Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) yesterday (April 5, 2012) made their first move into the Indian market by announcing a TV deal, with the prospect of live shows and even an Ultimate Fighter (TUF) series to follow. It is a country which Zuffa have had their eye on for some time and the partnership with Multi Screen Media (MSM) is just the first step.
The Super Fight League (SFL) has attracted some attention to India lately with a first show which some saw as a guilty pleasure and others simply didn't like. Particularly frustrating for fans was that the cameras regularly panned away from the fights mid action in order to show which celebrities were in attendance, which might have delighted the local audience but caused widespread bemusement elsewhere.
Full Contact Championship (FCC), in Mumbai, is the slow and steady alternative, for those that prefer to see grass roots mixed martial arts (MMA) without the glitz and the glam. In the future perhaps the SFL will start to nurture UFC level talent but at present only the FCC has a track record of repeatedly testing Indian mixed martial artists and after five shows some outstanding candidates are starting to emerge.
The most difficult challenge for the UFC will be to try and find Indian fighters good enough to compete on their roster, or at least with enough ability and experience to get there after some intensive training and perhaps a successful stint on TUF.
'TUF India' is a great concept but the winner will be awarded a UFC contract and if the standard is too low the entire process becomes pointless. The UFC can give a fighter preferential treatment when it comes to matchmaking but everyone on the roster is dangerous and if a fighter isn't up to standard they will never win a fight.
Potentially the SFL could become a breeding ground for Indian talent but if it stands the test of time, and the first show supposedly sold very few tickets, the wealth of the owners means they will be able to more than match the UFC in terms of purses while offering significantly easier fights.
Whichever organization ultimately prevails, and India is a big enough country to accommodate both the SFL and the UFC, there is going to be an intensive search underway to find the first Indian MMA superstar. Here are five fighters who have made encouraging starts to their careers, already have a couple of wins to their names and could be on the right track.
1. Sandeep Yadav
Sandeep Yadav is one of the stars of FCC. He is an Indian kickboxing and Wushu champion who already has a 3-0 MMA record with all his wins coming by way of KO or TKO. As is the case with almost all the fighters on this list his wins have come against inexperienced opponents but he is a very confident fighter who looks very comfortable competing in MMA.
He is light on his feet, keeps a low guard and is very aggressive with some solid low kicks which he is capable of mixing in with the occasional head kick. Perhaps it is his kickboxing experience or perhaps he is just a very composed fighter but he picks his shots intelligently and resists the temptation to over-commit
Yadav looks most comfortable fighting on his feet but isn't afraid to use trips or takedowns and seems to understand basic grappling techniques. He is far from the finished article but the potential is definitely there and he has a couple of spectacular knock out finishes.
He has very solid soccer kicks which he will use to punish an opponents body and legs if they are on the ground and he is upright. He looked a bit sluggish in his most recent fight, which he supposedly didn't have time to train for, but showed some real resilience to pull out the win with a right head kick / right cross combination which got him a stoppage in the dying seconds,
MMA IN INDIA Sandeep Yadav vs Imran FCC-4.VOB (via mmafccindia)
2. Sangram Bhakre
Sangram Bhakre has also won three FCC fights out of three and is the Rampage Jackson of Indian MMA, if he picks you up you are going for a ride which is going to end when you hit the canvass hard. He has some submission skills with his most recent win coming by way of armbar and although his standup is not too technical it is dangerous, with two of his wins coming by way of KO.
He has a diverse range of backgrounds and the takedowns come from his Kushti wrestling but the stand up skills are a result of being a national level kickboxer and Wushu gold medalist. Wrestling and kickboxing/sanda is a very solid base and the fighter known in India as 'The Slammer' has plenty of potential.
3. Rajinder Singh Meena
Rajinder Singh Meena is another unbeaten FCC fighter and national kickboxing champion who is light on his feet and likes the low kicks. He throws absolute bombs with his hands, going for the knockout with almost every single punch and has a lot of natural power which is effective both standing up and on the ground.
The most encouraging aspect for Rajinder is that he won his most recent fight with a standing guillotine which shows that for a kickboxer he does at least have some ground game.
4. Bhupesh Kamble
Bhupesh Kamble hasn't fought for over a year and has lost his last three fights. However it is worth noting that the three losses have all come against top class opponents in Vaughn Anderson, Jorge Luiz Bezerra and Pat Crawley. Between them these three have 37 MMA wins which means that Kamble has been testing himself at a much higher level than anyone else in India.
His three wins have all been against respectable opponents and he is the only man to ever beat 3-1 Indian fighter Javed Mulla. 3-3 is not an outstanding record but Kamble is only 28 years old and the experience of competing in Singapore, Abu Dhabi, Jordan and Hong Kong should benefit him immensely if he decides to return to the Indian circuit.
5. Alan Fenandes
Alan Fenandes hasn't fought since 2010 and is 33 years old but I believe he is still training and unlike any of the other fighters on this list he has a strong background in BJJ. He has also taken part in professional kickboxing and Muay Thai fights and won medals in international grappling tournaments.
Like Kamble he has experience of competing outside of India although without too much success. His international fights were against two very tough fighters and he was submitted by Aolin Hao at Art of War and also tapped out against Ray Elbe at Martial Combat, possibly due to a pre existing injury.
The SFL has already shown a willingness to promote overseas fighters such as Lakwinder Sekhon from England, Mohammad Shahid from Bahrain and Hardeep Singh from Canada and this could prove to be an effective short cut but for MMA to really grow in India it will probably need a genuine homegrown superstar to lead the way.
Chaitanya Gavali's first fight for the SFL was one of the worst I have seen but at least he got the win and he will benefit from having spend 15 minutes inside the cage. He's on the next SFL card too and perhaps he could eventually emerge as the organization's best Indian fighter and overtake some of the names on this list.
With MMA all set to explode in India more and more young men are likely to start training and eventually fighting and some high calibre talent should emerge eventually. There is no substitute for professional experience though and, for the time being at least, the fighters on this list are the five most likely to make the breakthrough.