Cricket may be India’s favourite sport, but Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) has been seeing a massive surge in popularity in the last few years. Just this week, Mumbai saw three promotions: the X1 International Women’s Fight Night, the Matrix Fight Night (organised by actor Tiger Shroff’s MMA-based fitness centre, MMA Matrix) and tonight’s Underground Fight Night, at Famous Studios.
So what sets MMA apart, when sports like NBA or Formula 1 are also trying to find steady footing in the country? For one, there’s the adrenaline rush. The fights are unpredictable — when Jose Aldo faced Conor McGregor in 2015, at the UFC 194 main event, the fight lasted just 13 seconds, with McGregor knocking out the Brazilian legend. We’ve also seen brutal knock-outs over the years, with fighters being taken to the hospital right after.
And while the drama in the cage and the controversies outside of it (earlier this week, McGregor was arrested for smashing a fan’s phone) are aplenty, none of it is scripted.
The backstories of the fighters are interesting, too. Some are former Olympians and professional footballers, while others have fought their way up from grassroots promotions to the big leagues. Like McGregor, who almost missed his UFC debut because he had to collect a welfare cheque. Today, the Irishman and former UFC lightweight champion is known for his custom-made suits (the pinstripes often competing with his salty language) and his own range of Irish whisky. In 2015, Ronda Rousey, the most successful female mixed martial arts fighter (who has since moved to WWE), found crossover fame in Hollywood.
Gender agnostic fan base
“UFC remains the most watched mixed martial arts property in India. The sport has enjoyed considerable growth in viewership over the past few years, with close to 100 million viewers in 2018,” says Rajesh Kaul, Head – Sports Business, Sony Pictures Networks India. “Viewership is also largely gender agnostic, with women contributing a sizeable 44%. One of the reasons for this is the following for fighters like McGregor and Rousey.”
The most popular MMA promotion in India now is UFC, followed by Bellator. While earlier, Sony extensively promoted the sport — early Sunday morning screenings (because of the time difference) of UFC matches were organised across restaurants and cafés (like Hard Rock) — now fans have taken over, hosting regular UFC breakfast watch parties (especially in Bengaluru and Mumbai). Glen Fernando, an MMA enthusiast from Chennai, says, “My friends and I are mad fans. The people fight for real, shed real blood. It’s amazing to watch their hard work and the techniques they use. We have a WhatsApp group specifically for MMA, with a few on it whom we haven’t met in person, where we share the latest updates and matchups.”
Influencers like actor Parvin Dabas, who hosts The MMA India Show on Sony LIV, are also helping draw attention to the fledgling sport, while gyms across the country are starting to offer workouts based on mixed martial arts.
An India surge
With Ritu Phogat joining the sport, interest is bound to ramp up even more. All eyes are on how well she transitions from wrestling to MMA. But she has others who have successfully done this, to look up to, including Indian-origin Canadian UFC fighter Arjan Bhullar, who competed as a freestyler wrester at the 2012 Olympic Games.
Bhullar was in India in 2017, on a promotional tour for UFC. The American promotion has been pushing to enter the Indian market for a few years now. According to entrepreneur Ajit Sigamani, they’ve sent scouts and put out feelers. “I’d give it another year or two. Five years ago, hardly anybody knew what MMA was in India. Now you have a 40-50% awareness penetration, which will only grow,” he says, adding that when UFC does come, “we will have solid coaches accredited by the world body and UFC referees, because of MMA India (the national body), and fighters who have matured over the last few years”.
The future is looking bright for local talent, controversies like Bharat Kandare’s notwithstanding. The first Indian to sign for the UFC in 2017 was given a two-year ban last year after testing positive for a banned substance. Meanwhile, Manjit Kolekar, 27, has become the first Indian to fight for Invicta Fighting Championship. There are also homegrown promotions like Brave Fighting Championship and Super Fight League giving young fighters a stage to showcase their talents.
On the local circuit
Chennai-based entrepreneur, Ajit Sigamani, is the director of X1 Entertainment, a commercial MMA promotion that is just eight months old. With as many events already under X1’s belt, his other focus is helping people train using MMA-based techniques. “It is the fastest growing sport in the world, and people like it because you can apply your entire skill set in combat,” he says.
As the founder of Combat Kinetics, a combat sports academy where students can take up training (professional or otherwise), the instructors teach using martial arts techniques. The academy has produced star athletes, including Kaushik Saikumar who scored a bronze at last year’s Junior MMA World Championships, and Abu Syed, who also won a bronze in 2016. But for those looking for something less intense, there is a GPP regimen (General Physical Preparedness), which focusses on an arsenal of calisthenic exercises and a range of MMA-inspired skills that boost overall fitness.
Meanwhile, Sigamani, who is also a member of the national MMA federation, admits that X1 could be the only MMA promotion in the country making money. “K1L and SFL made a lot of noise with celebrities on board, like Raj Kundra and Sanjay Dutt respectively, but the shows have gotten progressively smaller. We don’t have huge, elaborate productions, but good fights, lighting and officials. The next step is to get investors and get on to television and OTT platforms.”
Actor Parvin Dabas has, over the past three years, emerged as one of India’s largest MMA advocates. The host of The MMA India Show (a talk show streaming on Sony LIV) was drawn to martial arts as a child, dabbling in Taekwondo and kickboxing. But it wasn’t until seven years ago that he really got into the sport, thanks to Sony’s UFC promotions. “I think it was so successful because there was a vacuum for a combat sports promotion in India,” he says. It also helps that UFC, with stars like Conor McGregor, has some of the most marketable and popular MMA names in the world.
While a collaboration with Sony led to The MMA India Show , he later launched the website, mmaindia.com (curated by Dabas, and independent of Sony), to provide extensive commentary and updates about both international and local fights. “It’s an all-rounded game,” he says, sharing that he is not surprised by Ritu Phogat’s move. “MMA is lucrative, is a year-round sport. It’s the next level of combat sport, while wrestling is just one facet.”
Unlike other promotions (wrestling in particular), the actor maintains that the allure of MMA is how realistic it is. “It is not entertainment-based and it’s not scripted,” he says. Combat sports, to him, are special because they reward technique, are unpredictable (depending on the fighters’ skill sets, “so much can happen in each fight, just in terms of positions and strategies”) and it is also “the most primal form of fighting”.
With the right kind of education about the techniques and rules of the sport, he believes that MMA is here to stay.
Martial arts workout
“It is not uncommon for new clients to ask me to incorporate MMA-based techniques into their fitness regimens. The rising popularity of UFC in the country and a general fitness trend that favours metabolic workouts has helped MMA rise in status,” says Avinash Bali, a Mumbai-based personal trainer specialising in Animal Flow and bodyweight training. “What makes MMA-based workouts so great is that they incorporate techniques from a range of combat sports, like boxing, Taekwondo, Brazilian jiu-jitsu and Muay Thai, to name a few. Most gyms offer an introductory class, and dynamic full body movements like sprawls, explosive lunges and burpees are great exercises to combine with weights training. And should you really take to it, you can also head to famous MMA gyms like Tiger Muay Thai or Phuket Top Team in Thailand for your next vacation.”