THE UFC IS stepping heavily into the Asian market with its new 'Road to UFC' series, and Indian fighters are going to feature heavily in it.
Barring unexpected delays, three Indian Mixed Martial Artists will be in the fray to earn a UFC contract, taking on the best of rising talent from the continent.
Among the fighters in question, two are finalised. They are Roshan Mainam Luwang (6-3) at Bantamweight and Anshul Jubli (5-0) at Lightweight.
As for the third fighter, Pawan Singh Maan (7-2-1), discussions are still ongoing, but Somesh kamra, co-founder of the Superhuman Gym and the man who led UFC's search for talent in India, believes there's a good chance that he will be selected as well.
Speaking exclusively to TFG, Mr Kamra revealed that plans for bringing Indian fighters into UFC's latest talent development platform had been ongoing for months,
"When I spoke to you in October last year, I think we were discussing what's the plan for 2022. I knew we were going to something with the UFC this year... because I had an idea that it could be on the lines of Dana White's Contender Series or The Ultimate Fighter or something in those lines... I'm really happy that the Road to UFC happened. We were in the conceptualizing phase in January this year. But I couldn't speak about it... finally it's out there. We have our Indian fighters in the Road to UFC."
Somesh Kamra, who also runs his own MMA promotion called Superhuman Battleground, has been working with UFC since their early days in Asia. Under his management Bharat Kandare became the first Indian citizen to fight at the UFC. Speaking about 'Road to UFC', he revealed that the program would return next year as well. He further explained,
"We have four weight classes. Flyweight, Bantamweight, Featherweight and Lightweight. We are looking to do the fights from June till December this year. The fights are going to be a part of existing UFC cards... what I've been told is that they are going to be a part of the pre-prelims... the winner of each weight category is going to get a contract with the UFC."
Asked whether the fights would be available for fans to watch on TV, he said,
"I'm getting into a call with Sony. I do know that when Bharat was there the prelims were broadcast in India. I'm hoping that we will brodacast the Indian fighters' fights in India."
The fighters, Mr Kamra revealed, had been picked after careful consideration of a wide number of candidates,
"The reason why I have selected them is, one, they are clean athletes. I know they don't have any issues with performance enhancers. Second, they are young fighters who are more efficient at getting on and progress in the tournament. Roshan, I think, is 23 or 24 years old. Anshul is 27 or 28. If we have these guys progressing, I know I can push them and I can promote them. And we can have a possible UFC contract for 5-6 years."
His emphasis on the fighters being "clean" comes after some rough experiences with UFC's strict anti-PED regimen run by USADA (United States Anti Doping Agency) Bharat Kandare testing positive for Boldenone undecylenate, facing a 2 year suspension, and subsequently being cut by the UFC. The first Indian fighter in the UFC testing positive was not good for Indian MMA, and Kamra's efforts seem to be to make sure that never happens again.
Anshul Jubli remains one of the top rising prospects in the Indian MMA scene, with an undefeated record that came in back to back Matrix Fight Night events. His latest victory came back in September when he submitted his Iranian opponent Mohammad Mahmoudian.
Roshan Mainam Luwang, meanwhile, made waves at the international level during his stint at ONE Championship. Building off a strong wrestling background, he earned 3 victories over some highly rated opponents in ONE, all of them coming via submission. His last fight with the promotion was against Gary Mangat, where he stepped in on a very, very short notice. He was still competitive in the fight where he lost via unanimous decision. His stint with ONE Championship came to an end after that.
Pawan Singh Maan, too, is on a two fight win stream, both in MFN against big names like Jason Ramesh Solomon and Sandeep Kumar Dahiya.
He also famously handed Rajinder Singh Meena his first pro MMA loss via Kimura back in the Super Fight League days. His record and current form places him among the top talents in the country.
Mr Kamra said that many Indian fighters were unhappy over not being selected for 'Road to UFC', and explained why these three were picked over everyone else,
"The moment this news started coming out, I got almost two hundred and fifty phone calls from various fighters. Each of them felt that they deserved the shot and to be really honest, all the fighters are very legit fighters. Good fighters, you know. But what I tried explaining to them is that, because we have already been there, I've worked with the UFC to develop the India market, you know, the fighters need to start trusting my call. You see, what happens is, the tougher part of the job is staying in the UFC. I just tell these guys that you need to up your game, be clean athletes and get ready. Because even though I could work with them, I know for a fact that they weren't gonna be getting these two month notices before a fight. The UFC could just call me and on fifteen days' notice there would be a fight. I just tell these guys, just be active. Fight amateur fights, professional fights, just be active. The opportunity is there and the call could come any time. And when I got this opportunity in fact you'd be quite surprised, a lot of people from my gym were known by the UFC... I told them these guys in their 30s did not have much time left with them... we can't make a superstar out of somebody who is in the latter half of his career. I rejected those guys. I in fact picked two people who were not a part of my club who I felt had the capability... I'm extremely happy that the UFC also thought these two athletes are capable and they are of UFC calibre."
The UFC has been eyeing the Indian market for a few years now, with the promotion's president Dana White mentioning India on multiple occasions as one of the countries he would like to break into. Mr Kamra said 'Road to UFC' would be a first step towards making that happen, but it would still be a while before the UFC made bigger commitments, like holding events in India,
"According to me we need to develop 5-6 fighters that could be on the card for the UFC to come to India. I hope... again, I said this in your interview in October 2021, that I hope the Indian fighters up their game and take this more seriously because... I know what's up... the market, the fighters and the coaches need to start trusting my judgement on this."
Asked how domestic MMA promotions, including his own, could play a role in helping fighters get prepared for global promotions like UFC, he said,
"At Superhuman Battleground the aim is clear, we are looking to groom amateur talent. But for the Road to UFC and these particular opportunities, to get to any of these I personally suggest the fighters to look at professional fight nights like an MFN or something on similar lines before they can be considered for the UFC. My aim is to get the amateur circuit activated. But for the UFC, the UFC will need to see a professional record."
And by professional record, he said he didn't mean just a number,
"One of my discussions with Sean Shelby was that a lot of fighters in Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Korea, you know, have a lot of fights to their name. It could be 20-2, however these are very very small promotions and the opponents are kind of not up to the mark for what we look at. So to be really honest, it's not about how many wins or losses you have. It's about who you have beaten, how you have beaten et cetera."
The best case scenario, according to Somesh Kamra, is that 'Road to UFC' will let rising and aspiring MMA fighters across the country that their performance is being noticed by people at the very top of the game, and if they prove their ability to perform consistently at a high level, the prospects of a call-up from the biggest MMA promotion in the world is no longer a remote possibility.