Martial arts have gained popularity in Lebanon over recent years. We sit down with advanced instructor and athlete Abdo El Hage to learn more about the appeal of these sports and how to get started.
What drew you to martial arts?
I’ve always considered myself mentally “tough,” and I was looking for ways to channel this mental strength into something more physical. I was drawn to mixed martial arts (MMA) — which fuses techniques from various combat sports and martial arts — because of the discipline it instills. I quickly learned that it is not about being physically tough to beat people up but growing stronger to earn respect. MMA teaches you to be humble in victory and gracious in defeat. It’s about being strict with your body: to train hard and make sure you win the next fight. You treat your opponent fairly and praise their victories as you recognize their successes are the result of hard work and dedication.
What it is that makes martial arts so popular these days?
People used to have the impression that martial arts were all about fighting and beating people up, but this stereotype has changed a lot because of education. Certified coaches are doing a lot to deliver the correct message, and the audience is aware that these sports are real “arts.” They are curious about learning the deeper meaning.
On a separate note, these sports are immensely challenging. The training required is much tougher and more advanced than many other activities, so this makes them all the more rewarding. And lest we forget, martial arts advocate one of the greatest life skills: self-defense.
You’re one of very few people in the Middle East to be a certified Muhammad Ali advanced instructor. Tell us more.
The Muhammad Ali advanced instructor is an honorary certification. Out of 22,000 thousand people I was among the top 10 to get it.
This certification changed me. It shaped me and gave me a new perspective towards boxing and all other martial arts. This solid foundation helped my coaching career; I learned how to teach, how to coach, and how to get my message across to my students no matter what I was teaching them. I would definitely consider it a turning point in my career.
I have now applied for the master’s program, and that certification will allow me to train and certify masters and coaches.
If you were to sum up your coaching philosophy in one sentence, what would it be?
When you’re a coach, you’re not only someone at the gym or at the ringside; you are essentially a father figure to your students: a companion and a friend, in and out of the gym. You have to be there, physically and mentally, all the time.
What are some common misconceptions people have about MMA?
Most people don’t understand what is going on during a match; they just see people fighting. In reality, every move comes from a strategic choice of techniques. A good student or coach can dissect every second of a fight. MMA covers a huge portfolio of martial arts and techniques that can be applied in a fight.
Contrary to popular belief, MMA is a safe sport; it is arguably the safest of any sport. We fight in cages because it prevents fighters from falling out of the ring should any throws or take downs be used. The referee also stops the fight if you get repeatedly hit in vital spots, regardless of whether or not you are knocked out or able to continue the fight. Also, any fight that with participants under 18 does not allow hitting on the head or face.
How well is Lebanon performing in the regional MMA scene?
Lebanon is performing really well, all things considered. We currently do not have a federation as the funds are insufficient. However, we come back from competitions abroad with really good results. Our fighters are well known in the Arab world. We’ve won numerous competitions in the region and in the world, and all credit goes to the personal efforts of the students and their coaches.
We communicate with the international federation and apply its standards in our coaching; we just need governmental support. I know we could do so much better if we had a federation because there is a lot of talent, especially among our junior fighters.
What advice would give someone who’s considering taking up a martial art?
Like learning a new language, the best way to start is by trying and persevering. The world of martial arts is a big one. It is a window to a different place entirely — somewhere to toughen up both physically and mentally. Those who give it a go will be surprised by the things their bodies can achieve.
I believe everyone has a fighting spirit inside them; they may just need a little help and encouragement to release it.