ABOUT AN HOUR and fifty minutes into the Matrix Fight Night 8 event, when a middle-of-the card bout gets announced, the air in the jam-packed New Delhi venue suddenly changes.
It's not a fight that was put up on the billboards. It's not the main event, not even the co-main event. There's no big belt, or even a title contendership, on the line.
But as the familiar MFN walkout music fills the arena, the tension and anticipation in the ether becomes palpable.
The giant screen cuts to a shot in the tunnel that the fighters come out of. It lingers, as if in wait, as a figure slowly steps up.
Over his dark sports jacket and relaxed gloved hands, the figure wears a large muffler popular in Bihar - wrapped around his face, leaving only his eyes exposed. His appearance and demeanour is a throwback to old action movies where hooded dacoits gallop up to a running train on horseback.
The commentator, feeling the atmosphere, says, "Right now, if we don't say a word and stay silent, that would be enough. His vibe is that of a dangerous killer coming up to the cage."
As he faces the cage, he ceremoniously removes unveils his face and stares intently at his battleground.
It's been 9 years since he left his hometown of Sasaram, Bihar, to pursue a career in a sport called Mixed Martial Arts that no one seemed to have heard of.
It has taken him around the country and beyond. It has made him go door to door looking for a gym where he could pick up new skills. It has made him pursue multiple different sports to put together the puzzle of what it means to fight in a cage.
As the music reaches a final flourish, he walks barefoot towards the canvas that's already littered with drops of blood.
"I was a thin guy, very lean. I didn't have many friends and whatever friends I had, they were not into fighting... I didn't like to curse, my parents taught me to speak in a good manner, be respectful."
Shyamanand pauses to re-jig his memory, then continues,
"I was not very strong, but I had a fire inside me. I was rather weak but I took shit from no one. So I would get into fights... since I was a weak guy most of the time they would dominate me. It was not a lot but yeah... I always thought, if you want to live your life with respect, you need to be strong. That's how I perceived this world... it's not just about physical power, it's about money and a lot of other things."
A young MMA fighter with a 2-1 pro record does not usually turn heads, especially in a country like India where MMA, in general, is still a fringe sport, followed by a relatively small but enthusiastic core group of supporters.
But still, the sport today is nowhere near as obscure as it was in 2013, when Shyamanand, as a child, first laid his eyes upon it.
"I think most MMA fighters in India today used to watch WWE in their childhood and used to think it was real fighting... then they got to know it's scripted and all. That's how they got into MMA. I got into the sport the same way," recalls Shyamanand with a smile.
The time when Shyamanand got into MMA was the beginnings of the Conor McGregor era. One of the biggest fights of 2013 was the between UFC Light Heavyweight champion Jon Jones and Chael Sonnen, a fight built almost entirely on trash talk. And the year ended with a body horror bout between Chris Weidman and Anderson Silva, which imprinted in viewers' minds the chilling visuals of Silva's leg snapping after a kick and flailing like rubber.
The sport taught Shyamanand early on, to be successful in MMA, he needed extraordinary gift, along with a gift of gab and a personality that fans found compelling.
After passing matriculation, Shyamanand was facing a hard choice. If he wanted to make it in the sport of MMA, he would have to start pursuing it seriously. Which would mean prioritising his training over his studies.
Although he was determined to chase his dreams, his family was not too happy about it,
"I was good in studies, I used to top my section. So I guess my family wanted me to become an engineer or doctor. When I said I wanted to go into sports, they thought, yeah, every child in India wants to be a cricketer, especially at that time... after 10th when I said I was going to do this, they were very angry. I said, very frankly, I will do this or I will leave the house. But they loved me so though they were angry they could not do anything."
Coming from a business family and having engineer siblings, the pressure was palpable but Shyamanand stuck to his guns. Eventually, his family agreed. And he, still in his mid-teens, left his hometown for Patna.
Instead of science or commerce, as was expected from him, he chose arts; because he believed it would take less of his time. Later, he would get into a college in Patna and often bunked classes to train.
"I didn't have a back up plan," he says. "It was going to be MMA for me."
But the problem was, there was no one to tell him how to go about learning MMA.
