History of MMA in India Part 6: Revival of Mainstream MMA

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Indian Fighter Rahul Raju
Photo by Tristan Tamayo/INQUIRER.net

Part six of our look at Indian MMA takes a look at the present situation of the sport in India and what to expect in the future.

2017 turned out to be the year where Indian MMA got back in the full swing in the mainstream circuit. By end of 2016, MMA was at its tipping point. The growth had been stagnant for so long that if an Indian MMA time-growth graph was plotted it would look like a horizontal line. The stagnancy had been for so long that many former fighters and promoters, out of frustration, had quit MMA forever.

It was very clear that things simply couldn’t continue the way they were, the Indian MMA community had two options: crash out completely with the absolute destruction of the Indian MMA structure or evolve.

Opening up about that time, former Primal FC fighter Irfan Khan says, “Back then, many who were relying on MMA as a source of income quit out of frustration. See, before SFL left the Indian MMA market they were paying people enough money to make a living through fighting in MMA. When SFL left the Indian MMA scene, the majority of people had not created an alternative via which they could earn a living. Also, many had left their jobs in hopes to make a living as a fighter.” This resulted in heavy losses not only to fighters but also to the growth of Indian MMA as fighters were left cashless.

By 2017, almost everyone related to MMA was finding it difficult to continue. This wasn’t solely because of lack of money, some well-to-do fighters were quitting because they didn’t see how they could grow as fighters. That is when all of a sudden two to three heavy investors entered the market. The most prominent being the revamped SFL.

SFL

After staying away from the Indian market for almost three years, SFL came back. However, this time they came in with new owners. Super Fight League had been bought by British businessman Bill Dosanjh. A former team member of world-renowned boxer Amir Khan’s management, Dosanjh had been a combat sports fan since he was a kid. However, as his business grew, following his passion became difficult. He finally got the opportunity to kick start his dream in the form of SFL. He bought SFL in hopes to kickstart MMA in India and fulfill his life-long dream of helping the growth of combat sports in India.

Opening up more about why many still chose to associate to SFL, despite MMA not being a mainstream sport in India, Director of SFL Avi Mittal said, “MMA is definitely not a mainstream sport, but by sports standards, it’s growing really fast. I am a big fan of football and cricket among many others, but the reason why MMA caught my eyes is because this is something that brings about a sort of fire in people because it’s a true spectator sport. Another reason is that amazing talent from around the country and the world get a chance to showcase their skills on a national platform. It’s the fastest growing sport and I truly believe that this sport has a big and bright future.”

Concept

The concept of SFL is to create the first-ever MMA league. Per Dosanjh, this is the first time someone is planning on a team event for the sport of MMA. The league runs like any normal league-knockout tournament. A total of eight teams are divided into two groups, A and B. The four teams of each group compete in three matches. After the completion of three matches, the top two teams from each group are selected to compete in the semifinals. The winners of semifinals face off in finals to win the league.

Currently, SFL has eight teams, each representing a particular state. Every team has a total of six players. five men and one woman. Each player fighting in a different weight class. The weight classes are 125 for women; 135, 145, 155, 170, and 205 for men.

Editor’s Note: Yes, IFL was first in the team-MMA concept

Season 1

The first season of SFL was started in January 2017. Both Indian and international fighters competed in the tournament. Some of the most popular Indian MMA fighters like Invicta FC fighter Manjit Kolekar, ONE FC fighter Rajinder Singh Meena, Sumeet Khade, Jason Ramesh Solmon, Kario Isaac and Puja Tomar competed in the tournament.

A number of Bollywood celebrities associated themselves with the SFL. Tiger Shroff, co-owner of Bengaluru Tigers; Randeep Hooda, co-owner of Haryana Sultans; Ajay Devgan, co-owner of Mumbai Maniacs; Arbaz Khan, co-owner UP Nawab; Salim Merchant, co-owner Gujrat Warriors; Jacqueline Fernandes, brand ambassador of Goa Pirates; and many more.

