THE ROLE OF AN AGENT is perhaps way bigger in combat sports than other traditional disciplines.
Boxing has a long standing tradition of agents who act as business representatives of fighters, who negotiate for them, protect them from negative attention from media or others, defend them against criticism, act as personal advisors and even become close friends.
In Mixed Martial Arts, too, there are renowned agents, like Ali Abdelaziz, who have become important figures when it comes to opening doors for fighters, making interesting match-ups and even grooming athletes.
The MMA scene in India continues to be at a nascent stage, despite the recent surge in activity, with Indian athletes featuring regularly in international promotions like BRAVE and ONE Championship.
The few professional representatives who are active face the gargantuan task not only of getting recognition for their fighters but also raising the profile of Indian MMA as a whole. And one of the most important figures in that respect is Somesh Kamra, co-founder of Superhuman Gym, and arguably the most successful MMA agent in India.
Somesh represents some of the most renowned Indian MMA fighters, from Sumeet Khade, Javed Mulla to Bharat Kandare, the first Indian citizen to fight in the UFC.
A martial artist himself, he comes across as an unabashed personality who does not shy away from talking about the hard realities that surround the sport, and the challenges one faces in the attempt to grow it.
Speaking to TFG in a no holds barred interview, he reminisced about his introduction to MMA, then a fringe sport in most of the world, and one that would change his life,
"I was always into combat sports. As a kid I was doing karate, later on I got into boxing and kickboxing. Then, in 2003 or 2004, Pride FC was being shown on Star Sports. It was one of the Japanese MMA promotion that was one of the biggest in the world back then. They had foot stomps, soccer kicks... everything. Back in the day WWE was very popular and I used to watch it a lot, and MMA was a revelation for me, seeing people put on that kind of damage on each other for real. That's when I started Googling Mixed Martial Arts."
Witnessing the golden era of the erstwhile Japan-based promotion unfold, he was fascinated by the fighters who dominated it,
"Pride had a lot of heroes. Mirco Cro Cop, Fedor, Overeem, Vanderlei Silva, Mark Hunt, Dan Henderson, Shogun Hua, Rampage Jackson and the list goes on... the first round was ten minutes... it looked like WWE but it was real."
Closer to home, though, he found few avenues to pursue or practice the sport he was so enamoured with,
"There was nothing of the sort in India back then. I had a boxing and kickboxing background but what happens when they take you down to the ground? I had no idea about takedowns or jiu-jiutsu... it looked like kushti to me but they were doing submissions. So I started going to some wrestling schools, to figure out how to defend if he goes for my legs etc. Slowly, I started formulating things by myself."
Eventually, his patience paid off when he got a chance to see professional MMA up close, and meet some of its superstars,
"In 2008 I got an invitation from M-1 Global to come down to Russia. At that time renowned fighters like Fedor Emelianenko, Alexander Emelianenko were all there. I told them that I'm interested in developing the sport in India where it was very new, but I wanna learn. So they took me to St Petersburg, I was there with Alexander, training, spending time with them. It was a great experience."
The experience he gathered there convinced him to start teaching MMA in gyms back home,
"It's not like I have a rich father or something. I needed to earn money. I started approaching gyms asking if I can train MMA there. Gold Gym gave me a chance. Talwalkars offered me space. We were getting all these boxers and wrestlers coming in to train under one roof so the time was right to build a fight team. A few years passed. In 2012, UFC and me connected. They said they wanted to come to India, they had signed a deal with Sony and were going to have a press conference. I went to the event and it turned out that I was the only one there who had a background in the sport, everyone else was a journalist. I met Lorenzo Fertitta, Ben Henderson and Rich Franklin were also there. We ended up chatting about India, one thing led to anothre and here we are. I have to say I was very fortunate... now UFC has me travel to USA every year. We discuss India. You have to invest that initial time and money. Fortunately for me, it has worked out very well."
After a few years, he had amassed a community of fighters at Superhuman Gym that resembled the vision of an elite Indian MMA team that he wanted to create,
"My fight team has stood by me through everything. It's common for fighters to change camps. Look at Bharat Kandare. He has a UFC contract, he can go anywhere. But he chooses to stay with us. And he's very open about it. He said, 'You helped me out when I ran into an issue with other promotions, took me to Japan, to BRAVE, and now to UFC, I'll stay with you.' The UFC trusted my instincts and asked, who do you feel is the best guy? I recommended him, not because he is part of Superhuman Gym, but because he is the most competitive guy I know in the circuit. He knows I'll do anything for him, and I know he will do anything for me and the company."
