In late January, Hattan Alsaif became the first female fighter from Saudi Arabia to sign up with a major global mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion, the Professional Fighters League (PFL).

Alsaif, 22, won gold at the 2023 International Federation of Muaythai Associations World Championships, where she was awarded Breakthrough Female Athlete. Last year she also took first place at the World Combat Games and the Saudi Games.

However, her journey outside the ring has also grabbed headlines.

Alsaif’s parents divorced right after she was born and she grew up at her grandmother’s house. When she was aged just 10, both of Alsaif’s parents died in the space of 10 months. She spent years living with depression and attempted suicide on several occasions.

In a conversation with Al Jazeera – has been edited for clarity and length – Alsaif shares her struggles, her hurt and pain while growing up, the loss of her parents, and how she found her calling in MMA.

Al Jazeera: You’re the first Saudi female fighter to sign with a major MMA promotion. Tell us just how big this is.

Hattan Alsaif: This is one of the greatest things to have happened in my life. It’s also a very big responsibility and I have to take it seriously and carefully. I’ll be representing my country, my family, my team and also every other Saudi female. It’s huge and I’m sure I’m the right person to do it.

Al Jazeera: What makes you say you’re the right person?

Alsaif: It’s because of the skills. I always tell myself I was born to fight, it’s my path, my career, my destiny, my hobby, my life, my everything. I’m always trying my best and killing myself to do the best.

Al Jazeera: You’ve said you were born to do this. How much does it mean to you?

Alsaif: It really means everything to me. Unlike other fighters, I found martial arts quite late. While others have been fighting for five to seven years, it has not even been three years for me. I’m so proud of all that I have achieved in that time.

Since the first day of my training, I felt at home in the gym. I felt so connected with the training, the gloves, the coach. I knew this was my calling and the right place for me.

Al Jazeera: You’ve had losses in the ring but bigger losses outside of it. How have those shaped the person you are today?

Alsaif: After I lost my parents, I told myself I have nothing more to lose. Parents guide you to heaven, help you in your life to become a good person and losing them is like losing your entire life. There’s nobody to guide you or pray for you. So I decided to take my chances in life. I was trying to be responsible for myself.

My parents divorced after I was born. They then had their own families. I was on my own. When I got sick, I had to take care of myself. When I was going to school, I was doing my own hair. It’s things like that. I think it’s that life that [helped me] to take this responsibility for myself.

Al Jazeera: You endured so much at such an early age: Loss of parents and depression among other things. How have sport and martial arts helped you?

Alsaif: After losing my parents, I was taking revenge on life. I was always angry, picking fights with everyone and taking my anger out everywhere because of what happened.

I tried a lot of other avenues: writing, drawing, skating, running, dancing, cooking and other things. But I never found myself. I just didn’t feel I was in the right place or could show how good I am.

But since I stepped into the world of martial arts, I realised that’s the place I can put my depression, anger, revenge, everything. And end up breathing normally.

Al Jazeera: You spoke a lot about hurt and pain. How much hurt and pain do you need to become a fighter and did you consider giving up at any point?

Alsaif: We don’t have a lot of girls taking up martial arts just yet in Saudi Arabia, so I have been training with guys in the gym. They not only have more experience than me but are also more powerful.

My coach would always tell them not to go easy on me and to punch me and hurt me. If they punch me hard, I’ll try my best to punch them harder. I’ve been crying twice a week from the pain. It’s immense.

There’s mental as well as physical damage. I cry but then I wipe my tears with the gloves and I complete my training. There is no stopping. I will cry and I’ll keep training. I’ll get hurt, my eyes will go blue, my body will have a lot of scars but I’ll keep going. This makes me feel who I am.

Al Jazeera: What then would you say to people who’ve been through a lot and are close to giving up?

Alsaif: I’ve been through depression for nearly three years. I was drowning in it. On my body, there are a lot of scars from self-hurt. I tried suicide. Just anything that would take me away from depression. It was controlling me way too much. I was giving up. I wanted to stop and for it to end. I thought there was no point being alive when you have no parents and nothing is going your way.

That moment, when I was so scared, I took a leap of faith and jumped to the other side. The moment you feel like you’re at your lowest, when you’re giving up, this is the moment you have to jump. That’s when I took up martial arts despite the fear.

The thought of going to the gym for training helped. I knew it would help me sleep well. I go to training, I put everything else in my mind and life aside. I knew that if I didn’t do that and jump, I’d be stuck in the dark with my depression and demons until I died.

Al Jazeera: So what then is the dream now? Where do you see yourself going from here?

Alsaif: I want to be the best. Anyone can say that but, for me, it’s a deep, deep word. I am obsessive. I admire perfection. I want to reach the top in everything. I don’t want to have 15 percent of anything. I want 100 percent.

I know the journey won’t be easy from here and I’ll cry and get hurt along the way but that’s the path I want to take.



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