Hattan Alsaif is used to fighting with male adversaries. She's no stranger to engaging with bigger, stronger adversaries, taking blow after blow until her eyes well up with tears, her face turning red and flushed due to her weeping.


In a gym in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where women are a rare sight, Alsaif trained alongside her male counterparts in martial arts, trying to make it to an elite level. Even though she had no other choice, she credits her tough introduction to the sport for her current success.


"The only girl doing it day and night, day and night, day and night," Alsaif tells CNN Sport. "I always spar with guys, I train with guys, I'm always with the guys in the gym. It's not an easy thing, so when it comes to the cage, when I get a hit from a girl, I feel like, 'Whoa, is this all you've got?'"


The 22-year-old has already made history in MMA. In January, she signed a contract with the Professional Fighters League (PFL), making her the first woman from Saudi Arabia to join a global MMA promotion.


This is a significant achievement in a country that has traditionally restricted sports opportunities for women. The Saudi women's soccer team only played its first match two years ago, and a domestic soccer league was not established until 2020.


Aware of the responsibility she carries as a pioneer for female MMA fighters in Saudi Arabia, Alsaif takes it very seriously.


"It's big, to be honest, because I'm going to be carrying this thing my entire life," she says. "It's a bit heavy to carry it, but I'm excited and proud to be the person to do it."


Alsaif has endured a difficult childhood, orphaned at the age of 10 after both her parents died. She battled depression during her teenage years but found solace in martial arts, which helped her discover a purpose and peace in life.


"I didn't have a normal childhood or an easy childhood because of the loss of my parents," says Alsaif. "But after God, martial arts helped me a lot – so, so, so much. It changed my life 100% for the better. That's why I'm so addicted to martial arts. I don't want to stop doing [it] because it's just the thing that makes me feel alive."


Growing up, Alsaif was always drawn to extreme, adrenaline-fueled sports. Her curiosity took her to a boxing gym in her local neighborhood. However, she found it lacked proficiency. She got inspired by seeing videos of Saudi MMA fighter Abdullah Al-Qahtani on social media and eventually got the chance to try the sport herself.


"I started looking at the guys, and they were hitting the bags with kicks and elbows and knees," she remembers. "I was like, they have more weapons than I do. I only have hands [in boxing]. I love to do the things that have more power."


Alsaif started competing in Muay Thai and won titles at the World Combat Games, the Saudi Games, and the International Federation of Muaythai Associations (IFMA) World Championships under the guidance of coach Feras Sadaa.


Sadaa, the coach of Saudi Arabia's Muay Thai national team, has played a crucial role in her journey, providing her with more than just sports training.


"I started looking at the guys, and they were hitting the bags with kicks and elbows and knees," she recalls. "I was like, they have more weapons than I do. I only have hands [in boxing]. I love to do the things that have more power."


Sadaa, who also acts like a father figure for Alsaif, has made her feel more than just a student.


"All these years, I never felt what [having a] father means at all," says Alsaif. "And he was a gift from God. He did everything with me. He helped me in every situation, in the gym or outside of the gym. He was like family. He always told anyone else that Hattan is not just my student, Hattan is one of my kids ... I wish to make him so happy [and] represent him in the best way I can."


On Friday, Alsaif's Muay Thai skills will be tested for the first time in an MMA cage. The event in Riyadh will feature fighters from across the Middle East and North Africa, less than three months after Claressa Shields and Kelsey De Santis fought the first professional female MMA bout in Saudi Arabia.


This fight card is part of the PFL's strategy to recruit more fighters and attract more fans in the MENA region. Last year, SRJ Sports Investments Company, which is owned by Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund (PIF), acquired a minority stake in the PFL.


Alsaif never imagined becoming a trailblazer in the MMA world when she entered a combat gym out of curiosity. However, now she desires to leave a mark in this sport.


This upcoming fight is the initial step towards fulfilling her ambition and provides her with a chance to reflect upon all the obstacles she has conquered in her brief stint as an MMA athlete.


She ponders over this during breaks in the gym, wiping away any tears and reinforcing the determination, sweat, and hard work she has put into pursuing her passion.


"I'd start looking at myself in the mirror and think, 'You've pushed yourself to the limit; you've cried; you've given up everything,'" says Alsaif. " 'You're tough; you're your own role model.' It does give me a strong motivation."