It is very rare to hear of professional Bahraini athletes in sports beyond football or basketball. Martial arts as a sport, specifically on a professional level, is still quite unheard of.
Well, until now. Ali Monfaradi is a professional jiu-jitsu athlete and a member of the Bahraini national team. Ali started training at 12 years old. Today, by the age of 24, he is a world champion winning several international competitions representing Bahrain. Here’s what he has to say about what’s it like being a full-time professional athlete in Bahrain.
Becoming a World Champion
Growing up, I used to be overweight and wasn't very athletic. In fact, Jiu-jitsu was the very first sport that I got into. Jiu-jitsu was quite popular in our house as my entire family would train. My uncle, who is the coach of the national team, got me into the sport when he started the children’s class back in 2006. Once I started, I never stopped. I was 12 at the time. It just felt like the natural progression of things.
I started competing at 14, at the time there weren’t any competitions for children or teens. As 14-year-old I would compete with the adults. Naturally, I lost a lot. When I was 15, I won my first medal, which was a bronze medal, at the world professional championship. To this day it is my favourite medal.
I really didn’t know what to expect from the sport. My uncle kept pushing me and would tell me that I could become a world champion by the time I turned 19, which back then I didn’t really take seriously. Surprisingly enough, I became a World Champion at 18, which was the first ever gold medal at a World Championship for Bahrain. That was the most important day of my career because it showed that I had what it takes. It proved something to me but I think it also proved to many Bahrainis that being an elite athlete has nothing to do with your nationality or where you come from. It’s just like any sport that requires technique and practice, you’d be surprised how little talent has to do with it, if at all.
I lived in Brazil for about 5 years to train in jiu-jitsu, as that’s where the sport was developed to the level where it is at today. I trained with professionals and think I’ve learned enough in my five years over there so that I could come back here in Bahrain and implement what I learned there to not only my training but also to everyone else's.
While I was there, I finished my education as well, graduating in Computer Science, but jiu-jitsu was the main reason I was there. Most, if not all people in Bahrain, see it as a hobby or a past-time. The fact that I felt the need to complete my education is, I guess, a part of that influence as well. But it was a great educational experience for me.
I'm a full-time athlete and competitor as opposed to a teacher or an instructor. I love to compete, sometimes I compete as often as 3 to 4 times a month. Though; teaching is a means to sustain my athletic career.At this moment in time, there isn't a clear set up to support individual career-athletes in Bahrain. So what I do very much depends on how I sustain myself, including teaching, sponsorships, and competitions. I think the work outside the training mat is just as important as the work you do on the mat.
But times are changing. A lot of new academies are opening as people are getting more and more into sports. Hopefully, I would be able to take this a step further and spread the influence across the country and make people believe that they can achieve what people in other countries can.
Taking the Losses
With the exception of my dad and my uncle, people rarely understand what I do or the fact that this is my career. Every now and then, I run into an old friend or an old teammate and they ask if I need a job or if I'm looking for a job. They don't understand that this IS my job. It’s less about seeking support from people but rather proving the naysayers that you can do it. Luckily, I do have a good support system.
I think my biggest challenge was accepting losses. When you put your everything into this kind of a career, it doesn’t really feel good when you lose. But being a competitor I think it’s important to be able to absorb a loss in a way that is not detrimental to your mentality. I could compete anywhere between 12 to 20 times a year, so there could be a number of losses there. If I let every loss destroy my mindset, I wouldn’t last for long. It took me a really long time to understand that and to understand that becoming a winner has nothing to do with the competition itself but rather with your mindset.
You could go into a competition that you’ve been preparing for years and you don’t know, you could get sick on the day of the competition, or you could get unlucky or make a bad call which will cost you the match. It’s the journey that makes you a champion and not just one event.
It’s easy to believe in yourself when you are winning, but it’s difficult to believe in yourself when you are down. It can be very easy to get showered with negative thoughts around here, so it's very important to not let that bring you down. I'm very fortunate to have spent a good amount of time outside of Bahrain and getting different ideas, thoughts, and methodologies. I think over the years I've developed a very strong mindset. So today I can absorb the good and deflect the bad. It all comes down to how bad you want to succeed at something.
I have very briefly considered quitting everything and getting a job and going back to a normal life. But then I remember what I fear more and that is living a 'normal life'. It's not about becoming a legend; it's about spending your life trying to become one. I can't guarantee that I'd become one in my life but if I spend my life looking towards that, I think that's a well-lived life, at least in my opinion.