‘When I fight, I can feel my soul alive,’ says Hattan Alsaif, Saudi Arabia’s groundbreaking MMA star

Hattan Alsaif has grown accustomed to sparring with men. Rarely shy about confronting heavier, stronger opponents, she knows what it’s like to absorb blow after blow until tears begin to shine in her eyes, her face red and hot from crying.

As one of the few women at her gym in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia – and the only woman hopeful of fighting at an elite level – Alsaif had little choice but to train with and against her male counterparts when she first took up martial arts. She credits her sometimes brutal introduction to the sport as one of the reasons for her success.

“I was the only girl doing it day and night, day and night, day and night,” Alsaif told CNN Sport. “I always spar with guys, I train with guys, I’m always with the guys in the gym.

“It’s not an easy thing, so when it comes to the cage, when I get a hit from a girl, I feel like, ‘Whoa, is this all you’ve got?’”

The 22-year-old had already made history in MMA, even before her atomweight bout against Egypt’s Nada Faheem on Friday, which she won by knock out in the second round.

In January, Alsaif signed a contract with the Professional Fighters League (PFL), making her the first woman from Saudi Arabia to join a global MMA promotion.

It was a notable moment in a country known for its socially conservative attitudes, where sporting opportunities have historically been limited for women. The Saudi women’s soccer team only played its first match two years ago, while a domestic soccer league wasn’t established until 2020.

Alsaif is acutely aware of her status as a trailblazer for female MMA fighters in Saudi Arabia and takes such a responsibility seriously.

“It’s big, to be honest, because I’m going to be carrying this thing my entire life,” she said, speaking to CNN before her MMA debut fight on Friday. “It’s a bit heavy to carry it, but I’m excited and proud to be the person to do it.”

Alsaif endured a difficult upbringing, orphaned at the age of 10 after both of her parents died in a short space of time. She says she battled depression during her teenage years before finding solace in martial arts, helping her to discover a sense of purpose and peace.

“I didn’t have a normal childhood or an easy childhood because of the loss of my parents,” said Alsaif. “But after God, martial arts helped me a lot – so, so, so much. It changed my life 100% for the better.

“That’s why I’m so addicted to martial arts. I don’t want to stop doing [it] because it’s just the thing that makes me feel alive. I feel I’m alive when I train, when I fight, in the gym – I can feel my soul alive.

“When I breathe after the rounds, when I feel sick, when I feel tired, when I feel courage, when I feel scared, those moments, every part of that, it makes me feel alive. It’s something that means a lot to me.”

Alsaif (right) competed in Muay Thai prior to MMA. - Courtesy Professional Fighters League
Alsaif (right) competed in Muay Thai prior to MMA. - Courtesy Professional Fighters League

Growing up, Alsaif had always loved extreme, adrenaline-fueled sports, and her curiosity to try something new took her to a boxing gym in her local neighborhood.

That piqued her interest, but she soon found that the boxing class she was attending lacked rigor and professionalism. Then, after seeing videos of Saudi MMA fighter Abdullah Al-Qahtani on social media, the pair exchanged messages and Alsaif was invited to try the sport for herself.

“I started looking at the guys, and they were hitting the bags with kicks and elbows and knees,” she recalled. “I was like, they have more weapons than I do. I only have hands [in boxing]. I felt so jealous … I love to do the things that have more power.”

Alsaif started to compete in Muay Thai – the stand-up, striking combat sport originating in Thailand – and went on to win titles at the World Combat Games, the Saudi Games and the International Federation of Muaythai Associations (IFMA) World Championships under the guidance of coach Feras Sadaa.

Sadaa, coach of Saudi Arabia’s Muay Thai national team, has been central to Alsaif’s success, though his influence extends far beyond a sporting sphere.

“All these years, I never felt what [having a] father means at all,” said Alsaif. “And he was a gift from God. He did everything with me. He helped me in every situation, in the gym or outside of the gym.

“He was like family. He always told anyone else that Hattan is not just my student, Hattan is one of my kids … I wish to make him so happy [and] represent him in the best way I can.”

Friday’s fight card in Riyadh, headlined by Al-Qahtani, was Alsaif’s first chance to assess whether she was able to translate her Muay Thai prowess into success in an MMA cage.

The event, part of the PFL’s growing prominence in the region, featured fighters from across the Middle East and North Africa, less than three months since Claressa Shields and Kelsey De Santis contested the first professional female MMA bout in Saudi Arabia.

Last year, SURJ Sports Investments Company, which is owned by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), acquired a minority stake in the PFL, part of the PFL’s strategy to recruit more fighters and attract more fans in the MENA region.

Alsaif never envisioned herself becoming an MMA pioneer when she took her first curious steps into a combat gym, but said that she wants to leave a legacy in the sport.

Her upcoming bout is the first step towards achieving that goal and also an opportunity to reflect on all that she has overcome during her short time as an MMA fighter.

She does that between rounds in the gym, wiping any tears from her eyes and reminding herself of the effort and energy she has so far devoted to her pursuit.

“I start looking at myself in the mirror and I’d be like, ‘You have killed yourself; you have cried; you have sacrificed everything,’” said Alsaif. “‘You are really strong; you are your own role model’ … It does give me a lot of motivation.”

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated with additional information since Alsaif’s MMA debut fight.

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