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true grit Behind the action in the ring and the glitzy crowd in the arena, a few good men trained to the peak of physical fitness for deadly execution. the real Stars of the Super fight league are the unknown fighters who have finally seen the bright lights. an exclusive journey through broken limbs, shattered dreams and that unforgettable fire. Text & Photographs ASIF KHAN

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“Yes, that’s the way.” “Go on, push him against the wall. Don’t let go of him.” “Yes, yes, on top of him, just sit there and grapple.” “Come on, come on. Just keep pushing harder. Don’t give up. Go on.” “Down on the ground, boy. Down.”

ll this, and a volley of even harsher words fill your ears as you move around the gym—ever careful of that runaway punch or that stray kick. Primeval grunts and some heavy-duty panting follow. You don’t want to get caught in the action as flesh works on flesh, glistening with the shiny gleam of sweat in the starkness of white light. As every sinew flexes in defiance to the contour of skin, your eyes struggle to capture the surroundings. Your mouth is dry because it has been half-open for much of the last few minutes. You’d be mistaken if you thought we were talking about how we ended up in the midst of some heavy BDSM action. While we’d love to bring you the details of that setting too, we’re talking about a duel—the oldest way for man to display his physical supremacy. That’s how evolution has conventionalised survival since the Stone Age. Pain is the feeling that accords a far greater degree of pleasure when brutal victory is in sight. We’re talking about mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters going at it in Nashik, the bedrock of the recentlyformed Super Fight League (SFL), India’s first professional MMA championship. A dominant city in its region, Nashik is a major hub for engineering—that has fuelled the geek in us. It is our very own Napa Valley in the making, because where else in India do you have sprawling vineyards just outside the city? And it has a heritage of sport. But as it becomes home to MMA, you can’t help but wonder if all the tech, wine and blood will mix together. In the gym, of course, you won’t want to “mix.” This is one of those instances where you would rather watch from the periphery. The brawny men engaged in combat are adept in multiple disciplines of martial arts, and are learning the fine art of blending them to become the “perfect fighter.” This is a sport in which each individual uses his unique style inside the ring. Any lesser mortal suffering from delusional courage would be pulp before he could even call out for his mama.

The Big Business Move

SFL has been cofounded by entrepreneur Raj Kundra and Sanjay Dutt—one of India’s best actors, a fitness freak and lesser known ambassador for the Boxing Federation of India. The man behind the action is Daniel Isaac—or Dan—who’s been training in MMA for more than 15 years and started his training in Deolali, a town known for being a British military base. Dan is a tough guy, but you wouldn’t know it—his COO’s black business suit and salt-and000

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pepper hair hide the fact that he is the first Indian to have been a World Champion in kickboxing and a gold medallist at the WAKO Kickboxing Olympics. Still, he has the crouched and carefully-measured demeanour of a fighter, and you’d avoid the temptation of asking him to a duel or trying any Enter The Dragon fanboy moves. Dan still practises his moves at the bootcamp with the other fighters, even though his main job is to ensure that the SFL clicks. Helping him is one of the best-known sports agents in the US and VP of business development for Takedown Entertainment, Ken Pavia. He’s also doubling as the CEO of SFL and has represented more than 55 professional MMA fighters through the years, including Chris Lytle, Benji Radach, Ricco Rodriguez and Chris Santos. With a team like this, you’d expect the going would be easy as hell. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sure, SFL has the right buzz already, and the stands were filled for the inaugural fight on March 11. In attendance were celebs and, more important, some hardcore MMA enthusiasts. Indians have always been into martial arts, but this is a different sport altogether.

Down boy, that’s how you go down.

No time for bare knuckles

The Lives & Loves Of MMA

The rise of MMA has been fairly recent, although the hybridisation of martial arts disciplines has happened throughout the history of combat sports. The essence of MMA is the search for a unified discipline that borrows the best moves from each fighting technique, with the aim of evolving an almost-invincible combatant. Some commonly used disciplines are wrestling, judo, karate, Muay Thai, regular boxing, and taekwondo. The great Bruce Lee summed it up beautifully in the guiding philosophy for Jeet Kune Do, the hybrid martial arts system he developed: “The best fighter is someone who can adapt to any style, to be formless, to adopt an individual’s own style and not follow the system of styles.” The idea was to work on a “free-flowing form without a form.” Ancient Greek fighters employed this in Pankration, a style of combat that blended boxing and wrestling, and warriors were trained so that they could use it in hand-to-hand combat on the battlefield. The level of proficiency in Pankration was so high among the elite fighters—including Spartan warriors—that they were not allowed to enter competitions with other Greeks for fear of almost certain death for the opponents. Over the last few centuries, as geog-

MMA fighter Anup warms up on the mat and we wonder which God is placated with this posture of obeisance. Oh, right, the save-my-skin God.

