AS HE STARED across the cage at his opponent, Roshan Mainam Luwang could feel an uncanny amount of intensity being reflected back his way.
Although expressions of enmity in a Mixed Martial Arts bout is common and is to be expected, the promotion he was fighting at - ONE Championship - always seeks to establish the traditional values of respect and sportsmanship in their athletes. Roshan, in his time at the promotion, never encountered trash talk or even a cross look. His promotional debut - a quick contest against Cambodian fighter Khon Sichan that lasted just over three minutes - was preceded by a smiling fist-bump and followed by a hug.
But this time, as he prepared to face Peng Shuai Liu, a versatile fighter with four knockouts and two submissions on his record, the air was different. Maybe it was that the bout was happening in an empty arena due to COVID-19, that let him hear his opponent's cornermen muttering last minute instructions in hushed tones, making for an unusually tense setting as 'ONE: Reign of Dynasties' got underway. When the referee stepped up to the middle of the cage, gensturing the two fighters to come forward, the thud of his shoes hitting the canvas was the loudest thing inside the Kallang Stadium.
The referee, after repeating the instructions, asked both fighters to touch gloves. Roshan held out his hands, but Peng took a good couple of seconds to think it over, before complying half-heartedly, confirming Roshan's suspicions of hostility that went beyond competitive spirit. Despite himself, he felt the moment creep up under his skin.
He was used to fights, whether on a cage with a referee, or in the street without one. It didn't make him nervous to get into a situation with high physical stakes. But this time, there were more eyes on him than ever before. And the man about to take him on was not only skilled and experienced, but also seemed to harbour an amount of unspoken enmity that he had not anticipated from somebody he had never met.
After his last fight, Roshan had called out for a tougher opponent, saying,
"If I fight a good grappler who is hard to finish on the ground it might lead to a long stand-up exchange and hopefully I'll get to show off that skill-set too."
He was about to get his wish, and then some.
Roshan Mainam Luwang's worst times began when he was 18.
He had just spent about four years in Delhi, training in wrestling at the famous Guru Hanuman Akhara. He had won multiple medals at different age categories and earned praise as a prospect. His accolades were enough to net him a stable job and enjoy normal life in a way he had not been able to most of his life. At this crucial point in his life, in a cruel twist of fate, his bag got stolen; with his medals, certificates and other important documents inside it.
Roshan's life spiralled. He was dealing with depression, addiction, financial strifes. He got into fights, not of the regulated kind. What became the biggest source of stress in his life also became a turning point; when a colleague at a construction job site mocked him he got into a nasty brawl, but decided then and there to turn his life around.
At that time, he had already been introduced to the sport of Mixed Martial Arts. At that time, Ronda Rousey was at the height of her stardom and Conor McGregor was a rising phenomenon. In India, too, MMA was slowly emerging as a popular sport with dedicated followings in the metros along with Northern and North-Eastern states. Roshan saw in MMA a way to channel his aggression, find peace and discipline through learning new skills and earn more money than he could in wrestling.
Roshan's MMA journey formally began with him trying out at an MMA gym in Delhi and it almost immediately ended right there. He had paid Rs 500 for a trial class, mistakenly thinking it was the monthly fee, which was actually Rs 5000. When he found out, he almost broke down; it was an amount he could not afford.
It was MMA coach Vishal Seigell, who was impressed by Roshan's first day performance, who came to his rescue. Roshan still speaks about that moment as the turning point of his athletic career,
"We met at his office. He asked, was I doing this as a hobby? I told him I'd become a champion if he gave me a chance. He said I could train there for free and train others in wrestling."
In a sense, Roshan was entering MMA with the perfect background: sound wrestling, familiarity with no-holds-barred combat in the streets and an attitude to push back against adversity no matter what. As he started playing in amateur tournaments, it immediately became clear that he was a class above his competitors. To get tested for real, he turned professional towards the end of 2016. His debut was to be against Xico Zorinmawiia, a popular emerging talent from Mizoram, at an event held in Aizawl.
