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Sheikh's love of jiu-jitsu leads UFC to Abu Dhabi

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

You can follow Kevin Iole on Twitter at @KevinI

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – Workers in hard hats scurried in the broiling midday heat to complete the stadium where, on Saturday, the first Ultimate Fighting Championship card in the Middle East will be held.

Renzo Gracie is a key part of UFC 112, facing Matt Hughes in a welterweight bout on the pay-per-view portion of the card.

Nobody, perhaps, has had more to do with helping to bring the UFC to the Middle East than the affable Gracie, who is the long-time jiu-jitsu coach of Sheikh Tahnoon Bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

Gracie's cousin, Royce, was the first UFC champion and is an icon in mixed martial arts, but Renzo Gracie's contributions to the company may ultimately have more significance.

That's because Renzo Gracie facilitated a meeting between UFC management and Flash Entertainment, the Emirates-owned company which in January purchased a 10 percent stake in the UFC. That partnership may lead to more explosive growth for both the UFC in particular and mixed martial arts generally.

"I probably had more to do with (the UFC-Flash partnership) than people will probably ever realize," said Gracie, who will make his UFC debut on Saturday. "When I found out they were looking for investors, I was in Singapore and I brought back this package they were sending out to investors. I brought a copy of that back to the Sheikh and he was very interested because he loves fighting.

"After that, they got in touch through a lawyer and [UFC president] Dana [White] and [UFC CEO] Lorenzo [Fertitta], came over and they got a deal done."

The UFC's deal with Flash almost instantly opened doors in parts of the world where the UFC desperately wanted to be but had trouble making the proper connections.

The UFC is already making inroads in China, a direct result of the sale to Flash.

Sheikh Tahnoon is a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and a long-time supporter of all the martial arts. The sheikh met Gracie, who has a popular jiu-jitsu academy in New York, several years ago while he was living in San Diego.

Gracie recalled him as "tough,' but didn't know him otherwise.

"When I opened my first school in New York, he came over to visit me," Gracie said. "He was already a purple belt, a very tough purple belt, and he came to train at my school for a couple of days. When he was leaving to go home, he invited me to lunch. We had lunch and he later invited me to come to his country.

"I didn't know who he was, but we were at dinner and I realized he didn't have a time to leave and he could leave when he wanted, because the plane was his."

Gracie has worked with the sheikh for more than 14 years and has seen close up the growth in both Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Standing in the lobby of the Yas Hotel, a magnificent luxury hotel that fronts a Formula One race track, Gracie said there was nothing visible anywhere but desert when he first started to trek to Abu Dhabi to train the Sheikh.

From those humble beginnings has emerged UFC 112. A crowd of nearly 11,000, who are coming from all around the Middle East, is expected.

John Lickrish, the managing director of Flash, is originally from Toronto, a city passionate about mixed martial arts. Lickrish said he'd regularly talk to his friends in the media in Toronto and hear about MMA from them.

Flash is building a major entertainment complex on Yas Island, which is about a half hour from downtown Abu Dhabi, and has already brought a slew of first-rate concerts to the island. Among the acts that have already played here are Christine Aguilera, Shakira, Andrea Bocelli, Coldplay, Beyonce, Aerosmith, Rihanna and The Killers.

It made sense for Flash to bring an MMA show to the Emirates, Lickrish said. As he investigated it more, he saw it made sense to do more than just help promote a fight card.

"It was a good investment opportunity," he said. "We looked at the business and saw how it was growing and it seemed like it would be a wise investment. It helps us. At the same time, it helps the UFC. There are relationships we have that can help the UFC grow into some new territories."

It's obvious how Flash's investment has already benefitted the UFC, but less clear was why Flash opted to invest in the company rather than, say, help the UFC promote an annual show in the Middle East.

No matter how much the members of the royal family love MMA, though, there would be not have been a reported nine-figure investment if it didn't make economic sense.

And as Flash did its due diligence, the investment began to seem like a no-brainer.

"It's financial, really," Lickrish said when asked how Flash's investment in the UFC would benefit it. "But also, we now have a direct relationship with the owners and they see things from our perspective and what we're trying to do in the big picture in Abu Dhabi."

The UFC is in the middle of an incredible growth spurt. A company that was $44 million in the hole and on the verge of collapse five years ago now is reportedly worth in excess of $1 billion and promotes at least 25 shows a year.

Gracie, though, thinks that's just the beginning and that Flash's investment in the UFC will spark another growth spurt.

"In New Jersey (at UFC 111 last month), there were a couple of sheikhs from Saudi Arabia looking at it and they want to bring it there," he said. "This is going to open up MMA for the Middle East and, eventually, the rest of the world."

Though the UFC has had its rough patches – it's sued a German governmental board that banned it from network television in the country and it had problems overcoming hurdles in order to be able to put a show in Vancouver – Gracie believes as White does that MMA is eventually going to become the biggest sport in the world.

He said incidents such as the television ban in Germany are little more than speed bumps.

"You have to understand, it was just a few decades ago, Elvis Presley could not be filmed from the waist down because it was considered indecent," Gracie said. "It's a matter of time until people get used to it. You go from Presley, where they couldn't film him from the waist down, and now you have kids walking around with their pants hanging way low and their briefs sticking out.

"It's just going to take time and some understanding. Eventually, people are going to see that this is a safe sport and nobody has ever had a serious injury. If my son told me he wanted to be a professional boxer, I would be worried. But if he told me he wanted to be an MMA fighter, I would be proud and I'd encourage that."

Gracie said MMA fighters don't get hit in the head as often as boxers and, because submissions are part of the sport, sustain far less head trauma.

He's 43, but he's eager not only to fight Hughes but several times in the UFC.

"I would never do anything to harm my ability to enjoy my kids and, some day, my grand kids," Gracie said. "I want to make sure that my whole life, I have my brain clear. This sport allows me to do that. But people accept boxing because it's been around a long time and yet, you have the fighters who have the damage to their brains in boxing.

"MMA is a new sport. It's just a matter of time until people realize what this sport is about and that it's a great sport they don't need to be worried about."

Marshall Zelaznik, the president of the UFC's UK division and its managing director of international development, said he saw first-hand that the locals in Abu Dhabi get that.

The UFC sent several fighters to downtown Abu Dhabi to sign autographs and printed 2,000 cards for each. The event wasn't over before the cards were gone and new ones had to be ordered.

"That's only a small example," Gracie said. "The popularity of MMA is just going to go, 'Boom!' as it develops throughout the Middle East and then into other parts of Asia and the rest of the world. You're here at a good time. This is the beginning of something big. You're seeing the start of something very big."