"I did my online research. There was no one to guide me... in Bihar, people don't go into sports and all. It's all about the studies," Shyamanand recalls. "I found out in order to be good at MMA, you need to do different forms of fighting. I found out what was available in Patna; boxing was there, Wushu was a little bit available, and wrestling was available. So I started training here and there."
He found a local Wushu dojo where he could train once or twice a week. He also got a chance to train in boxing and wrestling at the Bihar Military Police facilities; where they only trained seriously when notable competitions were coming up, but Shyamanand was glad to take what he could,
"I was really motivated. I knew that if I fail, there's nothing. Because I was not studying hard enough like other people... there was no one to guide me. Whatever I was getting, I was trying to make good use of it."
He would wake up at 3:30 or 4 am and go for a run. He would train twice a day, wherever I could, and put in hours at the gym.
"I had seen some movies and I had a rough idea. I knew it was going to be a tough life," Shyamanand says. "But I had no idea what recovery was. All I knew was that I had to work out eight hours a day and that's how I was gonna be successful."
Eventually, he got a chance to train with state level Wushu players at SAI Patna. But he did not identify with their usual attitude of using the sport just for landing a government job. Instead, he wanted to experience real combat, to build up towards his actual goal: MMA.
And he got his first taste of battle soon, at an inter-college boxing tournament. Almost entirely inexperienced, he was put in the ring against a multiple time state champion.
It went as well as one would expect.
"I got literally smashed... I don't know if I broke something inside my nose or not but it bothered me for a while. I would cough, and there would be blood. Even after a month, blood would come out sometimes. I didn't go to any doctor though," says Shyamanand, with a hearty laugh. "But I actually felt what vit is to fight, what the rush of fighting is like... I thought, this is the real thing. This is what I have to do."
All this time, he was spending his days chasing what may well have been a mythical creature. The people he trained with did not appreciate MMA that much. At least they did not think a career in it was realistic in India.
Shyamanand, however, remembers the one exception among them, "His name was Sagar Singh Rathore. He was a trainer at my gym. He was the first to recognise there was something in me and he encouraged me a lot. He has passed away now, but I still appreciate him a lot."
But at one point, he hit a ceiling. To get somewhere in MMA, he would have to find a place where he could receive actual training.
So in 2015, he left Patna. He went to Delhi, looking around for a place to train. He found good boxing gyms and wrestling akhadas in Haryana but none that suited what he wanted. After a month, he travelled to Mumbai and Pune, hopping from one gym to another, "By then I had a little bit of experience in training, so I could see the way they trained and tell if they are serious or not."
Eventually, he ended up in Bengaluru. And it was there, in Indian Combat Sports Academy, where he found his home.
"I had two big moments in the lead up to my MMA career," says Shyamanand. "My first boxing bout, and finding ICSA and our coach Jitesh Banjan."
For the first time, after years of looking for a structured guidance for his MMA career wherever he could, Shyamanand had everything he was looking for. Encouraged, he eased into the new life at ICSA - of hard training twice a day with weights, sparring and grappling - without much difficulty, "It was not all that difficult for me because I was already doing it, just not in a technical way. I was enjoying it, actually. But in the beginning I had to mix things up a little. Like, my strength and conditioning programme and MMA training was a bit difficult to manage... overall I was enjoying training and learning."
His grappling game improved rapidly, with regular Jiu Jiutsu training. But what helped more than anything else was the chance to spar with high level MMA fighters, and guidance from a veteran coach in Jitesh Banjan.
Shyamanand would, within a few years, go on to win a national no gi championship and a silver medal in the Asian Games qualifiers, where he lost the final from advantage. He also had some amateur kickboxing bouts, and competed in the Wushu nationals.
But his first big step towards a career in MMA came in 2017 when he fought his first amateur bout in YFC.
It was a trial by fire. His opponent, way more experienced, found some success with his wrestling early on but soon Shyamanand managed to turn things around with his superior striking. He even got his opponent down to the ground, but during a flurry, he got hit in the nose, and started bleeding profusely.
The nose, which had already sustained a big injury during his first amateur boxing bout, for which he had not sought medical treatment, was leaking so badly that the referee brought in a doctor. The doctor was unable to stop the bleeding.