Fighting alone is the best to way to be safe from injury. APRIL 2012

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Yes, too much love can turn violent, as Chaitanya grapples with an opponent.

Muay Thai fighter Ricky practises his striking moves, as the bag tries to run away.

was more a mind game than anything else. Confidence can easily be mistaken for arrogance, something we take for granted. But, in the ring, it can cost you heavily. Shabbir has trained extensively in Thailand, but has found that the training regimen he was accustomed to was not half as relevant in a real MMA fight as the one he’s being put through. While it’s easy to come across athletes who aspire to be the fittest, fastest or strongest, it is only in MMA that you’ll find someone who wants to be the “most dangerous.” Like Ken Shamrock, an MMA legend. Confidence will get you anywhere, they say, and this is truer for MMA than anything else. That’s the first thing you notice about Allen, a burly fighter from

Confidence can easily be mistaken for arrogance, But it can cost you heavily in the ring. and the fight is more a delicate mind game than a brutal brawl. Punjab who is a stark contrast to the inyour-face Shabbir. One of the most senior fighters in the League who’s trained with Dan for more than half a decade, he is one of the first Indians to have represented the country in MMA. Although he is soft-spoken and humble, his confidence is a numbing combination of experience, fitness and training. Growing up in Punjab, he quickly latched on to MMA after he saw a demonstration and now considers the Academy his foster family. He has trained for hours on end, and has had too many bruises to name. All around him, the fighters gather for that additional nugget of information, some advice about dodging that one kick.

“Yes, c’mon, big boy, Imma show you who’s Daddy!”

raphy was becoming an afterthought, and cultures from the farthest extremities of the globe were waking up to each other, homogenisation of arts—martial and brutal included—became an organic process. One of the chief developments came with the absorption of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and a lot of the credit for this goes to one Gracie family. They brought the Vale Tudo style of competitive combat to the US, laying the foundation for competitive MMA with the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in the early ’90s. The league was an immediate underground sensation, and soon had a massive following. With cable TV and the Internet, the sport spread across Europe, Asia and West Asia, and with that came similar local competitions. The fights weren’t pretty, but they had devoted fans. In fact, the brutality and lack of formulated “rules” in some countries forced most fighters into obscure basements, backyards, alleys and 000

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parking lots, with crowds scrambling the minute police sirens were heard.

The Moves That Move A Nation

Situated in a quaint commercial complex in Nashik, Tiger’s Gym looks unassuming. But the basic layout and simplistic functionality houses the bootcamp for what could be the most eloquent fighters in India. Indian SFL fighters who train here look to Dan and his Tiger’s Gym team to equip them with the knowhow and innovative tricks that will help them move into the big arena, leaving behind poverty, idle training and even infamy. A locked door to the secure Nashik gym—with a menacing mascot staring down—separates you from the whirlwind, testosterone-filled interiors. A cherubic young fighter may open the door, but you’d know better than to let the child-like demeanour fool you. One look at

his arms, literally ripping through the huge tattoo that covers them, is enough to warn you. The posse of SFL fighters came from right across the length of the country—from Haryana and Punjab to Kerala, with their legacy of wrestlers and boxers and the backyard akhadas. Then there are the boys from the South, who enjoy the distinction of having the indigenous martial art, Kalaripayattu, as their mainstay. They stare each other down, not with the intention of brawling, but trying to figure out each other’s strength. But it’s not always so peaceful. They don’t really believe in actions speaking louder than words, but they don’t shy away from it either. A young 22-year-old mohawk-ed fighter, Mohammad Shabbir, isn’t the sort who’d mince words when the opportunity to diss a rival comes up. Hailing from Thrissur, Shabbir quickly realised that, more than physical strength, excelling in combat

Home Is Where The Ring Rests

“I’m not dancing, fool. I’m about to kick your butt.”

