with the gym, I realised that when parents came to the seminars and kids classes, they saw a confidence in their kids. This works hand in hand with the show and bringing the likes of Royce Gracie out. Also, Kris Fade (radio presenter in Dubai) has raised awareness. Now you see people wearing Tapout shirts, MMA clothing. Now we have MMA shops and it’s shown on TV and it’s so popular.”
Can you take us through some of the top prospects on the Dubai MMA scene that we should look out for, any up-and-comers?
“In my opinion, Mounir Lazzez is the best pound-pound, Middle-Eastern fighter by far. No-one in that division comes near him. He’s got a lot of potential. So has Mohammed Walid, a very good tough guy. Mohammed Yahya, youngest Emirati fighter, still semi-pro but he’s 2-0.”
What are your plans for 2013?
“We’ve got some big projects in the pipeline which we can’t mention yet but watch this space.”
Interview conducted by Donna Vd Merwe on behalf of MMAPLUS