K-1 exploring India as a potential breeding gound for next generation fighters

At age 21, Singh "Heart" Jaideep became the youngest fighter to qualify for the K-1 World Grand Prix (WGP).

He unfortunately did not endear himself to the fans with the lackluster, five-round snoozefest against Ewerton Teixeira at Olympic Park in Seoul, Korea. Unless he can stage an impressive comeback, he will not linger in the collective memory of the K-1 world for too long.

Nevertheless, his participation in the WGP bears the mark of an important milestone -- given his ethnicity/nationality.

The K-1 website recently gave a glimpse of the nascent popularity of K-1 and the prevalence of combat sports in the world's second most populous nation, India.

With a head count exceeding 1.1 billion, India possesses the potential of becoming a treasure trove of combat athletes. Currently, a handful of Indian athletes dot the combat sport landscape -- most notably Kultar "Black Mamba" Gill, an Indian-Canadian MMA fighter who's fought in K-1 Hero's and DREAM.

Yet, India remains shrouded in mystery in the realm of combat sports.

According to Daniel Isaac, a representative from Tiger International Fight Team that houses numerous Indian fighters, cricket remains the king of sports in India with strong tradition and TV coverage. WWE has enjoyed heightened popularity due to the presence of several Indian wrestlers. While K-1 pales cricket and WWE in popularity, its viewership on the popular sports channel, Star Sports, has been on a rise.

In addition to the World Grand Prix series, Star Sports airs other events under the K-1 banner, such as MAX, DREAM, and Dynamite! Thanks to the coverage on Star Sports, K-1 events have grown to become the staples on the channel in recent years.

The K-1 Hero's fight in which Black Mamba defeated Hideo Tokoro via KO apparently enthralled the Indian audience. Isaac further explained that, currently, many young men and combat sport enthusiasts regularly tune in to the Star Sport and K-1 channel on YouTube to learn about K-1 and MMA. He declares that K-1's popularity will continue to rise in the coming years.

Indian martial arts tradition

Unbeknownst to many, India and the neighboring Pakistan have a long tradition of martial arts that dates back to ancient times. Kalaripayattu, a Dravidian martial art from Kerala in south India, is considered one of the oldest fighting systems in existence. Pehlwani, a style of wrestling indigenous to India and Pakistan, traces its root to 5th century BC. Some pehlwani wrestlers have earned international acclaim in amateur and professional ranks.

The Great Gama, a legendary Pehlwani wrestler who has vanquished numerous top names in international wrestling circuit including Stanislaus Zbyszko and Benjamin Roller during the early 20th century, stands as perhaps the most decorated combat athlete in Indian history.

Many of the traditional martial arts have seen the number of practitioners dwindle over the years. On the other hand, according to Isaac, a sizable number of Indians practice karate, taekwondo, kung fu, and other martial arts with international popularity in educational institution or as part of the military and law enforcement training.

Isaac estimates that martial arts practitioners constitute approximately 2% of the total population of India. Even at 2%, given the total population of over 1.1 billion, it translates to over 22 million practitioners.

With such a huge pool of talent, it is only a matter of time before a world class fighter emerges. Isaac elaborated on the possibilities: "Besides Black Mamba and Singh, the most popular fighter abroad is Alan "The Bull" Fenandes thanks to his 2005 fight in London against Mark Epstein for the IKF World Kickboxing Championship. For heavyweights, the most famous is Bhupesh Kamble. He has power and is definitely K-1 material."

Apparently, Fenandes also did well in last year's Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championship. It would be interesting to see what he could accomplish in MMA.

In boxing, Vijender Kumar won the bronze as a middleweight in Beijing Olympics last year. The first Indian boxer to win a medal, Kumar has received a hero's welcome in India for his accomplishment and good looks.

Martial Arts Powerhouse

Indian state of Punjab has become well-known for producing numerous world-class athletes. Black Mamba, Jaideep, Fernandes, The Great Kali, and many top wrestlers and boxers hail from Punjab. Punjabis are known for being tall, lithe, and athletic.

Isaac explains that Indians from the Northeastern states tend to be smaller but very strong: "Many boxers, karatekas, and weight lifters are from this region. Indian martial artists possess high level of skills and warrior spirit. If only they were given more opportunities, they certainly will prove their worth."

Across the world, Indian athletes have made their names in sports such as cricket, hockey, tennis, soccer, boxing, track and field, and golf. While Singh Jaideep failed to make an impact in his WGP appearance, he epitomizes the potential for Indian athletes to make their mark in the world of combat sports. Given the right environment and ample opportunities, Indian combat athletes may see the light of day on a world stage.

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