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DUBAI: When three weeks ago Mounir Lazzez received a call inviting him to take part in UFC Fight Island in Abu Dhabi, his instant reaction was a mixture of joy and pride.

He would also no doubt have allowed himself a smile of self-satisfaction as, during the Covid-19 lockdown, the Tunisian fighter had diligently kept in shape for a fight he couldn’t possibly have envisioned taking place.

“It was a very happy and proud moment for me to be the first Arab, born and raised and trained in an Arab country, to be called up by UFC,” Lazzez said. “There are other Arabs in UFC, but they were born and raised in the US, but this is the first time for someone born and raised and trained by Arab coaches and with an Arab team. Hopefully this will be a start for the Arab market as well, and hopefully I can show my skills. I’m not here just to [make up numbers]. I’m here to have a successful career.”

As he prepares to meet Abdul Razak Alhassan at Yas Forum, it may seem that acclaim has come relatively late for the 32-year-old Dubai-based fighter, but this is no overnight success story.

“I started MMA classes when I was 15 in Tunisia,” he said. “My parents decided to put me in a martial arts school to boost my confidence, because I was bullied, I was a skinny kid. I slowly started competing at regional and then national level. Then I had nothing more to achieve at national level, so I decided to move to Canada to focus on my wrestling.”

He honed his skill in Canada from 2009 until 2011, before a business opportunity drew him to Dubai, where he was able to kick-start his professional MMA career.

“I started with the Dubai Fighting Championship with the promoter Tam Khan, who gave me the start of my professional career, and my second fight,” Lazzez said.

Those two fights, against Andy Cons and Ashkan Mehrdadpoor, resulted in two first round wins.

“Then I moved to Desert Force Championship, where I fought three times,” he added. “In my third fight I won the welterweight title [against Mohamad Ghorabi]. After that I fought with Phoenix Championship as well, against the number one ranked European welterweight Christopher Van Dijk. From there I moved to Brave Combat Federation, and I also fought for the title there as well.”

It proved one of the hardest fights of Lazzez’s career, and the most controversial too.

“I went the five rounds, but I lost by a split decision,” he said. “But it turned out my opponent was caught taking illegal stuff so we are now waiting to turn the decision into a no-contest.”

Lazzez’s last fight took place in Dubai with Probellum, against Arber Murati on Feb. 7. As he walked off victorious after a first round stoppage, he could not have imagined what the next few months had in store for him, or the rest of the world.

As the coronavirus crisis forced social distancing and a major lockdown on the population, Lazzez had to improvise.

“In Dubai we got orders to close gyms in the middle of March,” he said. “When we got the news, I moved training to my garage. I kept active, because I know opportunities can come when you least expect them. I had a weird feeling, I don’t know what it was, that 2020 will bring something to me. I always love to stay active, I’m not in the sport just to compete. I like to stay active, I like to stay in healthy, so I’m always keeping in shape. I’m always doing stairs workout, working on my fitness, doing my bicycle rides. So when I got the news, I was coming out of a normal situation."

Lazzez has had the opportunity to check out Fight Island’s “Safety Zone” on Yas Island and he is grateful that he will be taking part in what is set to be the biggest International sporting competition since the outbreak of Covid-19, with just under 100 fighters expected to walk through Yas Island over the next month.

“I’m used to being around the fighters in my career, as I travel a lot to fight in the big promotions,” Lazzez said. “But this one, this is something I’m proud of, because I used to look at the stars when I was young, and now I’m fighting with them. But like I said I’m not just here to just make my UFC debut, I’m here have a successful career, and to set an example for a new generation of Arab fighters.”

Last year UFC struck a deal with Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism (DCT), separate form Fight Island, to hold five UFC fight nights over five years. With four left, Lazzez sees a priceless opportunity awaiting him.

“Yes, 100 percent, it’s at my doorstep,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for Abu Dhabi to make it happen, from now till the end of the year, it’s going to be event after event. If I get a good win, I’m 100 percent sure I will be asked for other events. I want to advance my career in the smartest and fastest way. I’m not someone who is holding back and waiting for the perfect moment. But I’ve been waiting for this moment, and if it is taking place at my doorstep, I cannot be more grateful.”

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