Rising from the Unrest

By: James Goyder
Sep 12, 2013
Photo: James Goyder/Sherdog.com

Mahmoud Hassan (left) will carry the weight
of a nation into the cage with him.
The epicenter of a full-blown political and constitutional crisis, Cairo remains dangerously close to descending into complete chaos. Against this backdrop, Egyptian heavyweight Mahmoud Hassan prepares for the most important fight of his life.

Amid the political upheaval, street protests, violence, bloodshed and curfews, he will try to become the first Egyptian mixed martial artist to win inside the One Fighting Championship cage on Friday, when he takes on former muay Thai world champion Alain Ngalaini at One FC 10 “Kojima vs. Leone” in Jakarta, Indonesia. The show’s undercard will stream live and free to Sherdog.com at 7:30 a.m. ET/4:30 a.m. PT.

While many of his compatriots have taken to the streets to voice their anger over the manner in which power was wrestled from Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan decided to hit the pavement to put in his work and try to make the best of a bad situation.

“If you want to be the champ, you should only focus on your training, you should forget everything except your training because this is your life,” he said. “Many of our training sessions have been postponed, but if you want to be a champion, you will train on your bed if you have to.”

One FC has to this point focused primarily on the lighter divisions because of the comparative lack of larger fighters in the region. Historically, heavyweight bouts have always held a certain allure, and Asia’s most prominent mixed martial arts promotion has taken gradual steps towards expanding its roster in that direction.

Hassan in 2012 fought twice for the Extreme Fighting Championship organization in Africa, posting a win and a loss. Now, he has an opportunity to carve out a place in One FC, with an eye towards eventually challenging for heavyweight gold.

“Of course I am excited because I am the first fighter from the Middle East to fight for One FC,” Hassan said, “and my dream and my team’s dream is to get the belt in my gym.”

Hassan operates out of Egyptian Top Team in Nasr City, one of many areas directly affected by the unrest in Egypt. The camp is run by Khalel Abdel Hamid, who has endured the frustration of watching the turmoil wreak havoc on his student’s training schedule.

Many of our training sessions
have been postponed, but if you
want to be a champion, you will
train on your bed if you have to.


-- Mahmoud Hassan, Egyptian heavyweight

“Now, it is difficult for our fighters to train. How can you focus on training when you are afraid for your future?” Hamid asked. “But we do the best we can, even though we have had to postpone our training, change the time [and] change the places. Also, there is a curfew which is new to all Egyptians, and this has affected us, too.”

Hamid is also the man behind the Egyptian Fighting Championship promotion, which was recently re-launched and rebranded as Evolution Fighting Championship. Events had been held regularly at Cairo University, but during the ongoing instability, the school has become the scene of barricades, marches and a serious fire. It even served as a makeshift morgue. Hamid can hardly think about putting on cage fights in the midst of such turmoil and carnage. As a result, his country’s burgeoning MMA scene has grinded to a halt.

“More fans here are starting to like MMA,” Hamid said, “but the revolution in Egypt stopped everything and we have had to postpone our Evolution Fighting Championship events.”

Egyptian Fighting Championship was founded in 2011 and was the first-ever fully fledged MMA organization in a country that stretches from the northeastern corner of Africa to the southwestern edge of Asia. According to Hamid, the promotion was growing in strength, until it was forced to put everything on hold.

“We were the first freelance MMA organization in Egypt at a time when there were no other organizations supporting MMA in the country,” he said, “and EFC rapidly started to gain interest from fighters and fans in Egypt who got us to where we are today.”

Egypt is not a country that has traditionally been associated with competitive fighting, and Hamid admits the success of his fledgling organization came almost out of the blue.

“Against all odds, we made it happen,” he said. “It was the biggest surprise for fighters and fans in Egypt, and we earned the respect of everyone in the region. I can’t tell you how many people were working very hard to get in the cage, craving an opportunity to prove themselves, and they trained hard and made it happen.”

The Ultimate Fighting Championship has not returned to the Middle East since it held a 2010 event in the United Arab Emirates. UFC 112 was notable for Anderson Silva’s bizarre performance against Demian Maia and Frankie Edgar’s controversial victory over B.J. Penn.

In the three years since, a number of MMA promotions have emerged in the region. The most notable among them, Dubai Fighting Championship, has featured British striker Paul Daley and former UFC heavyweight champion Ricco Rodriguez. Meanwhile, the Desert Force Championship organization has held eight events in Jordan. Hamid hopes his Evolution Fighting Championship becomes an integral part of the MMA scene in the Middle East. Undaunted by recent setbacks, he presses forward with ambitious plans.

“Many upcoming events are already planned with experienced professional fighters and referees, and we will start to use an octagonal cage, which the crowd will love,” Hamid said. “Fights will be broadcast on multiple local channels.”

First on the agenda: Hassan’s bout at One FC 10. There, he will battle Ngalani, a seasoned kickboxer who has never before competed in mixed martial arts. Hamid believes his understudy can put forth a strong enough performance to win the fight and win over the Asian fans. While portrayals of the current situation in Egypt depict it as a country hell-bent on tearing itself apart, Hassan hopes he can rise above the most volatile of environments to make a name for himself inside the One Fighting Championship heavyweight division.

“Mahmoud is always ready to fight,” Hamid said. “He is good at boxing, and even though he is fighting a muay Thai and K-1 champion, I expect him to make big noise at the One FC event.”

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