Immediately, in his pro debut, Roshan got a taste of the wilder side of regional MMA events,
"They put me up against one of their big upcoming talents. They probably thought I was just some new guy, didn't know I had already won a few amateur competitions. There was a big crowd at the event and some big politicians were attending. It was crazy, they were all cheering for my opponent. Then I totally dominated him and that shocked everybody. After the fight we were on our way out and some of his fans crowded me, started pushing and hitting me. We somehow got back to our hotel."
Apart from the post-fight melee, the bout was a valuable experience for Roshan, not just because it was his professional debut. It confirmed what he and his coach felt all along: smaller events were not going to test him. He needed to enter the shark tank of Super Fight League.
In 2017, Roshan tried out for SFL. He was soon put into competition, against another emerging undefeated prospect. Kantharaj Agasa, who was 3-0 at that time, submitted Roshan via guillotine choke on the very first round. Roshan, still relying mostly on his wrestling, was still miles behind in his experience with jiu-jiutsu.
The very next week Roshan went right back into the cage, submitted Pramod Kataria on the first round and got his first major win on national television.
A year later, he was back on SFL and this time he once again got a first round finish; taking Ateet Kelvin Gupta down, opening him up with elbows and finishing with some vicious ground-and-pound.
Four fights into his pro career, Roshan was yet to taste the deep waters of a fight that went the distance. Being familiar with the grind of a wrestler, he was fairly confident that his cardio would carry him through such a challenge. But he couldn't be sure until it was put to a real test in his next bout, just a week after his win over Ateet, against the only fighter who had beaten him in his pro career - Kantharaj Agasa.
The rematch was happening a year after their first bout. By then, Roshan had spent a sizeable amount of time working on his jiu-jiutsu. And it became clear within the first two minutes of the fight, as his takedown attempt on Kantharaj drew a long stalemate stalemate on the mat, that this time this fight was going to turn out differently.
Halfway into the round, Roshan landed clean on Kantharaj, causing him to pause. Then Kantharaj caught Roshan, causing him to momentarily stagger, and almost took him out with a flying knee that just missed. Kantharaj was still better at striking from range, but as he tried to take Roshan down, he met stiff resistance. And whenever Roshan managed to close the distance, his striking had Kantharaj on all sorts of trouble. The two were constantly talking to each other, exchanging smiles and daring each other, and by the end of the first round the fatigue was starting to show on both.
The second round started out in a similar vein until Roshan got his first clean takedown, tripping Kantharaj from the clinch. Kantharaj did great to stop Roshan from mounting him and almost grabbed hold of his legs but Roshan got away the moment he sensed danger, like he had done before.
By now Roshan could feel the fatigue catch up to him. He held his hands lower, moved slower, and breathed hard from the mouth. Kantharaj was in no hurry to press his case and was content with sniping with leg kicks for a while, until Roshan caught one and took him down again, almost sinking in a guillotine choke. In defence, Kantharaj ankle-picked Roshan and Roshan retreated again. Kantharaj, looking to drain Roshan more, pinned him to the cage for the rest of the round.
Much of the third round was Kantharaj Agasa chasing Roshan around the cage, but making sure not to get too close to avoid getting taken down. Roshan was happy to play that game, as it allowed him to catch his breath and halfway into the round he was moving much faster than he was in the previous. The two kept attempting leg kicks at each other until Kantharaj finally mamanged to trap Roshan and pounced for a takedown. But Roshan, now recovered, held his own, landing a knee before breaking away.
Then, with just seconds to spare, Kantharaj landed a right hook on Roshan that momentarily rocked him again. Roshan recovered and tried to get another takedown but the clock ran out.
It was a phenomenal fight that tested both fighters, and Roshan was in it till the last second. The judges awarded the fight to Kantharaj.
Remembering the bout, Roshan was optimistic about his performance that night,
"I gave him a good fight, I lost the decision but it was very competitive. I had improved a lot since our first fight and it showed."