In a social media post shortly after the bout, Shyamanand described how he felt, "I got scared that he would stop the fight which I was dominating but then he asked if i want to fight or not? As a fighter, it was very easy for me to say, "Yes, I want to fight." Along with me, my guardians, my mentors Jitesh Banjan sir and Vighnesh Nathan sir told that I'm gonna continue the fight and this was all [that] I needed, the people who believe in me and stand side by side in my crucial times."
He won the fight by unanimous decision.
Shyamanand recalls the moment of exhileration when his hand was raised, "Someone who is interested in MMA, mostly they love the blood and all. I think most of the MMA fighters, they love the bloody fights. That's real fighting for them. So even I used to imagine, the fight will be like this, like that, blood and all. That was my first MMA fight, and I enjoyed it. It was my debut fight but my opponent was very much experienced. He had some record of six wins and three losses if I am not wrong."
More than the three rounds of valuable experience, the bout remained as a testament that he could fight on under pressure, with injury, and find victory; a perfect encapsulation of his journey in the sport so far.
In August 2018, Shyamanand got a new responsibility at the ICSA; he started teaching some classes there. He would also take on a role in HR and sales.
It was an important step-up that he took seriously. It would mean his life would get more hectic; his schedule would no longer revolve around just training himself. He had to make time for others.
But there were positives to the experience, he found, "Whatever I am teaching, I'm teaching from my experience. But when you teach, you get to know more about the techniques you teach... like you get different questions, they do different mistakes. And you correct it so you know the moves in depth rather than when you only do them for yourself."
The added benefit, of course, was financial independence from his family, who were still hoping he would leave the sport and go back to Sasaram. Shyamanand chuckles as he says, "It's been 9 years, but still they say, okay, how long will you fight, how long will you roam here and there. Come back home and do business. But finacially they never left my hand. Even when they were scolding me and telling me to come back home, they financially supported me. But of course I started working and became financially independent in August 2018. It was my dream, they did not understand it though they did their part, so I didn't want to take any more money from them."
But what he wanted more than anything else was more combat experience. He wanted to get some more amateur MMA bouts before he jumped into the professional circuit, but it just wasn't forthcoming.
So, after waiting around for a while for an opportunity to pop up, he decided to jump into pro MMA.
His first fight came in February 2020, at Matrix Fight Night 4. His opponent Sanjeet Budhwar was an upcoming star among Indian Featherweight, with a 3-1 record to his name at the time.
Just like his amateur debut, his pro debut was also going to be a trial by fire.
Although Shyamanand started well, he would get knocked down, and get hit with some heavy ground-and-pound until the referee decided he had seen enough.
His pro MMA debut ended in a first round TKO loss.
The fight, and the regret that came with the loss, still plays on his mind, Shyamanand admits, "If you see the fight, I got rocked and everything but I did not give up there. Somewhere I feel if the fight had continued I would have gone back to my corner and I would have gone on. I would have brawled. F*** everything, let's brawl. But anyway the fight was finished in the first round... in three-four places I made mistakes in the fight and I paid for it."
The preparations for the fight, too, were far from ideal, Shyamanand reveals, "After 2019 I could not find a fight, even kickboxing or jiu jutsu. So I had to directly get into the professional circuit. I tried other organisations, I called out whoever there is in India, not on social media but with matchmakers. I didn't get any opportunity. Then suddenly, I got an opportunity at MFN... so there was a bit of a rush, you could say... I was training regularly, but the method was a little bit wrong, and my mindset was a bit wrong too. It was not as fierce as it is now... I could not implement the game plan... one more I will mention, of course people will say it's an excuse... I got my rib injured in the end of the camp. It wsa one week or ten days before the fight. That was at the back of my head, but of course that would be an excuse because we knew I'm very good in striking, grappling and wrestling, there's no hole there. That's why we took the fight, didn't back out."
The loss weighed heavy on him and Shyamanand does not deny that. He talks about the dark place he went into because of it, and the desire for getting back at Sanjeet Budhwar that overtook him, "It was really bad I'd say. Because I knew my capability. I got an opportunity to prove myself in front of everyone. Even though I knew what I could do, I couldn't do it and I failed. So I'll say I was really devastated from that loss... I almost went into a depresssion phase. But it was not a depresssion like, oh I want to leave this sport, I can't do this anymore and all. It was more about revenge for me."
