Throughout 2015, KHK MMA, a team from the small island country of Bahrain made significant waves in the MMA sphere. They rose quickly with the support of the country's royal family, mainly Prince Khaled Bin Hamad Al Khalifa. They signed the likes of former UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar, and potential title challenger Khabib Nurmagomedov to their budding roster, along with an assembled team of amateur fighters from locations like Ireland, Pakistan, and Bahrain.
Mohammed Shahid, the team's founder and CEO, conjured up the vision for this international team. As a pioneer for mixed martial arts in the Gulf region, Shahid struggled to get fights on the international scene during his career and grew up in a country that was a barren wasteland for ambitious martial artists. Few knew much more than what action movies presented, so Shahid had to figure out another way to become a full-fledged fighter.
"When I watched the first UFC, me and my friend began to debate which fighting style would win," Shahid told BloodyElbow. "I wanted to fight but I didn't know how to get fights in the Gulf [region]. So I started training some of my friends and collecting fees from them so that I could travel to Thailand. That was the easiest place to get Muay Thai fights. So I went to Thailand and did my training there. I didn't have much money so I took some fights there and won all of them by knockout. So I thought this is something I could do. I came back to Bahrain and started teaching Muay Thai in my hometown and collected more money to travel to India."
According to Shahid, he met with an amateur MMA promoter in India who invited him to take part in one of his shows. He knocked his opponent out with a head kick in a debut that lasted 46 seconds. Swelling with confidence, Shahid entered a one-night tournament in India, where he won four consecutive fights by submission or KO. He was then invited to take part in the first Super Fight League show, which he won by decision.
As his reputation continued to grow, Shahid returned to Bahrain to set up shop, and that was when he met the driving force behind the team: the Prince of Bahrain.
"I started my own gym -- it's a small gym -- named Bahrain MMA. One of my students who became really good was from Bahrain and that was a real turning point. He won his fight in India and then came back and fought for an event called Desert Force. It is a mostly Arab-focused MMA circuit. It is the biggest one in the Middle East. So he fought on that and won the event as well, which happened in Bahrain. The Prince saw this and was really interested. When he saw a local Bahraini winning, he called us for a meeting and said ‘hey, I can support you guys with what you want to do.' That is when I put this project of KHK MMA forward to him. He had the same vision."
Shahid and the Prince overlooking the action
The Prince, a martial arts connoisseur in his own right, surprised Shahid from the onset. His knowledge of the UFC and MMA in general surpassed expectations and he seemed passionate about the project that Shahid suggested.
"When we talk about Sheikh Khaled, he is an unbelievable person. When I met him and we spoke, I was amazed with how much he knew about MMA and how involved he was, and how much he watched it. He followed MMA as a sport and as organizations. He had all the same visions and concerns that I did. He asked me ‘Why do fighters not have lifestyles like football [soccer] players? What is stopping them from having this lifestyle?' Football is one of the most popular sports here in Bahrain. He couldn't understand why it wasn't happening this way for MMA.
"The way we understood it: MMA is made up of private organizations. There is nothing that should stop these organizations from offering that lifestyle. We do appreciate the development, as if you look 15 years back, the changes are amazing. However, why can't we make it better? That is what the Prince kept asking.
"He also follows the UFC closely. He kept asking specific questions about different fighters. He is one of the most passionate men I've come across when it comes to MMA."
Over the past few years, Middle Eastern organizations such as Dubai FC, Abu Dhabi FC, GFC, and DesertForce started to sprout all across the region. However, events occur infrequently, which is why KHK MMA plans to create as many international alliances as possible.
"As a fighter, it was really hard for me to actually find fights, and even when I found fights, I still couldn't get to a point where I could make a career out of it. Regardless of whether you are marketable or not, or are from India, Bahrain, or the USA, you should be able to have a career that allows you to reach your potential amongst the best in the world. That was our vision and our goal - to bring all these countries together and give the fighters the chance to be the best in the world."
Shahid revealed that each fighter, amateur or professional, is given a monthly stipend to live on so that his or her entire daily focus is simply on fighting and self-improvement. They believed that once KHK MMA removed livelihood concerns from their fighters, they would be able to blossom into their full potential without any hindrances.
He basic goal was for KHK MMA to operate like a football club.
"Why not focus on the athlete first? That is what MMA is all about, the fighters. We want them to focus on training without having to worry about marketability etc. Why can't we provide them with the resources and tools to become the best fighter in the world? Whatever it takes to ensure that these fighters can live the lifestyle of a football [soccer] player or NFL player."
This arrangement also encompasses amateur fighters, who Shahid believes are pivotal to the team's longterm success.
"This includes amateur fighters. I know amateur means they don't get paid to fight, but they are the future crop. They deserve financial stability as much as the pro athletes. They are our grassroots. This is why we also teamed up with the IMMAF for their World Championships. That gives the amateurs the platform to get fights and learn everything possible. When they go to their first pro fight, they'll already have done their learning and feeling out process beforehand. How can fighters be expected to do this when they have to also work eight or nine hours a day on the side? It is tough, so that is why we focus as much on them as the pro fighters."
The KHK MMA team opened its doors in March 2015, but it was only in December that fans and pundits truly took notice of their involvement in the sport. The Prince cornered former UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar during his TUF 22 Finale main event against Chad Mendes, a fight that Edgar won by KO. To celebrate, the former champ wore the flags of both the USA and Bahrain during his post-fight interview. Given that Bahrain was embroiled in numerous human rights accusations and concerns dating back to the 2011 uprising, numerous media outlets questioned Edgar's decision.
"I got a lot of questions after that event asking how much the Prince had to pay Edgar for that appearance. I asked our marketing manager to send over a picture of him holding a bucket and ice - we're talking the Prince of Bahrain here - holding the bucket for the amateur fighters at the European Championships. The Prince put ice on the back of fighters' necks and gave them water, even though some of them had only been in MMA for three months. That shows that there is no difference to him between Frankie Edgar and a guy who just started. He doesn't care if it is a million dollar fighter or an amateur fighter. He is there to show support."
Ultimately, Shahid is aware that there could be potential backlash from established entities in the sport because of these proposed changes in the industry, but that only fueled him to impose their newfound structure upon the MMA sphere. Whether they succeed in their ambitions will be a significant storyline over the coming years.
"My vision is to bring in a system that is very different. It might be hard for the sport to accept it, from media, to management companies, to promotions, to fighters. All of these compartments will have an issue accepting this because they've never seen it before. I am not saying it is going to be successful. The Prince isn't saying that either. We don't know. We want this to happen, which is why we came forward with this."