To this day, Kantharaj Agasa remains the only fighter to beat Roshan Mainam in professional MMA.
Despite the loss, Roshan's MMA career didn't suffer a setback. In fact, now with more experience in the cage and a more well rounded fighter after almost two years of training, he set his sights higher thanks to an unexpected opportunity that came his way.
Towards the end of 2018, Singapore's Evolve MMA, one of the most renowned Mixed Martial Arts academies in Asia, was holding tryouts. In it, Roshan saw an opportunity to gain knowledge and earn money that he couldn't get elsewhere as an Indian MMA fighter,
"They were asking for applications from around the world. My coach Mr Vishal Seigell helped me with everything. He and others at the gym helped me put together a video compilation to send with the application. They also helped me to get to Singapore for the trials."
Evolve MMA was established by Chatri Sityodtong, and it's home to several ONE and UFC fighters. Being a globally reputed academy, it attracted professional fighters from all over, including some touting impressive records compared to the 3-2 that Roshan could tout at the moment. But luckily for Roshan, they weren't just looking at records,
"They had a whole set of tests ready for us in Singapore. Some of it was about striking and grappling, but other tests were about finding out fitness and fighting spirit. Evolve didn't limit themselves to ready-made talent. They wanted to find athletes with potential for growth and great mental strength. One of the tests was a killer, we were asked to run up a hundred meter tall hill. It was so tiresome that I was on the edge of collapsing. But every time I thought my legs were going to give up, I thought of my family back home. I thought of the friends, coaches at the gym. All of them had big hopes on me. So I kept going. Soon I was coming across other athletes who had already collapsed. Some of them were way more fighting experience than me. When I saw them I thought, well, I'm at least doing better than them. The more people I got past, the more confident I felt and it was like I found this new source of energy that kept me going. I was one of those who completed the test and I think at that point they started keeping a close eye on me."
Ultimately, Roshan made the cut. Evolve took him on a 3 year contract worth 48,000 US dollars annually, the biggest deal of his career yet. He could train at one of the best academies in the continent, along with teaching wrestling there. He was also in line for fighting in ONE Championship, one of the biggest promotions in the world. His world, career path and life changed overnight.
For Roshan, it was vindication at long last for the road he had chosen and struggled hard to stay on,
"I could finally hold my head high and tell people with pride that I had made it as an athlete at the international level. My family initially wanted me to stick to wrestling and were worried about me being in a dangerous sport like MMA. But after I got into Evolve I could finally make them understand that this was a big deal, that I was making something out of my life."
For the better part of 2019, Roshan slowly got settled into his new life in Singapore. He was training harder than ever, now with special attention to advanced jiu-jiutsu and striking, with world class teammates and training partners. He also grew into his own as a teacher. Then, in November, a year after his trials to join Evolve, he finally got what he was waiting most eagerly for: a fight at ONE Championship. Once again, he managed to get a first round stoppage, forcing opponent Khon Sichan to tap to an Americana.
The fight, and the limited effort it took Roshan to register the win, signalled that he was going to be a force to reckon with in the ONE Flyweight (135 pounds) division. To establish himself as a contender, Roshan wanted to return to the cage as soon as possible,
"I am fresh, I want to fight again soon. In the next two months would be good... and when ONE Championship have their event in India, I defenitely would like to be up there."
But unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic soon manifested. The proposed ONE Championship event in India had to be postponed as ONE halted all shows with Singapore going under lockdown.
For Roshan, this was a major loss of momentum. Not only would he have to wait a long time for his next fight, his training routine was interrupted as well, as was his progress as an athlete.
At the same time, he was getting increasingly more popular back home. After his ONE Championship debut, he started getting more messages from MMA-crazy Manipuri fans. The video of him submitting Sichan then calmly making sure his opponent was okay went viral among local groups. It was increasingly becoming clear to Roshan that his next bout would be his most watched yet.
