There will be bloodhttps://indianexpress.com/article/news-archive/print/there-will-be-blood/

There will be blood

There is money,fame and livelihood riding on Super Fight League

But there is also money,fame and livelihood riding on Super Fight League,India’s mixed martial arts spectacle. And that’s what the fighers want,finds out SHIVANI NAIK

She sits there with her long legs crossed,smoothening the pleats of her short dress,fiddling with her dainty bracelet intermittently,drawing attention to her brightly painted red nails. The Burberry checks peep out from where she has neatly tucked them to the side in her celebrity box,where she sits as a guest.

As fighters take on each other amidst well-heeled spectators,nearly half of whom are paid to watch,and as one or the other is beaten to pulp,she brings together her manicured hands in a measured applause of appreciation. In the ring,there will be blood and there will be guttural celebration; outside,an appreciative audience and her. A celebration of beauty and the beast,that’s India’s Super Fight League,a mixed martial arts (MMA) spectacle.

With a win bringing in Rs 27,000 on an average for each bout and even a loss Rs 13,000 minimum,mixed martial arts is on the rise in India. TV is a massive incentive for the young Indian fighters,particularly with the sport gradually moving mainstream from Colors to Neo to Star Sports channel.

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Its setting,in Mehra Industrial Compound,Andheri,Mumbai,may be grungy,and violence its currency,but the SFL Arena’s main stage and prep-room are a swanky affair. A massive,creaking elevator lets visitors into a disco-ball lit-room,with carpeted gangways. Inside are players riding on adrenaline and hope,and audience who come in sedans and occasional Mercs.

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Friday is Fight Night,and Kaushik Sen,36,is up against Meerut’s 20-year-old spike-haired punk Uchit Sharma. As he makes his way in,the cocky,restless youngster chats and gestures to his friends in the crowd,then distracts his opponent with a jab and cross. Sen has trained hard for his bantamweight clash,a rare SFL bout for him,but is bewildered by Sharma’s fierce fidget.

The format,including three rounds of 5 minutes each,allows an assortment of assaults,and Sharma rains them,including a sharp kick to the left. Ring rust combines with creaking reflexes as Sen takes blows that leave him with a black eye and momentary loss of vision. “I didn’t see it coming,” he says later. Sen also recalls feeling that his head was ready to explode and,with his face feeling heavy,vaguely thinking of how it must feel when police bamboos strike rioters.

Tapping into reserves he didn’t think he had,Sen pulls himself up to launch a counter. But Sharma hits the hardest of four-five punches on the same left side struck earlier by the vicious first kick. Two minutes is all it takes for Sen’s demolition. He leaves with a cracked nose,though mercifully CT scans show no concussion or retinal damage.

  

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Experts will tell you a mashed-up face isn’t alarming; what one should watch out for are red spots appearing on a fighter’s back in the course of a bout—usually the first sign that heavy bleeding will follow. If you are up against Naren ‘Dynamite’ Grewal,for example,a fight can be a series of pick-ups,throwdowns interspersed with kicks and punches. Michael Page,on the other hand,who hovers over his opponents with a cobra-stance,brought down an Egyptian opponent by the sheer force of his wicked reverse-kicks recently.

Ricky Sahni,a lightweight,says it’s simple: “Badhna hai,to ladhna hai (You have to fight if you want to progress).” His face-off recently with an Afghani plunged to what appeared a drunken brawl,pushing the boundaries of mixed martial arts rules. The Afghanis and Iranians come with scary reputations of their ability to bear pain—known to bear blows for the entire duration of the 15 minutes than bowing out.

Manjit Kolekar is a spunky Mumbai girl who came into mixed martial arts through a reality show,and views its violence with an almost unhealthy relish. “The real fight will be when I get a black eye. Like other girls get excited about make-up,my dream day is to receive a hammering on my face,but fight till the very end of 15 minutes. That will be my natural rouge and lipstick,” she guffaws. So far,she has had the better of her rivals.

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The sport teems with manoeuvre going by names such as a rare naked choke,an anaconda choke (a sort of headlock) and a guillotine choke. The format allows for ‘dirty boxing’—punching in close proximity—that standard boxing prohibits. But the ultimate move that yields a string of acute submissions is the ‘Ground and Pound’,when one fighter takes his opponent to the ground and strikes them till they are knocked out.

May Thai specialists bring some noisy leg-strikes,with shins,elbows and knees struck to lethal intent,while Brazilian Jim Jitsu pros go for the pinning and choking points on the ground as an opponent is worn down bit by muscle bit. Wushu’s practitioners are known to be the most vicious hitters,though grapplers bring in their own set of ground-plays that can curdle a spectator’s blood.

