Is MMA the next big thing in India?

Sunaib Sultan is one of many Indian MMA fighters training without a gym or coach due to living in a conflicted and heavily militarized region of the country.

New Delhi, India — Times have changed and the medieval tradition of combat sports has emerged across the world, especially in India. Mixed martial arts has been called the gladiator games of our time, where supremely trained and highly fit fighters go against each other in a steel cage.

MMA, originally believed to date back to the ancient Olympic games in 648 BC, was considered to be a combat game developed by the Greeks, which combined wrestling, boxing, street fighting, Muay Thai, Jiu-Jitsu, Wushu, and other disciplines. Initially banned for its brutal and no holds barred image of the fights, MMA emerged as the fastest-growing spectator sport in the last two decades.

MMA first came to attention with a 1993 tournament known as the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the largest promoter of MMA today.

In the context of India, MMA is a hunger that is only growing, with more and more tournaments being organized by the likes of Famous Studios’ Xtreme Survivor and Underground Fight Nights promoted by Pyna Experiences, a New Delhi based firm, making India one of the most populous countries to fuel the expansion of MMA, with fighters from all over the country battling it out to reach the top.

It’s a hot Wednesday night in the capital, and fighters from five different weight divisions are buzzing with energy. Young men and women lined up to get to the retrofitted cage with loud music pumping up the fighters and the audience alike. With cameras everywhere the fighters are locked into the cage and battle it out for three, five-minute rounds of rigorous fighting both hungry to win.

Xtreme Survivor is a semi-pro tournament with 26 amateur fighters, fighting to be the last man or woman standing, and is sponsored by the All India Mixed Martial Arts Federation. A young, self-taught fighter hailing from Kashmir, a conflicted and heavily militarized region in the Indian Subcontinent, caught the eye of the audience.

Sunaib Sultan, a trained Wushu fighter, has always wanted to compete in MMA and was inspired by the likes of Khabib Nurmagomedov, Nate Diaz, and Conor McGregor ultimately looking to them when deciding to take up MMA as a professional career. Due to the lack of basic infrastructure and resources in the Kashmir region, he was unable to get a trainer and thus began his own training, Wushu being his fighting style, he began working on his strength, speed and agility on his own.

“I have been doing strength training, running and shadow boxing for now because I do not have a trainer and a gym here, but I want to fight tournaments so that I can find a coach somewhere and become a professional,” Sultan tells FanSided .

In his first tournament, at a professional level, he had fought three fights in a single night, finally losing the semi-finals by a margin of just two points, displaying an exorbitant amount of passion and enthusiasm for the sport.

But as a nation with minimal resources in the sports scenario, these young fighters were forced to compete in multiple fights in a single night without adequate rest or medical facilities during the events, especially in amateur tournaments with minimal audiences. This risks the lives of these amateur fighters along with the risk of serious injury, but the enthusiasm and passion for the sport have not stopped Indian athletes like Sultan. Apart from the lack of adequate rest and medical support for the athletes, there was also very little compensation for these amateur fighters and only the well-off can afford the expensive and rigid training required for these bouts.

Sultan after finishing third in the tournament and was deeply injured says, “I am passionate about the game and want to reach the top, I have come here to get the hang of the game and will train better to become a pro.”

Having lost to a professional fighter in the same middleweight category, Sultan is determined to return to the ring stronger and more technically sound. Chikarito Tshering, a pro fighter was the last man standing in the tournament and won prize money of just Rs 15,000 (about $190) after fighting four fights and physically and mentally exhausting himself.

“Money is not why we are here, we are here to make a name for ourselves and reach the top and fight the likes of Khabib and McGregor,” Tshering said.

There are many global promoters of MMA today that are looking at India to expand themselves, with the population size and the enthusiasm towards combat sports in India, MMA is sure to turn heads around in India.

The MMA rise in India has its distinct advantages and disadvantages, but the need of the hour is to train these young athletes to the levels of the athletes abroad and the sports authorities to jump in on the opportunity and subsidize the sport in order to stop the exploitation of Indian MMA fighters.

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