With the pressure of increased attention and a restricted life during the pandemic, Roshan found himself caught somewhat off guard when the next opportunity to showcase himself at the world stage arrived,
"I wasn't at my best. My cardio had suffered greatly due to the lockdown and my training wasn't back to the level it was before COVID-19 hit. I got to know about the fight just a couple of weeks before it happened, so it wasn't an ideal situation. But an opportunity is an opportunity, I wanted to get back on track."
When Roshan's seventh professional MMA fight - second at ONE Championship - was announced, it got a response from fans unlike any of his previous bouts,
"I started getting loads of replies and messages on social media from fans. Big clubs from Manipur like TRAU and NEROCA wished me best of luck, even the sports minister of the state sent me best wishes. My friends back home were telling me everyone was going to watch it. It made me kind of nervous. I was getting all this goodwill for the first time in my life. I felt if I lost this fight I'd lose it all."
And thus it was that on 9th October, a more-tense-than-usual Roshan found himself staring across the cage at Peng Shuai Liu - the champion of ONE Hefei Flyweight Tournament 2016 via two first round knockouts on the same night - who appeared to be projecting a strange animus towards him.
Liu opened the fight with leg kicks until Roshan almost caught one of them. The two exchanged strikes, with Liu swinging a spinning backfist that missed and Roshan landing a counter.
Liu was coming in with a 6-4 record, with 3 wins by knockout, 3 by submission. He was exactly the kind of opponent Roshan had been asking for; someone who could be competitive both on the ground and on the feet. Liu, too, seemed to be aware of Roshan's power and looked to stay out of range as the first round went on, investing in some leg kicks for appetizers. But Roshan, in the second minute, managed to close the distance, pin Liu to the cage and tripped him to the ground, landing on top.
Liu didn't pull guard. Instead he tried to drop elbows on the top of Roshan's head. Roshan tried hard to move past the barrage of strikes and land some ground-and-pound of his own. But Liu managed to jump back to his feet.
Roshan now had met strong retaliation both on his feet and on the canvas. He decided to press his case, charging forward with overhand rights as Liu tried to check him with leg kicks. Roshan got the clinch but Liu escaped it again. They continued exchanging on the feet; making Roshan expend a level of energy he hadn't had to use in the cage since his rematch with Kantharaj.
With just over a minute left in the round, Roshan managed to get a double leg takedown on Liu and landed a few hammerfists, avoiding Liu's sharp jabs and elbows as best as he could. Ultimately, though, Liu got back on his feet rather easily, and landed a powerful right hand on Roshan, setting it up with a front kick. Roshan finished the round with another takedown but as the bell went off he was visibly breathing hard with his mouth open. He offered to touch gloves in a sporting gesture. Liu ignored it and walked away.
Although he was undoubtedly the better wrestler, Roshan was finding it hard to keep up with Liu - who had an elaborate kickboxing background - in striking.
As he sat down on his stool at the corner, Roshan knew he couldn't let this fight go on much longer,
"We were both tired, and I'm sure he was under a lot of pressure as well. But I was thinking more about how much I had left in the gas tank. In the last fight I had maybe used 10% of my energy but this time I was already using 100% and reaching deep within myself to find the will to keep going. I wasn't as fit as I was before the pandemic, and I got worried it might cost me. I realised that no matter what, I had to finish him. Otherwise all the people wathcing back home, my family, my friends, my coach, my teammates, the fans... I felt they'd all be let down if I lost. I couldn't let that happen at any cost."
The area above Roshan's right eye, which had received a couple of jabs and elbows, was starting to blacken. With some ice rubbed on it to keep the swelling down (So that it didn't block his vision), Roshan got back up for the second round.
The two exchanged some heavy punches and kicks, each making its impact felt on the recipient. But Roshan was a man with a singular purpose. He bulldozed his way through Liu's punches, pushing him back with bombs with his power right hand that he made no attempt of camouflaging. Liu had to retreat but found himself pinned to the cage again, before getting out of that pinch with his stinging jabs.
