Saturday, October 13, 2012

Lights, Camera, Punches!

Founder chairmen of SFL: Raj Kundra and Sanjay Dutt (Pic Courtesy:
The Mumbai home of the Super Fight League (SFL), advertised as India’s only professional Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) organization, is an arena in a dark, dingy building hidden somewhere in the suburb of Saki Naka. The arena, located on the third floor of this building, is accessed by what looks like a 50-year-old elevator and a staircase that is littered with cigarette butts, wrappers, boxes and other paraphernalia. The smell of smoke is evident as you approach the arena, not knowing what to expect inside.

But that’s the beauty of MMA, isn’t it? It’s not football, it’s not followed by millions. It’s not something a kid will tell his parents he is following. It has its loyal base of followers who keep the sport confined to dingy arenas, basements and car-parks. Originally promoted as a martial arts competition with the intention of finding the most effective ways of unarmed combat, fighters are pitted against each other with minimal rules. As the sport grew, fighters employed multiple martial arts into their style, such as Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ), Wushu and Shotokan Karate. It finally got mainstream acceptance with movies such as Never Back Down and Fight Club; and it’s finally made its way to India via the SFL.

It is said that marshal arts originated in India thousands of years ago in the akharas of North India where pehelwaans grappled with each other in the mud. The sport, along with other forms of Indian martial arts like Kalarippayattu was supposedly taken to the East along with the Buddhist culture where it was modified and excelled at. In India, however, the sport remained restricted to the akharas. “It is rather ironic,” says Kaushik Sen, a 35-year-old bantamweight participant of the SFL, “that the MMA scene in India has just been born. Even though martial arts originated in India, at the end of the day we are a peaceful and docile culture. We’re not a fighting kind of people.” 

That being said, the scene inside the SFL arena gives a lot of hope for the sport in India. Sure, it’s got its glitz and glamour with white, skimpily clad girls dancing away to the IPL tune during the breaks and participants entering the arena dressed like The Prince of Persia, but the quality of the fights inside the caged ring show that the sport is picking up. Raj Kundra, founder chairman of SFL, is excited and claims that SFL has caught the attention of the international audience. “From six months we’ve gone from people laughing at how amateur we were to international fighters tweeting to me that MMA has arrived in India and the quality of your guys is now up there. There are 3000 MMA organizations in the world; we’re the only one to deliver weekly fights all year round,” he says.

Kultar Singh Gill, a fighter in the main event of the evening—a welterweight bout against Egypt’s Amir Wahman—believes that the sport is bound to spread in India. “Aag jaise failegi (It will spread like fire),” he says. “Just wait and watch!” Sen, sporting a giant bruise under his left eye after losing to a 19-year-old in the only bout (out of seven) that lasted all three rounds, agrees: It (MMA) has a fantastic future in India. It’s already exploded in the West and now, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) — which is the largest MMA promotion company in the world — is coming to India.”

Sen, who has been fighting since 2004, believes that MMA is an “excellent form of self-defense” and encourages women to learn it. “It should be made mandatory for women; it’s the best way to protect yourself on the street.” Sen plans to open a school in Delhi soon. “I want to become an MMA teacher. Delhi needs a (MMA) school. Me and Ricky, my corner man, are going to open something up,” he says.

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