Fans of the clownish WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) indulged their juvenile thrills with big-booming moves,but no one was under any illusion that the spectacle was anything but orchestrated,with men in funny costumes faking fury and aggression. SFL is undeniably real,with no ketchup bottles to squeeze onto bodies to fake blood. 

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While Daniel Isaac is the brains behind SFL,the most identifiable face is that of co-promoter Raj Kundra,married to actor Shilpa Shetty and the owner of IPL team Rajasthan Royals. The mild-mannered Isaac—a former kick-boxer himself as well as an ordained priest—strongly believes in both mixed martial arts and SFL. The violence may put off some but,according to Isaac,his fighters know what they are doing. “In training,the body is conditioned to bear pain,though a lay person will hurt bad in the same situation. Fighters are taught to absorb blows and limit the hurt.”

“Mixed martial arts faced opposition from purists saying it’s a bloodsport and should be banned. But I contend that anything that martial arts and self-defence provide,we offer more in skills.”

According to him,SFL takes the utmost precaution—which means the sport has seen only four fatalities (according to a survey of the Nevada State Athletics Commission) in the last 30 years,three of which were in unsanctioned events. “There are restrictions,and our sport refs are very well-trained to take the calls. A cut,bruise might seem like a lot of blood but it can be stopped by superficial application. If a vein/artery is opened up,we stop the fight immediately,” he stresses.

As for ‘Ground and Pound’,in which a grounded opponent is hammered,Isaac defends: “As long as the fighter is intelligently defending,the fight goes on. They are usually blocked with the forearm. Even three-four hard punches can end in TKO (technical knock out).” Once a fight drifts into realms of risk—such as dislocation—an experienced official will always separate the fighters. Fit-to-fight certificates which pre-test for hepatitis,HIV and liver malfunctions are very exhaustive.

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“Earlier,at the nationals of kickboxing,judo,taekwondo,athletes would sleep in dharmshalas,struggle for food. Now they have a platform where they are taken care of. They are put up at five-star hotels,have a medical insurance cover of Rs 50 lakh,top chefs cook for them,and they take home hefty sums,” Isaac points out.

Bharat Khandare,a municipal worker from Nashik,became a full-time fighter after his father lost his limbs to amputation. “It’s survival for many. They don’t have fancy educational degrees,so it’s livelihood for 90 per cent of the fighters,” he says,adding that co-promoter Kundra,himself a trained kick-boxer from the UK,has ensured that an entire set of martial arts practitioners don’t go penniless.

Irfan,perhaps the most popular home fighter from Mumbai,whose furious elbow’s reputation precedes his,rationalises,“Blood is expected in my fights. For if I don’t hit them,they will. I feel sorry to hit opponents,but we are paid to fight.” He adds: “All these years,I had 100 certificates,cups to show for my sport,but now I’m on TV. People know me.”

Sachin Panwar,wearing the seven stitches under his eye as a badge of honour,also sees the fact that a tea-seller like him is on TV as a sign that he is doing something right. “My father suffered a second heart attack recently,brother’s medical treatment for kidney stones needed money. SFL helped me manage expenses. And now my entire neighbourhood knows my family as Sachin’s mother and Sachin’s father. Why won’t I fight?” says the 22-year-old from Haryana,who also sold bangles and wholesale dress material in Orissa before he camped in Mumbai.

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While the SFL is expanding its base,it is walking a thin line in India owing to its content on television. It remains on the far fringes of mainstream sport but as,and if,its popularity increases,the blood,violence and gore will be put under far greater scrutiny than it is currently.

Sub-point 4 of Rule 6 of the Programme Code of the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting says,“Care should be taken to ensure that programmes meant for children do not contain any bad language or explicit scenes of violence”. It proceeds to say: “Programmes unsuitable for children must not be carried in the cable service at times when the largest numbers of children are viewing”. Hence,SFL’s 9 pm prime-time start might pose major problems in the future.

While bleeding fighters will always draw gasps and outrage from critics,it is the accepted techniques of submission,permitted by mixed martial arts internationally,that are pushing the limits of acceptability.

Moves like ‘Ground and Pound’ that allow a fighter to pin down an opponent,mount on his chest and punch him are blatantly violent to impressionable minds. The nuanced and technical ground defence which a mounted fighter might employ,that a keen martial artist can appreciate,will be completely lost on,say,children watching the fight on TV. And therein lies the tricky path ahead for promoters of SFL.