Roshan retreated momentarily, which encouraged Liu to push ahead, shooting his leg kicks from range. But unbeknownst to him, this was Roshan laying down a trap.
One particular leg kick left Liu a bit too extended, and Roshan pounced for a double leg takedown before Liu had regained balande. Landing in guard, Roshan got himself comfortable on the top, sitting just beyond the point where Liu's hammerfists could do much damage. And when he saw the chance, he quickly moved forward, getting past Liu's legs and gaining full mount.
Now Roshan was in control. He dropped some hard ground-and-pound until Liu turned and gave up his back. Roshan slipped his hand around Liu's neck to set up a rear naked choke and sank it in with all his might. Liu tried hard to survive for a few seconds but had to give up. The referee stepped in as Liu tapped. The result was a submission victory for Roshan, two minutes and twenty-seven seconds into the second round.
A flood of relief and emotions ran through Roshan, as he lay on his back, catching his breath,
"I was squeezing with all my might. Usually I'm rather chill during a fight, I try to take care of my opponent in a way because I don't want to hurt someone needlessly. That's why in the previous fight I had stopped even before the referee stepped in and then made sure my opponent was okay. This time, though, all I was thinking was that I needed to make him submit, as though my life depended on it. I needed to end the fight right there."
And he had done it. He had gone to the edge of fatigue, and managed to turn it around to earn a spectacular victory. This fight, a microcosm of his own battles against adversity and personal demons, had seen him return from the age of abyss, triumphant.
The response that Roshan got from his second ONE victory was beyond anything he had imagined. Back in Manipur, fans, clubs, politicians... messages of congratulation poured in from all over. It became the number one sports story of the state, covered in detail by the media who were eager to cater to a fast growing MMA fanbase in the region.
Outside Manipur, however, it was still just a minor story, mentioned mostly in passing by traditional media. Roshan believed this to be a hurdle he and other Indian MMA fighters like Ritu Phogat still needed to cross for the sport to grow,
"I mean, you can see why MMA has gotten so big in countries like USA and Russia. There even their presidents regularly watch fights and talk about the sport. They highlight their fighters and turn them into national heroes. MMA in India maybe can't be as big as cricket but it can definitely become popular like football. For that, fighters need the kind of support that so many football clubs get in India. If the sports ministry pays more attention to MMA and helps the emerging athletes, that'll go a long way and make us feel what we're doing is worth it. In the end, that's what I and other Indian fighters at ONE Championship are fighting for; to grow the sport and pave the way for future athletes to make it at the world stage. Recently when the sports minister Mr Kiren Rijiju posed with an MMA t-shirt, I felt so happy. Such recognition for the sport motivates us."
Roshan was also aware of the significance his win over Liu carried at a time when memories of tension at the border between Indian and Chinese soldiers were still so fresh,
"I want to dedicate this win to the Indian Army, and the service they are doing for our country. I've been following the news, and taking on a Chinese opponent in a combat sport at a time like this was very meaningful for me. I wanted to pay tribute to our army through my performance."
As for his own quest for the One Championship Flyweight belt, Roshan felt he was on track with back to back wins, and wanted to take measured steps forward,
"I'm training hard to improve my cardio. There's no way I'm letting fatigue catch up to me like that next time I fight. All I want is to test myself against a good opponent, with full preparations. I hope I get to fight against soon... I don't want to call out a specific name right now, I'll do that when I have established myself as one of the top guys of the Flyweight division beyond any doubt. Right now, I need to put in the work, pay my dues in the cage. That's what I'm doing."
So it's back to the grind for Roshan, his routine regaining normalcy just like his place of work Singapore. But at the same time, he's keenly aware of the impact his efforts overseas are having in India, whether inspiring the next generation of MMA talent or motivating someone struggling with addiction or adversities to turn around and regain control over their lives, just as he has done, in and outside the cage.