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Thursday, May 13, 2021

Meet Manipur’s rising Mix Martial Arts star

Roshan Mainam, who won his ONE Championship debut bout last week, is tipped to make waves

Written by Gaurav Bhatt | New Delhi |
Updated: November 16, 2019 11:44:54 am
Roshan Mainam, who improved his professional record to 4-2, was inspired by district-mate Sarita Devi’s 2006 world boxing title and Sushil Kumar’s Olympic bronze two years later. (One Championship/Evolve MMA)

Sickly child-turned-wrestler-turned street fighter-turned professional fighter. Roshan Mainam’s target is to add one more entry to this unusual progression: India’s first MMA world champion.

The Manipuri took one large step towards that goal last Saturday, when he won his debut bout for ONE Championship – one of Asia’s biggest MMA promotion – improving his record to 4-2.

Roshan’s win was lost in the build-up to wrestler-turned mixed martial arts fighter Ritu Phogat’s ONE debut this Saturday.

The Phogat surname became a big draw and Ritu’s elder sisters Geeta and Babita became household names after the release of the hit Bollywood movie Dangal, based on the lives of the wrestlers and their father-cum-coach. But Roshan’s story should have scriptwriters’ ears perk up too.

Fourth child of a chronically-ill father and a breadwinner mother, Roshan, a frail boy with a permanent cough, grew up tending cattle and working in rice mills. Inspired in equal parts by district-mate Sarita Devi’s 2006 world title and Sushil Kumar’s Olympic bronze two years later, Roshan moved to Delhi and joined the prestigious Guru Hanuman akhara. Under Dronacharya awardee Maha Singh Rao, Roshan won four state-level junior and cadet titles in as many years. But while he was on the cusp of breaking out, faltering at the nationals meant his moment never came.

READ | Ritu Phogat ready for tilt at MMA world title

“I was a child, so far away from my home. I got Rs 2-3,000 per month and it was tough to sustain a wrestler’s diet. I didn’t have the heart to ask my mother for more money so I decided to go back and find a job,” Roshan tells The Indian Express.

On the train back home in 2014, Roshan’s bag full of documents and certificates was nicked, a final push that turned the disenchanted 18-year-old into a roughneck running with a bad crowd.

“Just bad company. Not bad people but just the way kids can be at that age. Smoking up, drinking a lot,” says Roshan. “I had all this confidence and physique from being a wrestler. I started fighting. Everybody in my village respected me as a wrestler. Now they knew me as the guy who fights. Main sota nahi tha raat ko, bas ladai karta tha (I wouldn’t sleep at night, I just fought).” After several such sleepless nights, Roshan caught the MMA bug.

“I saw how popular a Manipuri fighter named Kario Isaac was. That time, my mindset was that as a wrestler I was not getting this kind of respect. So I watched MMA. People, fighting in a cage, all bloodied up. I decided I will make my name in this, I’ll become India’s best.”

Last November, after a gruelling tryout, Roshan was signed by ONE and began training at the Evolve facility in Singapore, with a salary of S$7500 (approx Rs4lakh) per month. “It will take at least 4-5 more wins for me to be ready for a world title bout,” Roshan says. “But when I look back at where I came from, even the first win makes me cry. I can help out my family and my supporters now. More important than money though is that I now understand what martial art actually means.”

***

Roshan remembers being picked on endlessly in school. “I was very weak. Northeast people are known for being physically impressive, more so in Manipur,” says the 23-year-old from Thoubal. “Sarita Devi made our district famous, so I thought sports could be the way out. I would become fitter plus academics were tough for me, so I looked for any sport.”

After a rendezvous with table tennis – “I played 20 matches and won zero” – wrestling mat came calling for Roshan.

“Some national-level wrestlers had returned for vacation. Their bodies scared me, they had such cut abs and thick necks. I knew that they would ridicule me if I approached them, so I started sneaking into their training hall at night. They figured out that I had been trespassing and told me: ‘Come on time tomorrow with a singlet.”