The hard work finally paid off when in 2017, Bharat Kandare became the first ever Indian citizen to compete at the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the number one MMA promotion in the world. The fight resulted in a first round loss to Song Yadong, but Somesh was keen to take the positives from it given the circumstances under which Bharat accepted the fight,
"A lot of people trashed us after Bharat's loss on his UFC debut. But most don't know that we took the fight on 16 days' notice. Six days before the fight the opponent changed, the weight class changed from Bantamweight to Featherweight. When you're preparing for one opponent and everything changes just days before the fight, it's not easy. Our China visa was rejected the first time over. The UFC was so professional about it, they told us up front, if he's not comfortable don't take it. I told Bharat, if you're not comfortable you are legally bound to say you don't want to fight, a lot of fighters don't take that fight. But Bharat said he didn't care what was the weight class and who was the opponent, he wanted to fight. I called the UFC and said, f*** it, we're doing it. After the fight, Reed Harris, Vice President of UFC Athlete Development, came to us and said, forget about win or loss. What you guys have done for yourselves and India is ten out of ten, and the UFC respects it. Someone like Reed Harris saying that to us is a very big thing."
He further emphasized on the need to take on higher challenges if an athlete wishes to truly achieve growth as an MMA fighter,
"In modern MMA if you don't face a variety of opponents you never reach your full potential. There are fighters who keep winning in domestic competitions but wouldn't stand a chance at the international level. The problem is, Indian MMA fighters right now think that they are gods. The guys who are there with Superhuman Gym, be it amateurs or pro's, I tell them, if you think you are gods your career is finished. You will see somebody who has won a number of local tournaments and thinks he is a champion. But that's a narrow perspective to have. Where are you in the global scene? Where are you in the Asian scene? Out there, even guys like Jon Jones stay humble and grind it out in the gym every day. Because they know everyone is coming for that gold belt and if they don't up their game somebody will take it from them. Today I may be a champion, in a couple of months I may be nowhere in the scene. Unfortunately, Indian MMA is nowhere close to being competitive in a global organization like the UFC. That's why for us, it was an act of jumping into the shark tank."
Both Bharat and Somesh hoped to set the record straight in the next fight after that loss. But neither foresaw the series of setbacks that were about to hit them.
An injury made Bharat pull out of the next bout,
"We got a 3 month notice for the next fight. It was supposed to take place in LA. Unfortunately Bharat blew his ACL during training and he could not fight. But because we took the previous fight on short notice, the UFC brass made sure we had a lot of time to prepare the next time around."
Robbed of the next fight, Somesh admitted that the loss to Yadong continued to be an unresolved thorn for them, but an experience still to be grateful for,
"Song Yadong is a good fighter. He won the next fight by a vicious elbow and the next one went to decision. He is good, he is aggressive, but a defeatable opponent. But something else that happens when you take a fight like that is that the Indian fighters are not used to that level of exposure. The build-up to the fight went well. There was even a slight clash between Bharat and Song at the weigh-in ceremony. Before the fight he was quite relaxed, stretching and chilling in the green room. But when the name was called out for the walkout, a certain level of panic does set in because it's your first time. Even I felt it. It does affect the psyche of the fighter. It's important to have those experiences, you grow through them. Even when we were in Japan, the Indian fighters faced boos when they were walking out. People were even throwing things at us. Then Bharat went and knocked that Japanese guy out in 21 seconds... in China, when we were walking out, I'm not kidding, people were boo'ing us like no other. There were droplets of drinks, coke, maybe water being thrown at us... it's a brilliant experience."
