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RIYADH: Saudi fighter Abdullah Al-Qahtani is getting used to winning over hostile mixed martial arts crowds.

The 24-year-old featherweight from Riyadh is one of two athletes from the Kingdom — alongside Mostafa Rashed Nada — that are part of the Professional Fighters League, the world’s second-biggest MMA brand after the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

“When I fought in Madison Square Garden and other places, at the start of the fight the crowd was usually against me, they were cheering for my opponent,” Al-Qahtani said, referring to his win against the American David Zelner at PFL 18 in August.

His other win since joining the PFL came against Lamar Brown, also form the US, in June.

“But by the end of the fight they are with me because I give them the show that they want to see. I give them the violence they want, the excitement they want,” the fighter nicknamed “Reaper” added.

On Feb. 24, however, he will fight in front of a Saudi home crowd when he takes on Edukondala “Badger” Rao of India at PFL Champions versus Bellator Champions at Kingdom Arena.

He said: “This time, I’m in Saudi, among my family and fans. I’m proud to fight here and that the (local) fans will finally see me. So many people had been wanting me to fight in Saudi.

“I thank God this opportunity has come my way, and now I have to deliver to the people what they want to see. It’s a proud moment for me to fight here.”

Al-Qahtani noted that joining the PFL had been a major step up in terms of standards, both in and out of the cage.

“There is big difference in quality (to other organizations). With the PFL you get all the attention and care you need. They give you plenty of rest and preparation time before fights, to train or bring your weight down without any pressure.

“Also, fights take place in world-class venues, places that fighters dream about performing in. And of course, all the PFL matchmakers and fighters are of a very high standard. Everything about the fights is world class,” he added.

In November, the PFL bolstered its growing roster with the acquisition of Bellator, until then one of its rival brands.

Al-Qahtani said: “Of course we expect that the standards will rise with this (merger), there are more fighters, more champions. Having the Bellator fighters move to the PFL will only increase the level of competition.

“On a personal level, that could lead to more fights during the year. It’s exciting, and that means more training to reach the standard required.”

The Saudi Public Investment Fund-owned SRJ Sports Investments currently has a minority share in the PFL, and Al-Qahtani pointed out that the sport was at last taking off in the Kingdom.

“I expect more fighters to emerge from Saudi Arabia. Until a few years ago, it (MMA) was an ignored sport, not many people were engaged in it. But now, all eyes are on it, everyone is getting excited about it, everybody wants to be part of it. Having more events in Saudi Arabia will lead to stronger competitions.

“Many (potential fighters) could in the past hide behind the excuse that MMA did not get enough attention in Saudi Arabia, that it was not a sport you could aspire to. But now there are no excuses. The doors are opening for everyone,” he added.

Al-Qahtani is part of the KHK MMA Team — founded by Bahrain’s Sheikh Khalid bin Hamad Al-Khalifa — and trains at Riyadh Combat Club and Fight Club in the Saudi capital.

Ahead of a fight, his four- to six-week schedule consisted of at least two training sessions a day, a morning one and afternoon one separated by lunch and a brief rest period.

Al-Qahtani said he was in top fighting condition ahead of his bout on Saturday.

“The federation (Saudi Mixed Martial Arts Federation) has been very supportive and so have my coaches and other fighters in the clubs.

“Depending on the fight, I would usually have a training camp either at home or abroad. This time I stayed at home, and thankfully my preparations have gone as well as I could have expected, as you will see during the fight,” he added.

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