KABUL (Reuters) - In a custom-built arena in Kabul, crowds cheered as young Afghan men punched, kicked, and wrestled in the country's first professional mixed martial arts league, a welcome distraction to the violence besetting the country.
While cricket and soccer more commonly grab public attention in Afghanistan, fighters and fans see martial arts not just as entertainment but as a constructive pastime for youths in a country torn by war and economic malaise.
Against a soundtrack of booming music and shouts of encouragement, sweat and blood mixed inside the cage. Each match, however, ended in a hug.
"I think it provides a very good platform for the social frustrations that we have here in Afghanistan," said Kakal Noristani, who a year and a half ago helped found the Snow Leopard Fighting Championship.
To date, only men have competed in the handful of competitions, but organizers say they are training women fighters. The walls of the club feature posters of American martial arts competitor Ronda Rousey.
Noristani and his partners want to develop mixed martial arts as a professional sport in Afghanistan, hoping to host foreign fighters and send Afghan competitors abroad.
"We’ve just begun here in Afghanistan," Noristani said. "The professional structure was non-existent before this."
That's helped some fighters dream of national and international glory.
"This is the wish of every fighter: To reach the highest level and be able to fight abroad," said Mir Baba Nadery, who won his match that night.
Outside the cage, spectators expressed gratitude for a diversion from the country's woes.
"Coming to these kind of events takes your mind off of our problems," said Nadia Sina. "We are happy to see such an organization encouraging sportsmen and improving the sport in the country."
(Writing by Josh Smith; editing by Richard Lough)