The first tournament saw Delhi Heroes, Sher-E-Punjab, Bengaluru Tigers, and Goa Pirates come out as top 4. In the semi-finals, Delhi Heroes defeated Goa Pirates and Sher-E-Punjab defeated Bengaluru tigers. In the battle for third place, Bengaluru Tigers defeated Goa Pirates. In the finals, Sher-E-Punjab defeated Delhi Heroes to win the tournament.

Many fighters gained a lot of attention during the course of the tournament. Two prominent names who gained popularity were Asha Roka and Kantaraj Agasa.

Asha Roka 

Asha Roka was a former amateur boxer. She made her switch to MMA when she was banned from boxing. In the tournament, went 4-0. All four wins coming via stoppage. Roka became an overnight sensation because of her highlight-reel nine-second KO of Angela Pink in her MMA debut. Her highlight performances throughout the tournament earned her the prize of fighter of the season.

Kantaraj Agasa 

Agasa was a former judoka. He made his switch to MMA in 2015 as an amateur before turning pro in 2016. He too went 4-0 in the tournament. Out of four, three of his wins came via submission. Agasa too earned a postseason prize for his submission skills. Agasa was particularly praised for his win over Brazilian, Valmyr Neto.

Season 2

SFL returned with a second season. However, this time they changed their broadcasting partner from SONY ESPN to MTV. SFL also signed a deal with FOX Sports Asia and now had a wider reach. The grand opening of season two took place in Mumbai and the majority of the fights took place in Mumbai. Season two was kick-started in February 2018 and came to an end in March 2018.

In season two, multiple famous Indian and Indian-descendant fighters signed with SFL. Canadian-Sikh fighter Gary Mangat, former SFL star Irfan Khan, BOOM IFPL champion Ateet Kelvin Gupta, undefeated Brazilian Sarah Frota and many other signed with SFL. Former star competitors like Kantaraj Agasa, Sumeet Khade, Jason Ramesh Solmon, and Abdul Azim Badakhshi too returned to the promotion. Manjit Kolekar was out as she was injured and Asha Roka too did not compete in the tournament.

The top four teams which qualified in the Bengaluru Tigers, Haryana Sultans, UP Nawabs and Delhi Heroes. In the semifinals, Delhi Heroes defeated Bengaluru tigers and UP Nawabs defeated Haryana Sultans. In the finals, UP Nawabs defeated Delhi Heroes to become champions of Season Two.

Two prominent fighters who gained a lot of attention in this season were Gary Mangat and Sumeet Khade.

Gary Mangat 

Mangat entered the tournament as a well-established name. A former Brave CF title challenger, Mangat had suffered defeat in his last match and entered the league on a low note. However, that did not affect his performance. Mangat put forth an amazing display in the tournament and went 3-0 in the league.

Sumeet Khade

 Khade entered the tournament on a career low of a two-fight losing streak. His last run in the league was very disappointing as he had just returned from a Jackson-Wink led UFC fighter development program and despite that, he had lost in 2017 season of SFL. The pressure on Kahde was at an all-time high. However, instead of breaking under the strain, he gave a performance none could have imagined. He went on a 3-0 run in the league, with two wins coming via highlight KO.

Reception

So far SFL has received mixed reviews. The concept at least so far hasn’t been picked upon by the masses but Bill Dosanjh has said in multiple interviews that the entire plan is a set-up which will show results in five years. Commercially, the company is very safe because it is backed by some major mainstream brands like Dabur, Hero Cycles, the glamour of Bollywood, Intex, VI-John and many more. In fact, at the present moment, SFL is the only brand which has a strong sponsor backing.

Opening up about sponsorships, Avi Mittal says, “We are glad and are proud to be backed by strong sponsors as an Indian MMA organization. This is because they have a belief in us and we do our best to live up to their expectations. We always support all our fighters Indian or foreign. We believe in giving them an opportunity to showcase their talent on this national platform and let the world acknowledge their talent.”