The level of professionalism practiced at the UFC, Somesh said, was another revelation,
"The way UFC took care of us, the way the organisation is built, my respect for them has definitely increased. Their professionalism is the reason the UFC is what it is. We got charts about activities, what's happening at 4 pm, what's at 5 pm, press conferences, weigh in and other events... excellent guys to work with. Some people say stuff about them, that they don't pay well, this and that... but in my experience it's a great organisation and truly a dream come true for all of us... if you start doing good work, eventually it gets better for you. A lot of guys say UFC is partial towards this guy. They don't realise the work I've put in. I've been with them for seven years, I've been putting hard work all this while to get where I am today. If people can't respect that, that's their problem. F*** them."
But the biggest setback came after the fight cancellation. A USADA dope test found Boldenone undecylenate, a banned substance, in Bharat Kandare's system. This led to him receiving a suspension for 2 years.
Somesh recalled the incident, calling it one of the toughest things he has undergone in the time he has been associatied with MMA,
"They told us, this is the case, this is what has happened, can you rewind and recall exactly what has happened. See, if somebody does Boldenon by themselves it's quite stupid because it's a drug that used to be taken in the 1960s. It's an oil based drug that stays in your system for almost one year. So if someone takes it willingly they're quite stupid. They're bound to get caught. And after that, we don't know. So there are these situations. But I look at it like this: somebody has to fall for others to learn. Fortunately or unfortunately that was Bharat. So I told him that, take it positively. It's a serious game, USADA and UFC don't kid around with this. Fighters aren't even allowed cough syrup. If they catch a cold and have to take any medication, they need to run it by USADA saying what has happened, with photos of doctor's prescription and the medicine, and wait for permission to take it. What happened to you will make your peers way more conscious so they don't end up in the same mishap."
The way USADA handled the situation, he said, was overall satisfactory,
"The test happened in end of June or early July. We were preparing for a fight in August at that time. Bharat blew his ACL and the fight fell through. But it wasn't until October that they let us know what happened, which I found a little odd. If you already saw this pop up back then, why wait till a couple of months later to tell us?... I asked if we could contest the length of the ban, they said very sorry, you can't. Two years is two years. But I am satisfied with the process. USADA were very cooperative and the exchange was constructive all the way through."
He talked about the rigorous process of complying with the USADA policy,
"It's exremely thorough. We have to report everything we're doing. What we're training, where we're training, where he will be on which day. It's all my responsibility since I represent Bharat. It's very strict but I appreciate it. It's the kind of professionalism that makes you a good competitor at international level. Most Indian fighters have never seen anything like this. This is why it's very important to have a good team around you. See, the fighter doesn't care about all this. He says, I want to train and I want to fight. That's all he is supposed to bother about. Everything else we have to take care of. And we have USADA calling randomly any time, showing up to test without prior notice. And if the fighter has taken coffee prior to testing he may end up getting flagged because of the caffeine. We have to be mindful of every little thing. It's a complex process to manage. It's actual work."
Asked whether he felt let down by the length of the punishment since TJ Dillashaw received the same amount for a much graver violation and Jon Jones was treated very differently when he got flagged in a test, he said,
"To be honest, I can't comment. I don't know what are the parameters to this. I don't know how exactly USADA works. At the end of the day, the promotion will prioritise. I mean, Conor is sitting out, Ronda Rousey has left, Brock Lesnar is also out. The organization has so many stars out there and they are building newer markets by the day. Who will get pay-per-views? Who will grab the eyeballs? That's what I think."
So, given Bharat's dope test fail might have been caused by a misinformed doctor, have they found a better doctor who can be trusted not to give him tainted or bad medication? Somesh replied,
"We have the WADA booklet with us, it's a thick booklet, hundreds of pages and keeps getting updated. It's very hard to always be on top and double check everything to avoid getting flagged. We just have to be extra careful now."
For now, Somesh said, the focus on making sure Bharat returns to the cage at the end of his suspension fully prepared with a well-planned training camp,
"It all depends on the scheduling. For example, right now Bharat is suspended. That's a situation that's not in our control. His ban gets over on 1st November 2020. So with that date in mind, we have to plan backwards to determine when he leaves for the US, what kind of training in which place suits us best for the opponent at hand... all that goes into the planning... honestly, I have told him, this is probably your last chance. If you lose the next one, UFC have all the right to say listen, it's not working out, we're plugging your contract. So it's a make of break situation for him. And if that doesn't pump you up, I don't know what will. Because the UFC have done a lot for us when it comes to giving us a chance, giving us a break, taking care of us. And their payment schedules are also very punctual. The athletes get paid really well... imagine, if you bag a knockout or submission of the night, you are richer by 35 lakhs rupees! Someone like Bharat can buy a good apartment in his village with just one UFC bonus. The perks of being in the UFC are numerous. But you need to be on your A game to stay there. If you can't bring it, too bad. They'll cut you."
