On Friday night Abdullah Al-Qahtani will step into the ring in Atlanta proudly wearing Saudi Arabia’s colors on the international stage, in the most high-profile bout of his career.
The 24-year-old fighter from Riyadh will take on Lamar Brown of the US at the Overtime Elite Arena in the Featherweight category of Professional Fighters League, which is second only to Ultimate Fighting Championship in popularity among mixed martial arts fans globally.
“When I step out wearing the Saudi flag, I am prepared to do anything to raise it high,” Al-Qahtani told Arab News on the eve of the fight.
Few Saudi or Arab fighters have reached this level, but for Al-Qahtani, progress in recent years has been rapid, leading to tonight’s PFL debut.
Abdullah Al-Qahtani vs Lamar Brown kicks off the action tomorrow on ESPN+!
— PFL (@PFLMMA) June 22, 2023
“I started in 2016 — there was a trial for a tournament, so I went to try out,” said the Moroccan-born fighter. “I had ambitions before that, but I didn’t really know where to go, where to begin. When I went to this trial, I met coach Firas (Zahabi, the Canadian mixed martial artist), and other fighters, and so I started on this path.
“But my biggest supporter has been my mother, God bless her. She’s the one who encouraged me to follow this career.
“I used to train every day, but at that point it was still only at beginner level,” Al-Qahtani, whose speciality is kickboxing, added. “I was trying to learn all the tools … to find a way to enter this industry. After that, I started taking part in amateur fights here and there. In 2018, I had my first offer to fight.”
At the age of 19 he received his first offer to fight from Phoenix MMA in the UK.
“When I started (fighting competitively) in 2018, I was ordinary,” he said. “After I had two fights, I could see that there was improvement, everything was good.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and all the subsequent lockdowns came, things would change drastically for Al-Qahtani. Surprisingly, it was in a very positive sense.
“When COVID came, everything changed for me,” he said. “I realized that I can’t just sit and wait for things to happen for me. So I worked harder and put all my focus in to this, to the point that if at any point a fight opportunity came up, I’d be ready to take it.
“Everything changed, and my fights post-COVID have seen stronger performances.”
Al-Qahtani — with a record of 5-1-0 — trains at Riyadh Combat Club when in the Saudi capital, but currently represents KHK MMA, which is owned by Sheikh Khaled bin Hamad Al-Khalifa of Bahrain.
“I send him my highest regards, because he has supported (me) in everything that I have done,” Al-Qahtani said.
Now the fighter finds himself in PFL, the only MMA organization that has a league season platform.
“I’m still not in the league competition,” he clarified. “I’ve signed a contract with them but not to be in the league yet. That will come after I take part in several fights first.”
He might not be ranked in the league format yet, but Al-Qahtani welcomes the stability that such a structure brings to the profession.
“It helps if, from the beginning, you are following a path where you know at every step what to expect and who you will be fighting and when,” told Arab News from his camp in Atlanta.
Before landing in the US, he had been in training camps, at home and abroad, for almost two-and-a-half months.
“I’m ready, Alhamdulilah,” Al-Qahtani said. “I’ve been preparing in Thailand. Before that I was with Captain Firas and my colleagues at the club, and they have all been very supportive.
“After I returned from Thailand, my coach got me a training partner from Dagestan (Tagir Sagitov), and now I’m here in the US. Unfortunately my coach was unable to join me, but I’ve got plenty of support here, so I’m ready.”
After the fight he will head back to Saudi Arabia, and will then travel with his mother to Morocco for Eid Al-Adha.
Beyond that, there is potentially more training time in Thailand, or a return to the US alongside colleagues such as Ali Al-Qaisi, Jarrah Al-Silawi and Julio Arce.
For now, Al-Qahtani’s sole focus is Lamar Brown in Atlanta, but a win would have him looking forward to fighting more storied names, as he looks to climb the FPL rankings.