An array of vibrant fighting gear—boxing gloves, shin and elbow guards, headgear, groin guards—is strewn liberally across the floor and shelves of the gym. You can’t miss the mannequin stuffed with the precision of a taxidermist and mummified in black latex, something which gives you some raunchy S&M ideas... that’s before you see a fighter pound the daylights out of it. Despite the large number of fighters, from the teens to the forties, there’s a sense of belonging all around, punctuated by some ill-tempered bouts and volleys of abuse as someone hurts himself. But there’s a sense of ungovernAPRIL 2012

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able machismo, or at least till the trainer steps in. It takes just one sharp command— a tone that sounds more like a military commander ordering troops at a survival camp for soldiers who’re about to go into battle—for the athletes to get serious about their training regimen. And forget friendly banter or overzealous discussion about their respective disciplines. You know, the wrestlers think a ground game is the best, while the Muay Thai fighters find a swift kick to the head works wonders. The right training is essential because all it takes is one stray blow that can put you to sleep for good. Fatalities are very rare but not unheard-of in MMA, because a unified code of rules has been standardised across the world over the last few years. Sam Vasquez’s death in 2007 from a Renegades Extreme Fighting bout is one of the only recorded deaths, but rules and safety measures have become far more stringent. The training begins with the basics: How to deal a blow and how to duck one. With trainers who have worked at an international level and are accomplished fighters on the competitive sports sphere, the edicts of safety are paramount and often a rude shock for some of the fighters more attuned to bringing on the pain. It’s an experience for them and for anyone who looks in: You’ll find amazing suppleness and agility

“Please don’t force me to put on these gloves. Pretty please?”

Allen, just as he is about to connect with Anup’s jaw. Anup’s jaw, just as it is about to groan.

it is a free-flowing form of combat that has no form, and lets you take on anyone from any full-contact discipline. in the limbs of a really bulked-up wrestler, or a great amount of force in a wafer-thin martial artiste. The trainers work hard to give every MMA aspirant the flexibility of a gymnast’s body and the brute force of a power-lifter. The gruelling training session involves practising different moves of sparring, striking and taking down as the fighters move in synchronised coordination to the beat of a trainer’s voice. The smell of stale sweat soon begins to hang heavily in the tube-lit expanse, as the fighters gear up to move to the next round of taking down opponents in one-on-one mock duels. Given their initial training and body types, it is natural for fighters to develop an affinity for a particular form of martial art. It usually revolves around either a striking form (boxing or kickboxing) or a grappling form (wrestling or jiu-jitsu), and while they may balance it out through intense crosstraining, it is easy to figure out the origins. A penchant to strike or grapple makes it important to pit opponents from diverse 000

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backgrounds against each other so that, for instance, a striker knows how to tackle a grappler, and vice-versa. The bout is as mental as it is physical, as famed UFC champion Georges St-Pierre has often said in interviews. As grapplers take down strikers and lock them into a vice-like grip restricting movement of the striker’s limbs, and as strikers keep grapplers at bay with swift kicks and knees, you begin to understand that the fight is won by preempting your opponent’s move. Submission is in part an accompaniment to observation as you

constantly rationalise your opponents’ weakness and counter his strengths. This is what brings out the beauty and reinforces the philosophy behind the evolution of MMA, a free-flowing form of combat that has no form, and prepares you to face someone who comes from any kind of fullcontact sport. Fighters alternately hit moments of shrieking crescendo that echo in surroundsound within the whitewashed walls of the gym. Then come moments of complete silence when you sense the whispering

whistles of the air as they move about in adept light-footed precision. As a training session comes to an end, there are audible grunts and pants. During the break, camaraderie returns as the fighters chat, pray or simply listen to each other. It seems like a veritable calm before a storm, because you have just seen the destruction even the most diminutive of these players can cause. Or how a quiet disposition allows someone to let his limbs do the talking in the ring. In the real world—or the ring at the Andheri Sports Complex in Mumbai—fans await the boom as international MMA champs James Thompson and Bob Sapp go at it. As exciting as that is, what become “Whoa! Did you see that?” moments are when homegrown athletes who look like wrestlers are taken down by guys you’d think were runners. Amidst the frenzied crowds and blazing lights, the fighters—fresh from training and rested for good measure–make their giddy entry into the world of Indian sports. It’s uneasy at best, but then they enter the ring. Kick, punch, pound. Some stagger, some fall. But all of them rise. It’s time to head back to the gym. Grunt. APRIL 2012

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True Grit