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.
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.
After staging its first round in Mumbai in March this year, the SFL circus returned to the city on Friday night after events in Chandigarh and New Delhi. In the first bout, 19-year-old Irfan Khan was up against 35-year-old Kaushik Sen in a bantamweight clash in front of a packed VIP section including SFL brand ambassador and Olympic bronze medallist MC Mary Kom and Bollywood star Sanjay Dutt, who is also the co-founder chairman of the organisation. Khan looked to attack from the word go as Sen was forced to defend throughout the three five-minute rounds. As the battle pursued, Khan looked to be taking pity on his older opponent and won by a margin of 30–27 via a unanimous decision.
To Sen’s credit, this was the only bout that lasted all three rounds as the following six ended in KOs and submissions. The second bout, a middleweight clash between Pawan Maan Singh (26) and Srikant Sekhar (21), lasted all of 46 seconds with the latter’s KO. In the middleweight Bout 3, Punjab’s Charanjeet Singh (31) was KOed midway through the first round by a spinning back kick on his face from Assam’s Bhabajeet Choudhary (24). Bout 4 saw Punjab’s Gaurav Singh (22) submitting to Kerala’s Shyam Prasad (33) after the latter’s rare naked choke in the second round of their welterweight clash. Moving on to the flyweight category, Bangalore’s Biswa Dev (28) was floored within 41 seconds by Lucknow’s Manoj Chouhan (23) in the shortest clash of the night which ended in a technical knock-out (TKO). Bout 6 was the only all-female encounter with Serbia’s Sanja Sucevic (25) raining in the punches and back-slaps on Spain’s Irene Cabello (19). The latter was to submit with more than 90 seconds to go in Round One.
The main event of the night saw “Punjab da puttar” and SFL star Kultar Singh Gill (33) take on Egypt’s Amir Wahman (28). Gill, no stranger to dramatics, entered the arena in a Prince of Persia-like getup—complete with a sword and two stooges following him into the arena. As the bout began, Gill studied the Egyptian for a few seconds before flooring him. Even Mary Kom, a veteran of many a fight, winced as “Black Mamba”, as Gill his referred to, kept raining in the punches hereafter and roared to the camera after a TKO with 30 seconds to go in Round One.
“It is rather ironic,” said Sen, after the event, “that the MMA scene in India has just been born. Even though martial arts originated in our akharas, 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 skimpily clad girls dancing away to the IPL tune during the breaks and participants entering the arena dressed like princes, 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 claimed 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 organisations in the world; we’re the only one to deliver weekly fights all year round,” he said.
Gill believes that the sport is bound to spread in India. “Aag jaise failegi (It will spread like fire),” he said. “Just wait and watch!” Sen, sporting a giant bruise under his left eye, agreed. “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 said.