But he remembered to underline the enormity of what Bharat Kandare has achieved,
"Getting the opportunity to fight in the UFC alone should make one feel on top of the world. You know, the guy who replaced Bharat in the Wuliji Buren fight is from Argentina and he beat Wuliji Buren. He had little over one month to prepare for that fight. The point being, he made the most of the opportunity he got. And that's the only way to make it there... I really felt Bharat had a great chance to win that bout. Wuliji has power, he's a good wrestler, but his striking is very amateur. I remember, in the Song Yadong fight, Bharat connected with one jab. Just one. When we met Song after the fight, he still had a huge mark where it connected. And Bharat seemed untouched. So Bharat has a lot of advantages. He has a long reach, probably as much as Dustin Poirier. He's got a lot of tools to make use of. It's just a matter of capitalizing on your plus points... I felt Wuliji Buren was our big chance. If Bharat had won it, the face of Indian MMA would have changed. The first Indian citizen to win a fight in the UFC, it changes the way the whole country is perceived. It was in a big card, too. Cody vs Dillashaw in Los Angeles."
On the subject of Indian athletes feeling the need to train abroad, Somesh said he saw it as potentially beneficial, but only if planned out as part of specific goals, not as a means to itself,
"Yes, they do think that going to Thailand will make them better. But that's not really true. Just look at SBG, where Conor McGregor came out of. Or the gym where Joanna Jędrzejczyk trained to become champion. It's a very small gym, maybe double the size of this cafe. See, every athlete at that level is fantastic. It's less to do with which gym it is than how the fighters prep themselves up and how the team prepares them physically and mentally to deal with that situation... it's a psychological thing. Jackson Wynk didn't become Jackson Wynk because the best fighters went somewhere else and trained. They have gained their stature because over 15 years fighters like Diego Sanchez, Carlos Condit, Holly Holm, Jon Jones and the crew stuck together, grew together and helped each other grow. That's what we are trying to do at Superhuman Gym. Each one of our gyms will have an Octagon. Every top MMA gym has to have a ring or a cage. Because you want the athlete to be familiar with the area. He or she needs to know that from a certain point if they take five steps back, it's the cage. It helps immensely to help them relax and find familiarity in the environment. In this sport, psychology plays a very important role. That's what you have to groom. Some athletes think if I train in this gym or that gym I'll be a great fighter. It doesn't work like that, you have to find the right place for yourself."
So what of the prevailing wisdom that MMA fighters, due to the short span of prime they have in their careers, have to accumulate the absolute best training on short notice to reach their full potential, most of which can only be found in established Western gyms? Somesh replied,
"I absolutely agree. But then it becomes a question of starting a local promotion that can showcase talent and give the domestic fighters some fighting experience. There's an event called Underground Fight Nights that is doing monthly events. It's amateur but they don't fight with shin-guards and stuff. So it's guys who are thinking about going pro. We need more like that. It's critical for athletes to get in the ring and compete. There has to be a combination of good gyms and good local promotions. Neither is complete without the other... if there's talent, the promotions are always looking out to get you in their radar. In fact UFC asked me, is there somebody else in the Indian MMA field that can be a prospect for their promotion? But having spent some time with them in China and USA, and having seen how they operate, what's the level of talent and output they demand from a fighter, I feel India has some time to go before we reach that level. And by long way I mean a two-three year game plan. There's talent. But we need to groom them right so they can be ready for that stage."
Somesh laid out where he thought the contemporary MMA promotions in India fell short...
