ANSHUL JUBLI'S SENSATIONAL victory at UFC Vegas 68 in the 'Road to UFC' Lightweight tournament finale was a watershed moment for Indian MMA, and the community of fighters who are trying to prove themselves at the world stage.
This is the first time that an Indian citizen, a home grown fighter, has won a UFC developmental tournament and registered a victory on a UFC card. In the wake of Anshul's success, a floodgate of opportunities seems to be opening up for Indian MMA fighters; including an increased presence in the next edition of the 'Road to UFC' competition.
To get more insight into the significance of having an Indian fighter being a part of UFC's flagship division, TFG caught up with Somesh Kamra, the UFC's main talent scout in India, who played a major role in getting Anshul Jubli signed up for the 'Road to UFC' tournament.
Asked about the significance of such developmental tournaments as a proving ground for Indian MMA fighters, he said,
"When the 'Road to UFC' was conceptualised and top guys in the UFC had given me a call... my first question to them was, which countries are involved? Because typically what happens is that the Chinese MMA scene is still trackable, we can fight those guys. But some of these Japanese guys, they are at a whole new level. So they told me it's going to be Japan, China, Korea, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia... I was like it sounds excellent on paper but I do know that, our guys have the skill but they need to be polished. We don't want to have a Bharat Kandare kind of scenario where... Indian MMA doesn't have another setback."
Bharat Kandare was the first Indian citizen to fight in the UFC; and Somesh Kamra was the one to get him into the promotion. Bharat suffered a submission loss in the first round, following which he was suspended over a USADA doping violation. The UFC eventually released him from his contract.
Bharat Kandare's loss was a teachable moment for him, said Somesh Kamra,
"I learned a lot from Bharat Kandare's loss. Because the UFC's level is way up here and plugging somebody into that is somewhat unfair to the Indian fighter. They need to go to 'Road to UFC', maybe have a couple of fights there, then go into the main roster."
So when the 'Road to UFC' opportunity came about, Somesh cautiously proposed the names of two Indian fighters - Anshul Jubli and Roshan Mainam Luwang - for the Asia-based tournament,
"I said I can vouch for these guys... In Asia there are a lot of smaller fighters so he Bantamweights and Featherweights are chock-a-block... we had almost 30 good fighters to fit in... everybody was willing to get in and try a different division if necessary. We had one slot free in Featherweight and Roshan said he could be at that weight class also. But Featherweights in UFC on fight day are almost 160 pounds and Roshan is a natural Flyweight so I didn't want to take the risk... I didn't want to ruin his career. Shaun Shelby (UFC matchmaker) also said that the call is correct, we should not take him... it could be a setback for him as well as the country. So we said, let's go with Anshul Jubli. Pawan Maan was the other fighters in the mix but we saw how that turned out."
Although Roshan, who fought multiple bouts at ONE Championship, didn't make the cut, Mr Kamra said he remains one of the top picks for the next edition,
"He will absolutely make a big impact in the Road to UFC. When we were watching the fights in the UFC Apex I saw how the Flyweights were and I think Roshan Mainam will give them a tough fight. The good part this time around at 'Road to UFC' is that we have a 125 pound division as well... going up to Welterweight. So there will be more fighters and more 'Road to UFC' fights as part of UFC cards."
For now, though, he is happy to talk up Anshul Jubli's success in the competition,
"Anshul was the star of the show. He took it very carefully... he not only won his fights but also got a Performance of the Night bonus... we also got him signed with Paradigm for management. So it's an absolute ideal scenario... this can be a blueprint for all Indian fighters and say that we did it with him, so why can't we do it with you? You just need to listen to the people who are doing it... Anshul has broken all the barriers. He listened to his coach, he listened to me, he said whatever you guys tell me I'll do it, and honestly the results are in front of us... we have broken all the stereotypes that are associated with Indian fighters."
After Anshul Jubli's victory, even UFC President Dana White had words of encouragement over his performance,
"When we met backstage he said, good job with India, keep going."
With the next edition of 'Road to UFC's set to feature a higher number of weight classes across men's and women's divisions, Mr Kamra said that this developmental tournament is the one that every Indian fighter should aspire to be a part of if they want to make it in the biggest MMA promotion in the world,
"In the UFC hierarchy, the UFC is at the top, then comes the Contender Series, then comes 'Road to UFC' and somewhere in the offshoots there's The Ultimate Fighter. I personally think 'Road to UFC' the best entry point for any Indian fighter... in Contender Series the level of competition is so high that I would not want to put our guys there right now. Maybe in two or three years... the clear mandate given to me by the UFC top brass is, we need 5 or 6 Indian fighters competing in the UFC, Road to UFC or Contender Series... I had a two or three our conversation with them last week."
Asked how many Indian fighters other than Roshan were on his list for the next season, he said,
"The next edition of Road to UFC is happening from May or June. Even if we can plug in three or four Indian fighters I'll be happy. UFC told me, bring in the Indian guys, six, seven, whatever. But it would be unfair to put them in there just to fill up the roster. We need quality guys who will eventually win the tournament... I definitely have three or four names... I don't want to name them because they are still contracted to other promotions. I can only name Roshan Mainam because he is not under contract anywhere else. He's getting offers from everywhere but I told him to just wait and I told him coach, please have patience, I'll get him in next year. So there's some pressure on me also on that front."
Other than that, he is also looking to host regular fight cards with his own promotion, Superhuman Battleground, as a platform to build up the next generation of Indian MMA fighters,
"Superhuman Battleground is definitely coming back to life this year. We're looking at an April card. We took a bit of a breather because we had some gym expansions happening. We're launching in Gandhinagar, Gujarat soon in a couple of weeks... this year we will for sure have three or four fight nights."
And of course, there's a plan in place to build up Anshul Jubli's future fights in the right way, he said,
"Now we will focus on build Anshul as a marketable figure. He needs to be somebody who can walk the walk as well as talk the talk... his leg was quite back. As a fighter you want to get in there as quickly as possible, but this time the coaches will need to discuss and decide when is the right time. I do believe in two or three weeks he will be completely healed up and maybe I can have the conversation with him then. I'm pretty sure he's a little homesick. He flew from his training camp in Bali to Vegas, he will want to spend some time at home and take it from there."
Anshul's victory, he believes, is not only good for Indian MMA but for the popularity of UFC as well, pointing out the popular response the sport of MMA got over this result,
"India is a country like that. We have our own guy winning and it blows up to a different proportion altogether... my job is to keep up the heat up, I don't want the wave to die out. Part of my job is also to build Anshul as a character. I need him to be in the media, I need to speak, and I need to speak on his behalf also. MMA is a sport where you perform in front of the audience three times in a year, unlike cricket where you play a hundred matches per year.So you need to make an effort to keep the wave going. But honestly, so many supporters are celebrating. That night our phones blew up with hundreds of messages. It was very very encouraging. The community came together... this is what keeps me going."