Roshan made some name in Manipur and moved on to Capital’s Guru Hanuman akhara, the training ground of the likes of Dara Singh, Satpal Singh, Rajiv Tomar et al.

“I had good Manipuri students before. But nobody was as tireless as Roshan. From day one I could see his hardwork, his agility and speed,” says Maha Singh Rao.

READ | Ritu Phogat MMA Debut: All you need to know

“Many kids that come from Manipur can’t last a week. I spent 4 years at the akhada. Sab bhai hain mere, sab paagal hain mere liye wahan (Everybody is a brother to me there, everyone is fond of me),” says Roshan. “Earlier it was a little difficult to be away from home. Mobile phones weren’t very common. And sometimes people would try to rough me up. Eventually, everything was good after I became fluent in Haryanvi.”

Rao isn’t surprised that Roshan excels at MMA. “Sometimes, there would be skirmishes in the akhada. And this guy, the only Manipuri and not even too tall, would stand in front, chest puffed, ready to fight,” Rao laughs. “No wrestler at my akhada currently wants to be an MMA fighter, but I saw some fights and it was very fun. I passed on some tips after this Saturday’s fight.”

“He is loyal. Last time I called him, he said ‘I’ll come in December sir. Aapke liye ek gaadi laaunga’. Maine bola ‘gaadi ka main kya karunga? Tu ab championship belt lekar aa’ (‘I’ll bring you a car’. I told him, ‘what will I do with a car? Bring me the title belt now)’.”

***

“Roshan will be the first Indian to become a legitimate world champion. I guarantee it.”

MMA coach Vishal Seigell’s voice is hoarse from all the screaming he’s had to do seconding the Indian contingent at the ongoing World Championships in Bahrain, but the conviction is unmistakable.

“He is humble, receptive with no ego. I know many top fighters who cannot fathom the fact how he works,” says Seigell, who has trained with veterans like Rob Kimmons, Bobby Volker and Curtis Stout. “These qualities were evident from the first time we met.

A google search led Roshan to an MMA gym in Delhi, where he mistook the Rs500 fees for a trial class as the monthly charges. Upon being informed the day after that he would have to pay an additional 4,500, Roshan was inconsolable.

“This guy had no money, and had been sleeping on somebody’s floor,” says Vishal Seigell, one of the coaches who trained Roshan at the Delhi gym. “We saw his talent and within six months, he had become a bantamweight and flyweight champion in amateur division. He destroyed his competition.”

A documentary on the evolution of mixed martial arts

Roshan and Seigell later reunited at the latter’s KOI Combat Academy in Bengaluru.

“He also worked as a trainer but even then he was financially troubled. When the tryout opportunity with ONE cropped up, we trained for 12 hours a day. I created a profile, videos for him and helped him with the paperwork. There were more than 700 participants. Some were MMA champions. World BJJ champions, kickboxing champions. And still Roshan was one of the six selected,” says Seigell, adding that Roshan has since been pitching in to help out with the academy’s expenses.

At the Evolve gym in Singapore, Roshan has been helping prepare Ritu for the wrestler’s MMA debut on Saturday. “For the short time that she has been training, Ritu has progressed well,” says Roshan. “But this is a tough sport, and you need to pay your dues and spend years before reaching a certain level.”

Seigell agrees. “It’s good that Ritu has come in because she is a draw and will get more eyes on the sport. But Roshan is a more finished product and one of the top prospects. And coming from Manipur, he has the potential to do for the sport what Mary Kom did for boxing.”

For Roshan, the priority is to inspire other misguided youth to channel their aggression inside the cage.

“In the cage, paagal hoke, gusse me kaam nahi chalega (just being wild wouldn’t do). You have to learn discipline and techniques,” says Roshan. “Bohot logo se suna hai, bolte hain India ka ladke khoon se darrte hain (I have heard many say, Indian boys fear blood). We can prove that wrong in a controlled manner.”

Live: ONE: Age Of Dragons featuring Ritu Phogat vs Nam Hee Kim 2:30pm onwards on Star Sports Select 2/Hotstar

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