Mixed Martial Arts may be rapidly transforming into an international sport, but few in North America have considered the largely untapped Middle East and North Africa region when searching for young, hungry prospects.
Ray Elbe, a former Ultimate Fighter contestant, is one of the few notable Americans to relocate to the Middle East in order to set up shop and train elite athletes. Residing in the state of Kuwait, Elbe coaches at Combat Athletics and will now take center stage as one of the two coaches on the second season of an Arab MMA reality show, Al Batal.
Elbe is not without experience in the MMA scene. He has competed in grappling, Muay Thai and professional MMA. A Jiu-Jitsu blackbelt under Juliano Prado, he also won the silver medal in the 2012 World No-Gi Championships in California.
"I started fighting nearly twelve years ago while at university in the USA," Elbe told BloodyElbow. "I loved how emotional and physical toughness were such critical components of competing alongside the actual skills involved. I transitioned into coaching kind of gradually. One day, I looked up from the mats and noticed I was becoming one of the old guys training."
The American has only resided in Kuwait for a little over a year, but it is evident that this period has taught him a lot about the culture of combat sports in the region. Elbe mentioned that he has attended several events during his time in Kuwait, and he was surprised to see them packed with enthused attendants, keen to grasp this new form of entertainment. Those events have also gotten local TV coverage, which has helped to increase awareness for the sport.
"I have been in Kuwait for over a year with Combat Athletics. MMA is growing in the region very quickly. I have attended several events in the gulf with 4-5,000 fans in attendance, in addition to all those tuning into the TV broadcast."
With the bolstering local coverage and general acceptance of the sport, Elbe believes that the only issue keeping the sport back in the region is international exposure for the young local talent. He sees the region as an untapped market waiting for the right promotion to scoop up the resources for themselves. This applies to both MMA as well as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, which has been popular in the region for the past couple of decades.
"The only thing that is lacking is experience and exposure. The gulf loves the sport of MMA. With more experience, the athletes will continue to improve, so when the exposure comes they will be ready to be showcased as athletes both in MMA and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu."
To help increase the international exposure of Arab MMA, Elbe accepted an offer to coach the second season of Al Batal, an MMA reality based show that features only fighters from Arab countries such as Jordan, Syria, Egypt and North Sudan.
The first season of the show had a simple format and offered up little in terms of legitimate talent, yet it appears that is not the case with this upcoming season, as Elbe insists that several of the fighters are already of UFC caliber.
"iSee Entertainment and Events did an amazing job producing season 2 of Al Batal. They brought Arab fighters from all over the world, and the talent really shows as a few of them could compete on the UFC stage already. The skill level varied greatly, however all the fighters were eager to train, and the elite on the show, really put forth some crazy fights during the season."
Apart from high quality talent, the show is expected to feature some of the typical unscripted drama common toThe Ultimate Fighter - but with a cultural twist that will surely attract international viewers.
"There are several incidences during season two of Al Batal where even the camera crew dropped their jaws in shock. The show's fights won't be the only fireworks on Fox Movies (laughs)."
While the filming of the show has already concluded, Elbe's mission to help develop the sport in the Middle East region has not. Although he plans to make a return to the cage to fulfill personal goals, his main focus will be on developing new projects in his newfound home in Kuwait.
"I'm currently working on a project with Combat Athletics in Kuwait, and hoping to make a return to the cage before the end of the year. Lots of training, teaching, and fighting to look forward to.
"I want to continue using the sports of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and MMA to change lives! "