DUBAI: Few people haven’t had their lives turned upside down by the Covid-19 pandemic. As the spread of the virus spiked in March, almost all sporting competitions around the world came to halt.
Athletes were left uncertain about their immediate and long-term futures. Worse still, many found themselves in lockdown, away from family and friends – for some - on the other side of the world.
For Jordanian Bantamweight fighter Ali Al-Qaisi, at the time on a training camp in the US, it meant being stuck away from his homeland for almost seven months.
There was nothing else he could do but make the best out of a bad situation.
“All the gyms were closed, there was no one to help with training,” Al-Qaisi said. “But I tried to take the positive out of the situation. I created my own schedule. Which meant training alone, conditioning, training outside. I tried to make sure I retained a good balance.”
Al-Qaisi was born and raised in Jordan, where he still lives, and had been involved in several sports since a very young age. He only became involved in mixed martial arts (MMA) in 2015, when he was 25.
After stints with Desert Force, Phoenix Fighting Championship and Brave had given him a career record of 8-3-0, he became the first Jordanian to join UFC, the sport’s pre-eminent organization, earlier this year.
On Aug.3 8, he fought, and lost by a split decision to the American Irwin Rivera at UFC Fight Night 174 in Las Vegas. Despite the disappointment, he got the call to take part in Abu Dhabi’s Fight Island 2 a few weeks later, while restarting his training camp.
On Sunday, Alqaisi, nicknamed “The Royal Fighter”, will take part in Fight Night 2, the third of the five-event series, which kicked off with UFC 253 on Sept. 27 and which will conclude with UFC 254 on Oct. 24.
“The location is excellent, it’s very comfortable,” he said of Yas Island, which has been turned into a safe zone for all fighters and staff taking part. “I landed here on Oct. 3 and then had two days of quarantine in my hotel room. I had a mat in the room so I could train. After that I had to work on bringing my weight down and doing all my media duties with Abu Dhabi Sports.”
Friday will see him at the weigh-in before he takes on Tony Kelley on Sunday morning.
Fight Island 1 was the first post-coronavirus lockdown international event to attract athletes from around the world, and its success encouraged the organizers to go bigger with the follow-up. To keep the fighters entertained through some of the down time, Yas Island has provided plenty of activities and facilities, such as golf and private beaches, for the fighters.
But with his second UFC fight so close now, Al-Qaisi insists he’s only focused on one thing.
“To be honest, I’m only thinking of making the weight, my training and the fight,” he said. “Yes, there are a lot of activities but I have to be focused at the moment.”
On Sunday, Al-Qaisi and the other fighters will be performing to an empty Yas Forum. Having fought Rivera in similar circumstances, he feels ready for the challenge.
“It’s a strange sensation,” he said. “We are so used to fighting in front of an audience. I’m very grateful that I have a large fanbase and I’m used to having them present and supporting me. The fight I had in August without fans was a little strange, but I acclimatized quickly and now I’m used to fighting (behind closed doors).”
“In my training camp, we made sure that in the gym I was there only with my training partner and coach, to get even more used to this normality,” he added.
Still, as one of only two Arab fighters taking part in Fight Island 2, Al-Qaisi has been overwhelmed with messages of support that have been reaching him in recent days.
“I’m getting such strong support from the Jordanian fans, the Arab fans,” he said. “I’m very grateful, it gives me good energy ahead of the fight.”
Al-Qaisi is aware that he, like Tunisian UFC fighter Mounir Lazzez, are blazing a trail for aspiring MMA fighters in the Arab world. It is a role he relishes.
“I’m very proud to be representing Arabs, and Jordan in particular,” he said. “Especially that I’m the first Jordanian to take part in UFC. I’m very excited for the coming fight, and hoping that it will be the first ever Jordanian win. Of course, I’m honored to be thought of as a role model for a new generation of athletes and MMA fighters in the Arab world.”
Like most athletes during these uncertain times, Al-Qaisi sees little point in looking too far ahead. The bout against Kelley, for now, consumes him.
“All my thoughts are on this fight,” said Al-Qaisi. “After that I will return to Jordan. Once I get back home, I’ll start training again, and only then will I start looking to the next steps in my career.”
A win on Sunday should secure that his third UFC fight, in Las Vegas, Abu Dhabi or elsewhere, is not too far off.