By Simon Head
What a week it’s been. After a rollercoaster ride that saw the competition forced to switch from Kazakhstan in November to Abu Dhabi in January, the 2021 IMMAF World Championships proved a huge success as a host of world champions were crowned at the Jiu-Jitsu Arena in Zayed Sports City.
I was in Abu Dhabi as IMMAF’s Young Journalists Mentor, helping the two winners of the organisation’s Young Journalists competition, Erik Uebelacker and Daniyal Nasir Mirza, through the week as they joined the IMMAF comms team for the Championships. The plan was to help give them some valuable experience and a memorable week at the event. Both got way more than they bargained for.
Chicago native Erik stepped up and became an essential part of the event reporting team, interviewing fighters, chasing stories and at one point even having MMA icon Rodrigo “Minotauro” Nogueira translate for him as he spoke to some of the Brazilian legend’s fighters.
Erik also got on the mic to try a little co-commentary alongside IMMAF play-by-play man Sebastian Vendel-Martinez as he added some colour commentary to the action on Cage 3 during the early rounds of the Championships.
The plan was for Daniyal to do something similar, but unexpected circumstances meant his experience took a very different path.
When one of the organisation’s ring announcers dropped out, Daniyal – who has announced MMA fights and pro-wrestling matches in his native Pakistan – got the opportunity of a lifetime.
On the very first day of the Championships, IMMAF’s lead announcer Ricky Wright drafted in Daniyal to announce Cages 3 and 4, with “DNM” having just 20 minutes to prepare for the job of introducing and announcing more than 60 fights in a day. He did such a remarkable job that he was kept on for the rest of the tournament.
Before we headed to Abu Dhabi, Daniyal told me it would be a dream just to shadow an announcer and maybe even announce one bout. In the end, he ended up doing the job and announcing more than 160! He was also asked to emcee the medal ceremonies during both Finals days.
It was an unforgettable opportunity for both Erik and Daniyal, who spoke to IMMAF.org to recap their experience in Abu Dhabi this week.
“We really got thrust right into the action,” said Erik.
“It wasn’t like a patronising experience at all. We didn’t feel like we were the two new guys here to get mentored. We felt like we were two fellow workers with the IMMAF team.
“Probably my favourite part was just the fact that we were so included in the team right away. I like doing interviews and I like interviewing athletes, and this event was so great because the athletes absolutely loved talking to us.
“The IMMAF team was really supportive and I got a lot of great feedback on not only writing, but on interviewing. I learned an awful lot about amateur MMA that I didn’t know before, and I was surrounded by some of the most knowledgeable people in the industry.”
Erik’s background is in written journalism, but the opportunity to actually sit cageside and call fights was a real highlight.
“It was the most unique thing that I did,” he admitted.
“Journalism is certainly the thing that I’m most passionate about, but I don’t know when else I’m going to get to commentate on fights again, especially alongside a professional like Sebastian. That’s a really cool thing that I’ve done and may never get the chance to do again.”
Daniyal’s experience was equally as memorable, and he said he’d be returning home to Pakistan with a suitcase full of fond memories from his week with the IMMAF team.
“This has truly been one of the greatest weeks of my life, and I’m saying that without any sense of exaggeration or hyperbole,” he said.
“I came here with the expectation of writing and reporting, which is truly so exciting for me because my thoughts and words were going to be translated into news pieces and that’s very exciting. But this week turned into something I didn’t expect it to be, and that’s just the beauty of it.
“Fighters always say, ‘Stay ready so you don’t have to get ready,’ but when Ricky (Wright, IMMAF cage announcer) came up to me and said, ‘Get ready, kid. You’re on!’ I didn’t think he meant for the whole week!
“This programme in essence isn’t just a place for you to get an opportunity, it’s a group of people who truly expect you to be at the top of your game and expect you to deliver. This is work, and that is the best thing you can possibly get when you’re looking for something like this.”
Erik and Daniyal were the first winners of IMMAF’s Young Journalists competition, and both said they would recommend that fellow young journalists jump on the opportunity if IMMAF runs a similar competition in the future.
“My advice would be to apply, obviously!” said Daniyal.
“In terms of resume building, this is the best opportunity you can get. For a kid from Pakistan, it’s incredible.”
“My advice is just to do it, because there’s no other way you’re going to get this kind of experience,” he stated.
“It’s like what the athletes say, ‘There’s no other experience like competing at IMMAF.’ For journalists, there’s no other MMA experience like this competition.”