It’s a hot Saturday night, and Famous Studios in Mumbai’s sea-facing Worli neighborhood is buzzing with energy. As young men and women, expats and Indians alike, line up to get into the massive retrofitted garage, you can hear cheering punctured with thumping house music. Cameras are trained on a cage in the center. Mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters get in and battle it out, hungry to win. It’s a hunger that’s only growing.

These Underground Fight Nights, promoted by a firm called Pyna Experiences, just kicked off in Mumbai in March. But the contests are among a growing number of fight nights cropping up across India as the MMA industry targets the world’s fastest-growing major economy and second-most populous nation to fuel its expansion.

On June 29, New Delhi played host to the second Matrix Fight Night (MFN), with thousands in attendance for seven pro and four amateur bouts. It was founded by Bollywood actor Tiger Shroff, a martial arts enthusiast, and his sister Krishna, only a few months ago. In December 2018, Brave Combat Federation, the Middle East’s biggest MMA promotion, made its India debut with the Brave 20 Fight Night, held in the city of Hyderabad. The cities of Pune, Mysore and Bengaluru and the northeastern state of Nagaland have also seen several major events emerge on their sporting calendars.

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Other international MMA promoters are scrambling to grab the India market too. Singapore-based ONE Championship has announced plans to enter India next year. Then there’s the Kumite 1 League, set up in 2017 and helmed by Mohamedali Budhwani of Toyam Industries, which is supported and mentored by Mike Tyson. Kumite is launching K1L Warrior Hunt in August as a reality show, where fighters across 10 weight categories will be named winners and trained over the next five years as future MMA stars. The first season of Super Fight League — promoted by British entrepreneur Bill Dosanjh and two-time world champion boxer Amir Khan — in 2017 drew 100 million viewers on the Sony Pictures Network India’s sports channel.

Indians love a good fight.

Ajit Sigamani of IMMAF-WMMAA, the sport’s international governing body

Media houses are betting that the nascent love for MMA will spread. SonyLIV, a general entertainment channel, is now airing UFC fights, while Rupert Murdoch’s Star Network has signed a contract with ONE Championship for both TV and digital streaming on Hotstar, a streaming platform. Bollywood actor and MMA influencer Parvin Dabas, who owns MMAIndia.com and hosts The MMA India Show on SonyLIV, notes that from zero followers three years ago, his show now has 120,000 Facebook followers and more than 70,000 website views every month. The All India MMA Federation, the sport’s top authority in the country, says the audience for mixed martial arts in India is predominantly citizens aged 18 to 35.

“MMA is the fastest-growing sport in India, and indeed the world, and one of the few sports that offer a fully-fledged career,” says Ajit Sigamani, India treasurer of the IMMAF-WMMAA, the sport’s international governing body. “In India, viewership and interest is tremendous. Indians love a good fight.”

In many ways, this explosion of excitement is only natural. Globally, MMA is already the third most popular sport, after soccer and basketball, with more than 400 million people interested in it, according to Nielsen Sports DNA. And India — its giant population and booming economy aside — has a long history of combat sports. Though it has a poor overall record in international sports, India is a regular medal contender at the Olympics in boxing and wrestling. Now, high-profile national stars across various combat disciplines such as Ritu Phogat — a 2016 Commonwealth Games gold medalist wrestler — and Himanshu Kaushik — seven times national wushu champion — have moved to MMA.

The mixed aspect of MMA lends Indian fighters some advantages and distinct disadvantages, says Kaushik. “We’re good to attack or strike because of wushu and kickboxing training, as well as wrestling, but we struggle tremendously with grappling,” he says. “This is why we need to train abroad, to raise our skill level.”

But the path toward such training hasn’t been easy, and MMA continues to face challenges. “There’s never been a national push,” says Alan Fenandes, director of operations at MFN and one of India’s foremost MMA coaches and fighters. “People call it a blood sport, human cockfighting, but that’s not the case. It is a sport, it has rules, it’s sanctioned by the government, and the fighters are trained.”

Super Fight League, which launched many of India’s current crop of fighters, bit the dust because they couldn’t attract enough attention. Advertisers don’t want to get involved in the sport, Dabas says, because it’s perceived to be violent and so doesn’t make for prime-time viewing. As a result, players don’t get the sponsorships needed for proper training and nutrition, nor do they get paid enough to work on technique and skill. “Even though we’re a Bombay Stock Exchange-listed company, sponsorship remains tough,” says Budhwani.

“There’s no all-round training center for fighters here,” says Puja Tomar, 25, one of India’s prime female fighters now contracted with ONE Championship. She was invited to Phuket for training, but she couldn’t go too often because it was getting hard to pay for everything on her own. “Abroad, everyone is sponsored,” Tomar adds.

Still, with America’s UFC growing in popularity in India over the past couple of years thanks to social media and viral fights featuring heavyweights such as Conor McGregor and Khalid Ismail, Indians are craving their own icons. “India has so much talent. Every child learns karate here,” says Budhwani. “But we don’t have stars.” The inaugural K1L saw fighters get paid four times what they would get paid usually (about $2,000), he says. “The idea is to attract as many people as possible. India’s fighters come from the slums,” adds Budhwani.

Indeed, says Kaushik — the former wushu champion who is contracted with ONE — MMA in India is finally moving away from focusing resources on attracting celebrity supporters to paying fighters better. “Now, the future looks bright.” To provide year-round work to top fighters so they can represent individual promotions, both Sigamani — who’s also the founder of Combat Kinetics, a chain of MMA clubs, and director of X1 International, an Indian MMA promotion firm — and Fenandes employ them as trainers in fitness clubs and gyms. Sigamani hires talented but underprivileged fighters as trainers earning around Rs 60,000 (about $1,000) a month — in a country where the per capita income is $160 a month. Dhruv Chaudhary, among Asia’s top five bantamweight pro fighters with a 13-6 win-loss record, is the head trainer at the Matrix Gym. Similarly, Tomar is a trainer at the UFC Gym in New Delhi.

Despite the emergence of stars like Phogat and Tomar, the entry barrier remains higher for women. “Parents are my girls’ biggest enemies,” says Sigamani, sighing. There have been instances where female athletes under his tutelage have been locked up at home, grounded or had their mobile phones taken away because they were training to be fighters. “‘Who wants to marry a girl who fights?’ they ask,” he says. But these women are fighters in more ways than one. X1 International hosted India’s first women’s fight night in March in Mumbai.

It’s that spunk, from male and female fighters, that’ll drive the future of MMA in India, believes Dabas. “Their passion and perseverance are paying off now,” he says. “They are the ones who will change things … Our fighters have the heart; they just need support.”

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