Emirati black belt eyes Grand Slam gold in Rio

Faisal Al Ketbi returns from Rio de Janeiro for this weekend’s Abu Dhabi Grand Slam Jiu Jitsu World Tour

Gary Meenaghan

Published: Updated:

Faisal Al Ketbi is ready to break Brazilian hearts. The Emirati has been in Rio de Janeiro for the past two weeks acclimatising and preparing for this weekend’s Abu Dhabi Grand Slam Jiu Jitsu World Tour. Now he intends to beat the plentiful, passionate local competition and return to the Middle East with a gold medal.

Al Ketbi is a two-time Asian Games gold medallist, but he left Tokyo disheartened last month after slipping to defeat at the hands of Brazilian Gabriel Arges during the second leg of the World Tour. He had entered the final match confident, but a couple of minor mistakes late in the fight ended his hopes for gold. The 28-year-old is seeking the positives ahead of his return to the mat.

“We compete at the highest level at the grand slams, with the best of the best fighters, so it comes down to small details really,” he said. “You cannot lose focus for even a second and if you do, you suddenly find yourself behind in the points. For me, every training session, every competition, is a learning process. So it is not just in Japan, but I always try to learn something from all my opponents and training partners.”

This weekend’s two-day Grand Slam at the Rio Olympic Arena in the city’s affluent Barra da Tijuca neighbourhood has attracted a record 2,085 registered participants, including 1,864 Brazilians. Al Ketbi knows that to win he will not only need to beat the man stood on the opposite side of the mat, but also the spectators.

“I cannot wait to compete once again in Brazil because it is always a special feeling here,” said al Ketbi, who won the Rio Fall International Open last year. “They really love jiu jitsu and I am expecting a lot of fans, maybe 4,000 or 5,000, which is a very big crowd when it comes to this sport. have trained very hard since the Tokyo event, and I want to win the gold medal.”

The Rio leg of the five-round championship marks the midway point of the World Tour’s second season. Its aim initially was to provide a competitive platform for jiu-jitsu athletes and enable them to achieve sporting success on a global level. This year, however, the organisers, the UAE Jiu Jitsu Federation, controversially tweaked its regulations. By doing so, however, they brought the competition closer to what is required to make a future Olympic bid. With Dubai previously linked with a bid for the 2028 Olympic Games, there is an argument it is part of a long-term strategy.

“I have been competing in jiu jitsu events since I was nine years old, all around the world, and there is no question that the level at the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam is at the very top,” Al Ketbi said. “I am not saying that just because I am from Abu Dhabi, but many of the top black belt players have said it in the past too.”

The Tour is a rarity in the sport in that it provides prize money to winners, as well as complimentary flights to the final Grand Slam event of the season, in the UAE capital next January. This weekend’s event has a prize fund of US$100,000 and has attracted some of the best practitioners in the sport.

“The Abu Dhabi Grand Slam is coming to my home city and I have to be there,” said Ricardo Evangelista, a black belt world champion. “It is always a special occasion to perform for my home fans, family and friends and for the UAE Jiu-Jitsu Federation to give us this platform where you can compete at the highest level and also win cash prizes is incredible for us jiu-jitsu players.”

Al Ketbi is just one of 26 other representatives from the United Arab Emirates inside the same arena in which the UAE won an Olympic bronze medal in August in judo. In Tokyo, the UAE won eight gold medals, six silver and three bronze, but UAEJJF board member Mohamed Humaid bin Dalmouj said he expects his delegation to leave Rio having surpassed that total.

“Tokyo was very successful for our players, but we are expecting to do better in Brazil. I am sure we will,” he said. “Our team has worked very hard on this event, we have some of the best jiu jitsu coaches and trust their expertise, so, God willing, it will be a very successful event.”