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Fighters also insist that spectators need to be patient in understanding their skills,and point out that the East has had a long tradition of martial arts. “It’s not just about two people punching each other in the faces,or rolling and hugging each other on the canvas. It’s more than that,” says Thinesh John,a mixed martial arts writer based in Singapore. “Asia is the capital for martial arts. Almost every Asian country has a martial art that’s attached to it. Silat,Taekwondo,Judo,Akido,Karate,Wushu have all originated from Asia. That’s what’s instilled in all of us Asians… MMA is a blend of all aspects of martial arts,making this the most unique combat sport right now,” he stresses.

“Fighters know what they’re getting into. Injuries and blood will be part of the process. Then again,with the safety regulations in place,people will realise that this sport isn’t as gruesome as they once thought it was. Fighters crave understanding,” he adds.

Daniel Isaac in fact started out in the traditional Kalaripayattu in Coimbatore. “My grandfather and father were humble street fighters who fought for a mere Rs 50-100 in the popular carnival fights in the south. They sometimes fought for their next meal. I’ve had my fair share of struggles,” he says.

He dons sharp suits as a commentator and meets Mumbai’s swish set alongside Kundra routinely. But the beastly route of gruelling training remains always at the back of his mind. “It’s hard work,” admits Isaac,“and some people put their body on the line—because that’s all that we have.”

‘If you’re not foolhardy,this is not the sport for you’

Kaushik Sen,36,almost lost an eye in last month’s bout with a younger opponent. He understands the dangers of SFL,but notes that when recession left him broke,it was mixed martial arts that gave him a profession:

“Ever since I was a kid,I’ve looked up to fighting icons and martial arts heroes like Jean Claude Van Damme,Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan,and even took lessons in Jeet Kune Do,Bruce Lee’s area of expertise. I took lessons in mixed martial arts (MMA) when we moved from Africa to the US,and sought out an MMA platform when I returned to India in 2009.

I had a business degree from Kentucky and took up jobs in mortgage sales and home loans,but after being hit by recession,I drifted to jobs in data analysis and electricity marketing. I eventually found happiness in MMA; a hobby became a profession.

I’ve fought 25 times in five years,so I’m still an amateur. My training is basically the last 15 minutes of my coaching class,clearly not enough,and my two fights in SFL have been match-ups with 20-year-old kids. At 36 years,I’m told I should coach now,but there’s always that urge to fight one more.

When I fought Uchit Sharma (his opponent in last month’s bout),my heartbeat and cardio-rate were in place but presence of mind was gone. Two days prior to the fight,he was psyching me out by saying ‘chachu-chachu’,joking about sticking to the right side of my face,since the left had taken a beating in an earlier fight,all in the guise of mock respect.

Sometimes,it’s good to lose. You learn to be humble. I’m getting paid for it,so I can’t grudge people having entertainment at the expense of my blood and sweat.

If you’re not foolhardy,this is not the sport for you. I’m not some masochist or overtly seeking danger. It can be unnerving,staying with the same people you are going to fight with. But the gladiators did that too. MMA has taught me to be ready to face violence. I have tools to protect myself.

I haven’t come across more gentler people than fighters. Basketball players and footballers are more unruly! My family’s worried because I am the only child. But I tell them my job is not tougher than that of policemen or firefighters. But yes,you need the stomach to fight or even watch it.

The audience hasn’t changed since gladiatorial times. Ninety eight per cent of people still go to car races hoping they get to see a crash,so there’s a need for goriness in a lot of people. It’s just that they don’t admit to it. But it’s just the way things are… hopefully in a few years,audience will also learn the nuances of martial arts and start appreciating real skill.

For a lot of poor fighters who know nothing else but martial arts,this is a source of income. And those who’ve never learnt martial arts might struggle to understand this.”

Full-contact combat sport

* The Super Fight League is India’s leading mixed martial arts organisation,founded by Raj Kundra and Sanjay Dutt in 2012

* Mixed martial arts is a full-contact combat sport allowing the use of both striking and grappling techniques,both standing and on the ground

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* Competition is held in 8 weight categories for men (heavyweight,light heavyweight,middleweight,welterweight,lightweight,featherweight,bantamweight,flyweight) and in 4 weight divisions for women (featherweight,bantamweight,flyweight,strawweight). About 48 women and over 200 men are expected to fight in this second season for the various titles.

* Challengers are drawn either from a qualifying tournament called SFL Contenders (for amateurs),or are established names on the pro mixed martial arts circuit.

* The ring floor is padded with ensolite or similar closed-cell foam,with at least a one-inch layer of foam padding.

* Protective gear is limited to mouth piece and groin guard for men,and a chest protector for women.

* Three judges score the fighters on their striking,grappling skills. Contests are decided either by submission (physical tap out or verbal tap out) or knockouts or decision via scorecard.

* Every second Friday,Fight Night fightcard sees competition in an average of 7 bouts.

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