"There are some organisations which don't care if they hurt the fighters. You see, even the athletes have to be extremely sure about what they're signing when they enter a contract with a promotion. Because that paper could really make or break their life. I remember in 2013, I was chatting with UFC people. They said, Bharat Kandare has potential, we can give him a shot. Bharat was under contract with Super Fight League back then. We tried to talk, they weren't interested in releasing him, so not much can be done. Now, an organization that does something like that, is according to me an organization that does not look out for the welfare of the fighters. When I spoke to Shahid from BRAVE, while Bharat was fight on their cards, when he heard about the UFC shot Shahid got the NOC done in a short span. He said, Bharat is progressing to a better organization, so I will help make it easier for him to transition. That's what I expect from an organization. That's why BRAVE is BRAVE. Simple as that. Reasons like this is why I prefer signing my fighters with foreign organizations now."
But on the flip side of fighting in foreign promotions is that often Indian fighters are set up in mis-matches that are meant to make the promotion's favoured prospects look good. This results in Indian fighters facing tougher opponents before acquiring the necessary experience to be able to compete, and picking up losses. Asked about that dynamic, Somesh acknowledged it was a prevailing issue,
"Yes, people do it. You just need to be confident whether you match up to that guy. See, the fighter doesn't have to fight. If ONE, UFC or whoever put an offer on the table, if it's a bad match-up, you don't do it. But the attitude of Indian fighters is like, oh, at least I'll get to go to Singapore, get paid... it's not about getting paid. It's about winning. And you have to have that winner's mentality. If you're looking at this as a paid vacation, that's the wrong attitude. Those guys will never move ahead in life."
The biggest problem facing Indian MMA, he said, was not unfavourable match-ups in foreign promotions. It was a problem brewing much closer to home,
"Most of the top Indian fighters are around 27 or 28. They have gone out of their prime. Who's next? After Rajinder Singh Meena, Bharat Kandare, Sumeet Khade... after they get done fighting in a few years, who's next? We're not even grooming the next batch, which is the scary part. The athletes who are 18, those who will go on to compete when they're 22, those are the ones we need to look at... Mehboob, a guy from Hyderabad, won in Bahrain. Pooja Tomar got a win in ONE. There's Himanshu Kaushik who also won. Rajinder Singh Meena won. These athletes you can count in one hand. And then again we're stuck with the same question: who's next? The fighters, their coaches, everyone needs to understand the situation we are in."
The poor state of management in Indian MMA, Somesh explained, was also resulting in fighters not being able to seek out help and guidance they despearately need,
"This is not a very open industry. There's a lot of rivalry, internal fighting. If you go to this gym you can't go to my gym kind of stuff. Due to all this the fighter gets confused. Maybe in one gym the striking is good but what about BJJ? What about the other aspects of MMA? Even an athlete like Jon Jones has to do his strength training in one place, BJJ elsewhere, then he's at Jackson Wynk... he's a travelling fighter. One gym doesn't have all of it. But the culture around the gyms needs to be open enough so that a fighter has the freedom to do all that without somebody getting angry at him."
He felt fighters were also not fully informed in other crucial aspects of MMA, like taking proper care of injuries and managing their recovery in the right way,
"Sometimes fighters don't care about their own bodies as much. They think I'm strong, I need this fight, I'll power through this. But circumstances change, age changes things. Maybe your body is taking it all till mid twenties. What after that? I know fighters who had injuries from 3-4 years ago cropping back up when they pass that age. So I really feel that these guys need to take extra care of themselves and focus more on recovery. This is how the game works, you need to do this to have a long career. The good part is, BRAVE and ONE are putting emphasis on newer rules for fighter health, and Indian athletes who are there are learning more and more about how to maintain good health."
The fighters themselves needed to get a more realistic assessment of their career path and potentials, he said,
"I do question the mentality of the typical Indian fighters. They think, I am nine times wushu champion, ten times wrestling champion so I am a big deal. I ask them, on the global scale what have you done? Where are you in the Asian scene, even? Have you tested yourself against those fighters? If you keep fighting low level opponents domestically, your level won't go up. You have to put yourself out there, and find out where you really belong... I tell everyone, look at Joanna's career. She became a champion fighting out of a small gym. Then she moved to a big gym where she was surrounded by champions. But then she lost the belt, lost in two different weight classes, even lost to Carolina. So is the gym the problem or her mentality? I have no problem with fighters wanting to go abroad. Go to Thailand, go to USA. But can you guarantee it will work out? You need to figure out which formula works specifically for you. And it doesn't necessarily mean aping whatever the trendy thing to do is."
