BHARAT KANDARE, THE ONLY INDIAN Mixed Martial Artist who plies his trade at the UFC, is dealing with lack of financial resources as he prepares for his return to the Octagon.
Bharat, who competes at the Batamweight (135 lb) division, debuted for the Ultimate Fighting Championship way on 25th November 2017, making him the first Indian citizen to feature in the biggest MMA promotion in the world. He faced Song Yadong, losing in the first round due to a guillotine choke. The bout was a short notice opportunity for which he trained only for two weeks; then his opponent was changed just days before the fight and it took place at Featherweight (145 lb); 10 pounds above his natural weight class.
Since then a series of misfortunes has prevented Bharat's comeback in the cage. He was booked to fight Wuliji Buren in UFC 227 (Las Vegas, August 4th 2018) but a couple of weeks before the event suffered a torn ligament (PCL tear) which forced him to pull out of the bout.
This was followed by a major setback when during an out-of-competition drug test by USADA he tested positive for the anabolic steroid Boldenone undecylenate, resulting in a two year suspension. Bharat claimed the substance entered his system through a medicine prescribed to him by a doctor in his hometown who was unaware that he was a professional athlete. Speaking to TFG about the incident at the time, Bharat said,
"I should have let him know that I am an active athlete and part of the USADA drug testing pool. Even the people at USADA agreed that it's a possible explanation for what happened. I have learned a very important lesson, and paid a heavy price for it."
The suspension will run until early November 2020, following which Bharat hopes to return to competition and become the first Indian fighter to win a bout in the UFC. But he feels his current financial condition and lack of sponsorship are bigger roadblocks in his path than the prospect of overcoming an opponent in the cage.
Bharat's day job is that of a municipal worker. Even during his early days as a wrestler and when he was cutting his teeth into amateur MMA, he was earning money by sweeping the roads. When he started winning fights, he was promoted to the position of driving a waste-collecting tractor. The job pays little and every time he has gone into training camps to prepare for upcoming fights, he has had to take long unpaid leaves. But he's never been in competition long enough to build up savings so he can be financially independent of that job.
But now that he's in the UFC and his career depends on how he performs in the next fight, Bharat is facing a major quandry: he does not have enough money to pay for a proper training camp abroad. He told TFG,
"UFC is where the best MMA athletes in the world compete. These guys live and breathe the sport and dedicate every day to nothing but training. They have the best facilities and the best coaches with decades of experience. I know I can go with them all and beat the best of them but to get it right, I need a proper training camp with good coaches and sparring partners."
In the past, Bharat has trained at Jackson-Wink, one of the most famous MMA training institutions in the world. Since then he has stayed in touch with them and says senior officials of that gym would be more than happy to have him back; but the training stint would cost well over Rs 6 lakhs which he does not have,
"I felt great training at Jackson-Wink but staying and training in the USA is expensive and I haven't fought for over two years. I just don't have the money it takes to fund a training camp there. I went around looking to secure a sponsor and a few times the discussions seemed to be promising but nothing has worked out so far. It's frustrating because I know what I have to do but don't have the resources to take the first step."
Presently Bharat is staying at his hometown where he is training at Bhagur's internationa wrestling academy. He has now returned to full training after being out for months with the injury,
"I'm feeling good, my wrestling training is going very well here. But I don't have experienced sparring partners for my striking. Also I'm basically coaching myself here; there are no MMA coaches nearby who can train me for UFC-level competition."
Months after being suspended, Bharat was also struck by personal tragedy when his father passed away; forcing him to prolong his stay at his hometown to take care of his family members. Recently, he has also run into issues regarding his job at the municipality, where his seniors have been unwilling to agree to his requests for leave to train, even if they were without pay. Bharat said,
"I have been told that I can't get a leave of more than 10-15 days even if there's a fight coming up. It's not possible to train for such a high stakes bout in just two weeks. Right now I'm torn between my obligations at work, my family and training. Staying at my hometown means I'm just repeating and practicing what I already know, not learning new things. MMA is a fast evolving sport and I can't grow as an atlete if I don't have the guidance to pick up new skills."
Bharat was hoping to fly to the USA by April and begin his training but after a long fruitless search to secure sponsorship, that plan appears less likely with every passing week. But even now, the former SFL champion is unwilling to give up hope,
"I'm still hopeful that someone somewhere will help me out, just this once. After this one I will have enough money to fund my next training camp thanks to the money I make from the fight."
The beginner-level contract at UFC which Bharat is under pays an athlete US$ 10,000 for every fight, plus another US$ 10,000 if they win. Along with that there are multiple outstanding performance bonuses of $50,000 on offer at every event. According to Bharat,
"A lot of money is necessary for a fighter's training, nutrition, healthcare and well-being. If you are fighting you get paid well at the UFC, but when you're out for so long you can find yourself out of cash very fast."
At present, Bharat has a professional MMA record of 5 wins and 3 losses. He is known in the circuit as an explosive fighter who likes to go for the finish; something that made him popular with the Indian fans during his stint at the Super Fight League. Speaking of his career, Bharat said,
"I get very excited at the prospect of taking on the best guys in the world. I know I have it in me to become the first Indian fighter to make it big in the UFC. It bothers me that no Indian citizen has ever won a fight in UFC and my mission for the next bout is to correct that record. After that I want to get back to competition quickly and put together a winning streak so one day I can get a ranked opponent and eventually a title shot."
But having spent a long time outside the cage, time is running out for Bharat, who will turn 31 in June. A fighter's prime only lasts a few years and they don't get second chances when it comes to making a mark at the UFC. He has already achieved a rare feat by making it into the biggest promotion in world MMA, is facing the risk of falling short due to lack of a supporting structure around him that talented fighters in countries like USA, China, Ireland and Thailand find readily available; something which has turned those countries into the de facto hubs of global MMA.
In India, MMA has recently come into focus due to several Indian fighters making a mark at ONE Championship including Ritu Phogat. But as of now it continues to be a fringe sport where athletes still lack proper guidance and financial support and even Bharat Kandare, one of the the biggest names in Indian MMA, is still being held back by that struggle.