THE LAST FEW YEARS have seen the hitherto underground Mixed Martial Arts community in India stepping into the limelight.
What began as loosely regulated bouts between mostly amateur athletes held at gyms has now acquired the prestige of being held as well-organized events held at iconic venues, featuring professional fighters from India as well as international talent, with a number of active MMA promotions.
On Saturday, Mumbai's Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Indoor Stadium will witness the beginning of another such MMA organization, called the Kumite 1 League.
Backed by Toyam Industries, this new promotion has a strong roster of Indian fighters, while also showcasing notable talent from the Middle East, Brazil, Ukraine and Latin America. But what sets them apart from most is their framing of events as a country vs country tournament.
The inaugural show features an India vs UAE multi-fight match-up across several weight classes, with the Indian team boasting several popular names like Mohammed Farhad, Swapnil Barve, Priyanka Jeet Toshi, Hemant Wadekar, Kantharaj Agasa and Sumeet Khade. Among other featured bout is a face-off between two Brazilian prospects Paulo Silva and Leandro Da Silva, and a fierce Light Heavyweight bout between Martin Ottaviano and Kamen Georgiev.
The card is deep, the expectations are high, and Mohamedali Budhwani, CMD of Toyam Industries and the main promoter of Kumite 1 League, expects this new venture to hit the ground running.
In an email interview with TFG, Mr Budhwani laid out the underlying vision that led to the creation of the Kumite 1 League, and their future plans in the country, including grassroot programs aimed at developing the sport...
TFG: How did the country vs country tournament structure come into being?
Mr Budhwani: You are the first journalist who has asked me this question right at the beginning. The idea to launch this league has been aligned to the thought of creating space for the sport in our country. MMA is an international sport yet in it is still not developed. Now if we follow a fighter to fighter module it gets very restrictive. People may or may not like an individual athlete but everybody supports their own country in the field of sports. We are trying to create a culture and following for this sport and the country vs country module was born out of the need to make it more inclusive, to educate to create a sense of attachment to the sport in our country.
TFG: Why pick countries like India and UAE in the league, when MMA is a more prominent sport in many nations in the West?
Mr Budhwani: UAE is also very well entrenched in the sport agreed that US is the mecca of MMA but UAE is making giant strides in the sport. They have multiple leagues and A level fighters too. Infact His Royal Highness, Sheikh Tahnoon Bin Saeed Bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan from the Royal family of Abu Dhabi will be flying down as a mark of support to his country and in spirit of growing the sport in our country.
TFG: Could you tell us more about the grassroot programme that Kumite 1 League has undertaken to develop the sport? How will you ensure that a talented fighter is groomed properly and introduced into professional MMA at the right time?
Mr Budhwani: The grassroot programme will kick start right after our fight night on 29th September 2018. We will launch a thorough comb operation through the length and breadth of the country starting with the major metros. The programme will have a two pronged approach. Promoting the sport and developing a culture for it in our country and simultaneously scout for talent. Right now we are focusing on the fight night. Once this is over I will share the details of talent scouting with you.
TFG: While exploring India as the venue for your inaugural event, what kind of response did you find, both from the MMA community and the fans?
Mr Budhwani: We have been really lucky as we have the support of AIMMAF. Mr. Aditya PS has guided us all the way to do it right and help us with the right talent, format and even with bridging with Mr. Mike Tyson. He is the best voice for MMA in this country and he has been extremely kind to extend his rich experience to us. There were many hurdles to get this event off the ground, lets keep that for another day. A league of this scale and our fight night has been catching up among fans and enthusiasts. My phone has not stopped buzzing ever since our announcement. Fighters and people who want to have a career in MMA have been calling as much as fans.
TFG: Why pick Mumbai as the venue?
Mr Budhwani: Why not Mumbai? Firstly Mumbai is my home, I’m a thoroughbred Mumbai boy so it comes naturally to me to start with my city. I want to take this league all over the world but the best place to start is always home. Also Mumbai is the financial capital of our county. Its one of the most populous city, a true cosmopolitan one and we have the infrastructure also. So I felt this is where I should start.
TFG: Bringing Mike Tyson as brand ambassador taps into the boxing fan community... have you found favourable response among boxing fans about the sport of MMA, especially the events held locally?
Mr Budhwani: So there is a dichotomy here. This is purely my observation and I could be wrong, boxing fans have a natural affinity for other combat sports but there are also at the same time critical of MMA while they also show respect for the discipline and the athletes. I think this is more to do with human psychology. If you have a favourite it will always be in the top slot. Because of their understanding of boxing they also understand combat sports better and MMA has a certain visual appeal so you cannot escape its charm. Off course the Tyson draw is humungous but the boxing fans I have met have shown a keen interest in the event and would attend the fight night as well.
TFG: Global MMA has entered an "entertainment era" of sorts where personality, grudges and talking game seem to have become a crucial part for marketing fighters and events. Do you see the fighters in Kumite 1 League developing such aspects to their personas or do you prefer to just focus on making good fights and letting the rest play out on its own?
Mr Budhwani: I think we have a long way to go to get there. Our biggest challenge still remains awareness. Factions of media don’t consider this as sports to begin with. Yes we will focus on the fights and talent development. Without producing quality talent marketing does not make sense. Good marketing kills a bad product even faster so for strong marketing we need to first make our base strong.
TFG: What can fans expect when they turn up at the event or tune in on TV?
Mr Budhwani: Tooth and nail fight. Non- stop action and world class fights. We have worked very hard on the event and ensuring best fighters participate from India as well as world over of course within our means. This is only the beginning and we have the biggest name in the history of combat sports worldwide supporting us. I think this fight night will go down in the history of MMA. One, that had Mike Tyson in the audience all the way from the US.
TFG: Could you tell us about the venues and dates for future events? When can we see another event in India?
Mr Budhwani: I will not be able to share future plans immediately. There is a lot in the works lets go step by step.
TFG: North India and North East India have a sizeable fanbase for combat sports and several regional promotions that operate out of there. Do you plan to reach out to those markets in targeted ways, or hold events there?
Mr Budhwani: Yes absolutely. We will dig deep in the northeast. Our plan to launch the grassroots talent hunt right after the fight night will roll out pan India in a phased approach. North east is very much in our radar.
Tickets for the Kumite 1 League inaugural event are available on BookMyShow and the bouts will be beamed live on Sony Six & Sony Six HD.