But although he wanted to get back in the cage immediately, something else put a big wrench in his plans: the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It was God's grace that I did not get back to fighting immediately," he says. "That loss was necessary for me... it was a boon for me. And even this corona was a boon for me. A lot of things I changed, I figured out, just because I lost and just because I got time during corona."
Shyamanand would have to carry the burning disappointment of his loss for two whole years before he would get to fight again. But meanwhile, as the world shut down due to the pandemic, he found himself in a bit of a lucky situation.
He shared a flat with his teammate Prashant, so he could train with him regularly on the terrace even though the gym was closed. And fortunately, ICSA head coach Jitesh Banjan also lived in the same building.
Soon, they had brought over some mats from the gym and under the watchful eyes of their coach, they were running a de facto training camp on their building's terrace. Soon, other people in the building also joined in, and a makeshift community developed. Shyamanand could practice, train and teach the newcomers, maintaining a version of his normal life. And he could keep his mind occupied on the tasks in front of him, instead of thinking about the loss he was yet to bounce back from.
A chance to fight again finally came in February 2021, at MFN's 7th event. His opponent was another rising Featherweight prospect, with a 4-0 undefeated pro record in other promotions.
Shyamanand laughs as he recalls the elaborate build-up to the clash, "He spoke a lot of shit. I knew it was not his words, someone wrote it for him. But it was a lot. He even talked about my loss. I knew very well he was doing all this to get into MFN. He wanted to get in very badly... he started calling me out. Originally our fight was scheduled for MFN 5 or 6 but the event got postponed due to corona. And then our fight was removed from the card... my whole intention was to fight, it did not matter who. So I started calling out other fighters. And he started telling me, you are supposed to fight me, now why are you backing out and all. I told him I was not backing out. Then he started calling me out, posting a lot of shit. He was commenting and putting up screenshots... and that really motivated me. I was already motivated, I wanted to get back in the cage. But now I was motivated even more to beat him."
When they finally met in the cage, Shyamanand came out swinging. Within the first 10 seconds, he had drawn Abhishek into a brawl, dropped him and pinned him to the cage. He got a takedown, dropped some vicious elbows from the top, which opened up a cut in Abhishek's face.
It was just the kind of bloody battle Shyamanand was looking for.
Abhishek managed to survive, trying to hold Shyamanand in his guard. Eventually, Shyamanand allowed him to get back up. But the moment the fight got back on the feet, Shyamanand overwhelmed a profusely bleeding Abhishek with punches, picked him up and slammed him to the canvas. At this point, Abhishek was bleeding so much, the referee had to stop the action and call in the doctor to check on his cut.
The second round went exactly the same way. Shyamanand opened up with overwhelming strikes, got a takedown and kept pounding on him until the referee stepped in again.
Abhishek protested saying he was going for a leglock when the fight was stopped. But the one sided barrage from Shyamanand had proven too much to let the bout go on. Shyamanand had got his first pro MMA win, by TKO in the second round.
Shyamanand recalls what went down during the fight, "I did everything on auto pilot. I went in there and smashed him. There was nothing planned about it. It was just a fight. I did my training very well, and executed a game plan, of course, but it felt like I was on auto pilot mode.. now when I see the video, I feel a little bit bad for him. I can see he was really helpless. Even during the fight, when he was near the cage, I saw his eyes and he was really not there, you know... usually I have a style that when I beat them up I talk with them. But he wasn't all there so I didn't."
After the win, he took the mic and cut a promo on the whole division, "Everyone f*** on the MFN roster or anywhere... one by one, I'm gonna take their head out. First fight, I directly chose one of the top prospects. Shit happened. But I'm gonna again climb the ladder. I'll take everyone's head out."
He would be back on the hunt in less than four months.
The popularity boost that Shyamanand received from his win prompted MFN to immediately get him back in action. At the very next event, he was booked to face another undefeated fighter, Krishna Heer who had a 1-0 record.
The match, once again, was made on social media, with Heer calling out Shyamanand, and the latter accepting the challenge.
