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‘COMBATTING AGAINST THE ODDS’ : The Rise of Combat Sports in India

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3 mins read

Mythological and historical texts tell us how India was a hub for traditional combat sports like ‘pehelwani’, swordsmanship, and whatnot. These artforms attracted huge crowds, and the artists commanded enormous respect. But now, Modern Indians seems to have gotten stuck on the mainstream money-spinners like cricket and football, failing to appreciate one of the sport’s most challenging disciplines. Thankfully, with the growing popularity of combat sports worldwide, there is light at the end of the tunnel for this discipline in a cricket-worshipping country.

Combat Sports were traditionally based on either striking, like boxing, or on grappling, like wrestling. MMA, another popular combat sport, involves both grappling and striking. While these disciplines are gaining popularity as fitness alternatives to gyms, their acceptance as a full-fledged professional sport has been slow to gain momentum. The perfect example of a shift, though, is Ritu Phogat. A CWG gold medallist in wrestling, the younger sister of Geeta and Babita Phogat, decided to shift to MMA fighting and signed with ‘ONE Championship in 2019. However, India is still a long way behind other countries concerning our athletes reaching higher MMA levels or other combat sports.
Only a handful of Indians are a part of the big global leagues of MMA, and even those athletes who trace their origins to India did not take up the sport in the country, be it Arjan Singh Bhullar, Gurdarshan Mangat, or Rahul Rajan. A big reason for this is the lack of facilities and earning opportunities for these athletes in India. Harsh Gill, one of India’s youngest professional boxers, believes that there is huge scope for combat sports to develop in India. He said,  “Slowly but surely, many promoters are coming forward in combat sports. India has huge potential as our boxers are strong, hard-hitting, diligent, and with a big heart. We have a proper traditional diet and a connection to our roots. Tournaments are being organized simultaneously as a lot of interest is being shown in combat sports. There is no cheating, no politics, and full transparency in the sport here. This emerging trend has completely changed the youth. Earlier, they were encouraged to indulge in sports like cricket because of fears of injury in combat sports, but now the times are changing.”

Various leagues, too, have been started to popularize these arts. The Super Fight League, formed in 2012 by actor Sanjay Dutt and businessman Raj Kundra, aimed to bring the MMA culture into India. Pro Wrestling League was an effort to replicate ISL and Pro Kabaddi League’s success but failed to capture the audience as it was expected to do. ‘The Punch Boxing’ is another tournament that started in 2013 and has seen some of the country’s top boxers participate in it. The tournament has garnered appreciation from all corners of the nation. It provides a great platform for the pugilists in India to show their worth and prepare them for International competitions. Mr Arif Khan, Founder of  The Punch Boxing said, “Even though cricket is the most followed sport in the country, The Punch Boxing has a global, dedicated audience. I also plan to explore the MMA avenue. The future is bright for boxing in India as many private leagues are coming forward to support the sport and good athletes are emerging.”

There is no monetary incentive for athletes to take up combat sports in the country, given the meager opportunities to showcase their talent. While boxing does have a relatively more substantial presence in India than MMA with popular figures like Vijender Singh and Mary Kom, most boxers prefer to turn to Pro Boxing rather than slog it out in the traditional arena. The pay for combat sports is disheartening to see, especially for MMA fighters as there are not many leagues where they can participate. Bharat Khandare,the first Indian to feature in UFC, the biggest MMA stage in the world, had to work as municipal worker and still struggles to make a comeback to fighting due to monetary problems. There is a strong need to open up more avenues for such athletes to have enough opportunities domestically to ply their trade. One such event is the ‘Indian Fight Night:The Battle of Warriors’, a one of its kind event scheduled to take place in Sikkim this month where 19 national and international MMA fighters will be on show. Amitav Singh, Sponsorship Head of the event, said, “This is the future of MMA in India. MMA is happening worldwide on a commercial basis. Talent is abundant in Sikkim. We plan to take this event to different parts of the country as well, and venture into the South-Eastern Countries from thereon.”

Another great stride for combat sports in our country has been CA Bhawani Devi’s qualification for the Tokyo Olympics as India’s first fencer. Fencing is an armed combat sport tracing its roots to swordsmanship.

Like its practitioners, this form of sport refuses to give up, coming back with innovations to propel itself forward. We hope to see more leagues and more enthusiasm for this discipline so that the country can become an avid supporter and participant of combat sports.

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