SFL as a brand has always been on the receiving end of heavy criticism. The concept of the league, though innovative, has been dubbed as “unsafe” because of the number of matches a fighter is expected to compete in a span of a month. Responding to this, Mittal says, “SFL is a family and fighters are a part of it. Criticism is a challenge everyone has to face. Any case of treatment/substitutes/matches etc. is different and hence is taken up as per the situation demands. Fighters are treated like a family and are provided all sorts of support and help they need. They are our stars and we are really proud of them. We have and will always do our best to take care of the fighters’ needs.”

Apart from the concept, the league format has received severe backslash for mismatches and bad refereeing. Very experienced fighters have been matched against debutants which results in bad beatdowns. A particular example is Kantaraj Agasa (7-0), who was matched against an 0-0 fighter. All of this raises many doubts towards fighter safety. However, many defend this by adding that these mismatches turn out to give unexpected results which add the element of excitement.

Adding on Mittal says “We have an expert team who makes the decision. Our focus was to build confidence in all our fighters. To answer your question, when Dhruv Chaudhary (10- 6) fought against Sanjeet Budhwar (3-0), Budhwar won by TKO which was not expected since Chaudhary is a renowned bantamweight fighter in India. Next example, Abdul Azim Badakshi (8-1) fought against Sascha Sharma (14-5) and Abdul won the fight by an amazing knockout. Coming to another example, Kantharaj Agasa (9-0) fought against Roshan Mainam (2-2), though Kantharaj won the fight, the praises were all for Roshan that he took the fight to three rounds and then Kantha won by decision despite the fact that he is amongst the best wrestlers we have. So the point here is even if we have strong fighters we do not underestimate any of our fighters and give all of them a chance to fight with the stronger opponent and prove themselves.”

As for refereeing, Mittals says they always try their level best. “Our team is collecting all the data including what all needs to be focused on the most. Depending on which of our teams will come to us with an issue, it will be focused on and resolved. For the upcoming seasons, refereeing and match conduct will be fair as it was until now. We at SFL neither endorse nor promote any sort of unfair play.”

Can SFL Survive?

Last time when SFL was launched it had a lackluster run. This time around it looks like they are better prepared but are the expectations realistic. Bill Dosanjh, owner of SFL, popularly once compared SFL to Pro Kabaddi (a popular team sport in India) and said that the MMA could be as big as it. So far the exact numbers generated by SFL are unavailable. However, the management feels that MMA has the market and can be as big.

Avi Mittal believes the sport will capture the Indian audience, “There’s no reason to doubt the success of this sport as well as leading the Indian market. Our team has been working hard to make this happen and we get our viewer’s support. Mixed Martial Arts has grown exponentially over the last decade. It’s a million miles away from the no-holds-barred combat sport it once was during the inception of the sport but in general, yes, the league will definitely capture the imagination of the Indian audience.”

Professional combat sports usually revolve around major stars. If a pro combat sport has to break in the market of a region they need a star who captures the audience and brings in views to the sport. Similarly, if SFL has to establish itself as a major player they will need the support of an MMA star. They need to create an MMA star. So far, they believe they are going in the right direction. Mittals says, “We believe all our fighters are already stars. Some of our players have already won millions of hearts and are known by many. SFL fighters have jumped over a lot of hurdles and still emerged as winners in their lives and so we really have a strong belief in them. We are just providing them with a platform but truly they are the stars!”

So far, SFL has had a better run than last time. Whether they are able to maintain and improve is something future will tell, but the way Indian sporting community has responded towards the sport it feels that they can succeed.

ONE FC: Reviving India’s Passion

As stated above, fighters weren’t solely quitting MMA because of lack of money. The majority of fighters were quitting the sport because they felt they simply didn’t have a platform and there was no room to grow. The frustration of not having opportunities became one of the most common reasons why Indian combat sports community distanced itself from the sport of MMA. That is when ONE FC entered the market.

