RIYADH: As her opponent lay defeated on the floor, the Saudi mixed martial arts fighter marked a landmark victory by waving an imaginary sword in the air.


The celebration was appropriate— Hattan Alsaif’s family name translates directly as “the sword.”


Overnight, Saudi had a new sporting superstar.


On May 10, the 22-year-old made headlines around the world after she knocked out Egypt’s Nada Faheem, delivering a head kick in the second round of their bout at the inaugural Professional Fighters League Middle East and North Africa edition in Riyadh.


Her win, she says, was also a message of love and commitment to her friends, family and fans.


“It [the win] was something I was so proud of,” Alsaif told Arab News. “To make them see how far I reached, and I was doing my best to show them that I will never let them down.”


The future of Saudi women in MMA has been brewing for some time. In February, Alsaif made history when she became the first female from the Kingdom to sign a contract with a major MMA promoter – the PFL, now backed by Saudi’s public investment fund.


Her performance at the Green Halls last week has raised her profile beyond her hometown or even the region. Alsaif is now an international contender.


She said representing Saudi Arabia “meant everything” to her: “I do love my country so much, and I wanted to represent my country in the best way I can.”


But behind the win were three months of relentless training — mental and physical — and even cage-like fights in her gym.


Alsaif is a relative newcomer to the sport. When she first began training in 2021, it was never part of the plan to turn professional.


“First five days I began boxing, I jumped in a championship, and I lost the game,” she said.


Alsaif took the loss as a wake-up call to shift her perspective.


“You have to work hard, you have to work more, so you can have what you want. So I got that point on my mind and I worked on it,” she said.


Alsaif’s appetite for risk and adrenaline rushes dates back to her school days when, she recalls, her late parents received numerous complaints about her behavior.


“They (the school) were always calling my parents. ‘Your kid is jumping from the classes and jumping from the roof and jumping everywhere’,” Alsaif said.


“I was (also) in love with hiking and I was so in love with the desert bikes.”


A fighting spirit feels almost inherited, considering the Kingdom’s own rich history.


“I was born in Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabia is my country. Saudi Arabia is in my blood,” she told Arab News.


“If I’m a girl from this city (Riyadh), that means I was born a fighter. I’m ready to sacrifice whatever it is for my country and for my people.”


For Alsaif, sports such as Muay Thai are more than physical battles against an opponent. She feels there is a psychological fight between the inner critic in her mind and the fighter in her heart.


“Your mind will tell you ‘It’s all right. You’re bleeding now. No one will blame you if you quit…just quit’,” she said. “If your mind says that, then your body is going to move as much as your mind told you. If you moved with your heart, courageous heart, then you win it.”


Alsaif’s Islamic faith and spirituality has carried her through life’s hardships, which included losing her parents as a child.


“But I always believe that God is with me, and that I’m never alone,” Alsaif said.


After religion, it’s mixed martial arts that provides solace, resilience and a feeling of belonging for Alsaif.


In the last three years, she has spent months in Muay Thai training camps in Ko Samui and Phuket, relishing even the hardest moments of tears, cuts and bruises.


“It was so amazing visiting Thailand and having a camp (there). That was one of my dreams,” she said.


The sports scene in Saudi Arabia has transformed so rapidly in recent years that a new generation of homegrown stars like Alsaif no longer needs to look beyond their borders or regions for role models.


Her inspiration is Saudi MMA fighter Abdullah Al-Qahtani, with whom she shares a coach.


“I can see how much discipline, motivation he has [...] and how much hard work he does,” she said.


Their coach, Feras Sadaa, is “the best,” she said, adding that she frequently reminds herself she has his complete backing: “I always trust him.”


Alsaif’s routine is simple but rigorously disciplined and follows the vital components of sports development and recovery — train, eat, sleep and repeat.


Alsaif says she is focused on taking any opportunity that arrives in her path and hopes to see more Saudis competing in MMA.


“I know my people and I know that my people are good enough to enter that cage and to show us a good fight,” she said.