He brought up the example of Bharat Kandare's training for his fight against Ahmed Faress at BRAVE,
"Bharat went to Tiger Muay Thai before his BRAVE fight and busted his knee. He was sparring with a guy who didn't know him, didn't care about him, and he ended up with an injury. Then during the fight he popped his knee, couldn't get out of the triangle because of that, and lost the fight. The point is, there is a reason why fighters like Cain Velasquez, DC stick to their own camp. So that before the fight they are surrounded by their own people who will not overdo a knee bar and damage them. You can't have that kind of safety and trust if you train in new places all the time."
Patience, Somesh said, was another virtue that Indian fighters needed to pursue,
"No one's job is easy at this level. It takes eight to ten months' work just to get one contract signed. Convincing a big promotion that this is the guy for you is not easy. They have hundreds of fighters in their rosters and thousands banging on their doors. Why should they take particular interest in you? Some fighters realise and appreciate this, others get impatient and that doesn't help. You have to understand the game, remain active, and have faith. You have to help me market you, build you up as a package that interests promotions, and convinces them you are ready for it. If you lose patience and do something drastic it will backfire."
So where will he, as an MMA agent, look for upcoming talent from the new generation? What kind of fighters are best suited to taken Indian MMA forward? Somesh answered,
"Going by track record they say the wrestlers make the best MMA fighters. But I can't relly consider it as a formula, it's just a statistic... honestly, I don't know. We need to fix the framework that produces fighters in this country. And the fighters need to change their mentality. They need to understand the importance of amateur fights. They can't as an amateur start saying things like I need to get paid this much or that much, or say I live in the North-East so I won't come all the way to Manipal for a fight. A lot of guys came to me and said they wanted to be a fighter and this and that. I've taken them down to Manipal on my own expense, had them stay and train for free, and then they say 'I'm not meant for this' and give up. It makes me wonder, why should I spend my own money on them? It doesn't work like that, you need to have real dedication. Bharat Kandare had to come a long way before he got into the UFC. And the spark he has is rare. Until I see the same spark in someone else, I can't really consider them as a prospect."
He emphasized on the need for fighters to grab the opportunities they get to showcase talents in both hands, even if the task at hand seems difficult, and stay as busy in the cage as possible,
"Underground Fight Night even pays amateur fighters, imagine. It doesn't happen anywhere in the world. The opportunities are there. But the fighters have to realise what it takes. They can't walk around thinking they are like McGregor and will be millionaires by 30. People who think that way fall flat on their face. They have to come in with a plan that they will do this for 2-3 years, get noticed and become a pro. The dues must be paid if an athlete is to grow and make it as a professional. There is no shortcut. Especially for Indian fighters... we have to consider the reality. Being from a new MMA nation we are not going to be seen as first option, we will often be backups. So our fighters need to be prepared that way. They have to be ready to say, even if we get a fight on 7 days' notice, we will be willing to step in and deliver. Can that fighter, and his or her team, go in there, prepare in a smart way, and put up competitive performances? Can they prove themselves? If they can, then Indian MMA's stature will shoot up. It's exactly what Conor McGregor did for Irish MMA."
But exciting opportunities for Indian fighters were going to be available soon, according to Somesh,
"A few years back UFC was running a fighter development programme. They were scouting for fighters in Asia. They were paying promising athletes to come over and train. The Chinese were so dedicated that after the programme was over, they flew coaches from US and Spain down to China on a permanent basis. I don't know if they are getting money from their government to fund this or not. But their efforts are of the next level. China is a huge market for UFC. So no wonder why they decided to build a Performance Insititute there. It will become a focal point for all aspiring MMA fighters in Asia, including Indians."
Also, Somesh revealed that major international promotions are looking to hold events in India in order to boost the local scene. But he wondered whether the local talent pool would be able to match up to that occasion,
"Yes, ONE is very keen to come to India. The way they are talking to me about Indian athletes, they seem to be just waiting to get five or six good fighters in their roster. The moment they have that, they can put on a show featuring them on Indian soil... it can even happen as soon as in 2019, if they can put together a good card. But that's an optimistic outlook. I'm not 100% sure. But the point is, the opportunities are there. The only question is, who can step up to that task?"