ONE FC is one of the premium MMA organizations in the world. It has a strong base in Singapore and its on-the-ground connection in Asia is second to almost none. As ONE FC evolved it started signing up various athletes from India. The first Indian MMA fighter to be signed by them was Susovan Ghosh.

Soon, a bunch of other Indian MMA fighters started popping up in ONE FC cards. This brought in a lot of visibility to Indian MMA fighters. This is one of the factors why MMA promotions from China and other Asian nations started inviting Indian MMA fighters to compete on their cards. This visibility also brought in a lot of views to the Indian MMA market.

India got its first break in ONE FC in 2015 when Priyanka Jeet Toshi earned her first win in the promotion. She faced hometown girl Tharoth Oum Sam and was a considerable underdog. However, that didn’t stop Jeet Toshi, who went on to win the fight via decision. This win brought in a lot of attention towards Indian fighters.

However, the glory was short lived as Indian fighters gave a series of disappointing performances at various ONE events. This didn’t sit well with many fighters as word got around in Indian MMA community that Indian fighters were being used as stepping stones for ONE fighters. The trend continued till January 2018. In that month, Rajinder Singh Meena made history as he became the first Indian man to win a fight in ONE FC. At ONE Championship: Global Heroes, Meena defeated Ze Hao Zhang to end his four-fight losing streak in the promotion and thus re-established the Indian brand in ONE. This win also boosted the confidence of various Indian MMA fighters. After this, Indian fighter Himanshu Kaushik got the chance to co-main event ONE FC fight card.

ONE has played a very important and underappreciated role in the development of MMA in India.

UFC: Arjan Singh Bhullar and Bharat Kandare

UFC is synonyms with the sport of MMA. The majority of sporting fans equate the sport of MMA to competing in the UFC. Same goes for the Indian audience. MMA fighters in India always had trouble in connecting with masses because of lack of representation in the UFC. “People thought that what we do is fake,” says Invicta FC fighter Manjit Kolekar.

That is when it was announced Arjan Singh Bhullar was going to compete in the UFC, a lot changed for the MMA community in India. First, it put India on the UFC map. This received a lot of attention from the Indian sporting fans. Second, and most importantly, it gave Indian MMA fighters confirmation that the UFC was interested in signing Indians. That boosted the confidence of Indian MMA fighters.

People soon started expecting an announcement of an Indian fighter competing in the UFC. The wish of fighters was soon granted by the UFC as they announced Bharat Kandare’s fight on UFC Shanghai. This move excited the Indian MMA community in a way none could have imagined. The spirit of Indian MMA fighters was revived then. Fighting in the UFC was possible for Indians!

Future

MMA in India at least for now looks very bright. Many international promotions like Brave, ONE FC, and Phoneix FC have either signed Indian fighters for long-term contracts or are on the verge of doing so. Plus, many gyms have come up in India which provide legit MMA training. Very recently, Superhuman Gym in collaboration with Jackson-Wink MMA started India’s first ever large-scale MMA training camp. The gym has its own cage, which is roughly about the size of The Ultimate Fighter’s octagon.

On a local level, many promotions have started taking up heavy investment projects. Two of the most prominent names in the local scene, apart from SFL, is the WAR DOG MMA series and International Fighters League (IFL). IFL owner Gracian Dsouza says, “We want to create a very friendly environment for the fighters. IFL will be hosting many fight nights in the coming months. We have already had two fight nights so far in this year. We will be having another one in August in Andheri, Mumbai.”

WAR DOG MMA, led by East-India’s famous promoter Ratul Mukherjee, is going to tour northeast and eastern India with various events. Fighters from Afghanistan and Bangladesh are expected to compete at the event. The positive growth for sure indicates a good future for MMA in India.

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