Shyamanand, talking about why he chose to fight Heer, says, "I really love it... when someone talks shit about me, that's who I want to fight. I don't want to fight good guys. I won't enjoy beating them. So if someone calls me out, well and good. This message should go to everyone. If you want to get called out, people need to talk shit about me. And I would love it. I am their path to MFN. If someone wants to get into MFN, they can call me out, hype the fight enough. And of course if they deserve it I will respond and we will do it."
As the event neared, the buzz around this fight grew more intense, making it one of the most anticipate bouts on the card; even though a number of more senior fighters were a part of the event.
The online Indian MMA fandom was split on who would win, but a slight majority believed it would be Shyamanand's night. And when Shyamanand came out with the muffler around his face, embodying a fearsome dacoit, there was little doubt left in the arena.
The Bihari Brawler was going to hunt his prey again.
As the fight began, Shyamanand marched his opponent down. He landed a kick on the stomach, pinned him to the cage, swung hard and hurt him in a close range exchange. He took Krishna down, cut him open with elbows and as blood drops rained on the canvas, carried on with some hellish ground-and-pound. He softened him up with a couple of hammerfists and began pummeling with the left elbow until Krishna covered up, and referee Daniel Isaac felt compelled to stop the fight.
A first round TKO, as dominant as a performance could be. The crowd went wild as Shyamanand acknowledged them from the top of the cage.
Matrix Fight Night's Featherweight division had just found a new major contender.
After the fight, Shyamanand decided it was time to finally issue a direct call-out to his old rival, the object of his revenge quest, Sanjeet Budhwar.
The time for the rematch has arrived, claims Shyamanand, "I am always focused on Sanjeet Budhwar. There's not a moment when I have removed my eyes from Sanjeet Budhwar. But I cannot wait for that guy. If he is not going to fight me, what can I do?... He did what he had to do in the first fight, so anyway... I did my callout very truthfully, saying he needs to fight me... see, I'm not going to talk shit about him unless he goes first. But if he thinks he is better than me and better than anyone else out there, he needs to run it back.
"I'm not going to forget it. I won't let go of it. Unless he comes out and publicly says he doesn't want to fight me. Then fine, f*** it, I'll move on," Shyamanand adds. "Look at my recent fights. Everyone knows who I am, what I am capable of. If they don't accept it, I don't have a problem. I love proving myself. I'll keep doing it again and again till by last breath. I love it."
As a young fighter who has a long term contract with MFN, Shyamanand believes the best course of action for him is to stay busy, whether Sanjeet Budhwar accepts his challenge or not, "Right now I want to fight a lot. Of course, everyone wants to hold the belt but for me right now I just want to fight. Small fight, big fight, world title fight I don't care. I just want to fight."
And thanks to his childhood fascination with WWE and the influence of the McGregor era, he believes making fights entertaining is important for his career, "I know I'm one of the most entertaining fighters in the country. I don't need to say it, people are saying that. So I want to entertain people, that's it... I want people to watch the fight and I them to enjoy the fight, that's my goal. Whether they watch MMA or not, they should watch my fight and say, they have come to watch my fight. Whatever they want, they want blood, they want callouts, they want trash talking, whatever they want I will give them."
The MFN, too, are pleased with the effort he has put in, Shyamanand says, "They are happy with what I'm doing and they're expecting more of it, I'll say. But just two matches have happened... they want to see me over five-six fights how I'm doing. But they are definitely supporting me. The whole MFN team, Alan sir, Ayesha Shroff ma'am, Krishna Shroff ma'am... I am thankful to them for supporting me and giving me the opportunity. All I want to do is repay them. I want to give them entertaining fights. Even if it's the undercard I don't mind."
With the promotion gearing up for the MFN 9 event, it appears they have one more fighter in their hands who has the potential to stand out from the rest, build a following and carve out his own place in the Indian MMA landscape.
Whether they choose to build him up by fresh exciting matches, or by allowing Shyamanand to pursue his path towards revenge, remains to be seen.
But the Indian MMA fans, no doubt, can't wait for the next time the camera turns to a semi-dark hallway, and a muffler-clad killer slowly walks up through the tunnel.