VIKAS SINGH RUHIL WAS lying on his bed, staring up at the ceiling, musing on the impasse his athletic career had arrived at.
As an MMA fighter, he was 12-6-1 with 7 wins straight; an enviable record in Indian MMA. He was on a tear and getting called out by all the big names in the country. At Featherweight, he had the pick of the crop, and a chance to be a major star in the domestic circuit.
But he had other things on his mind. Since 2020, he had faced interruption after interruption in carrying forward his career. First it was the pandemic. Then he had to undergo surgery, which cost him more time. He was now approaching 30 and couldn't afford to waste his time sitting in the sidelines any more. Yet, he didn't want to jump at just any opportunity coming his way.
When his wife asked him what he was thinking, he told her he wanted to do something big. Something different from what he had done for the last decade up and down the Indian MMA circuit. He felt he was ready to make his mark at the internatonal level; that this was the time for him to test himself at the highest echelons of the sport.
And that's when his phone rang. On the other side, it was his manager Rahul Chhabra. He had news. The Professional Fighters League, one of the biggest MMA promotions in the world, wanted Vikas to compete at their Challengers Series.
The scene above almost plays out like the first 5 minutes of a Bollywood combat sports movie. But that's how exactly it went down for Vikas. Although, it wasn't exactly an instant gratification. He has been a professional MMA fighter since 2012; a major name among the batch of fighters who opened the door for the sport to take hold in India through SFL. It's been a long, hard road for him; but even now he sees his role as somebody who opens doors for other Indian fighters,
"PFL is a big company. Second best promotion in the world. It's not easy to make it here. And I'm the first Indian appearing in this series. So it's a very good platform... when I win, it will open the doors for several other Indian fighters."
Vikas comes from a wrestling and powerlifting background. His grandfather was a boxer and inspired him to take up combat sports. He was introduced to MMA by his good friend and fellow fighter Pawan Kumar Maan, who recently competed in Road to UFC.
Rahul Chhabra, the same person who helped Pawan enter UFC's developmental tournament, lobbied for the same opportunity for Vikas, but at PFL,
"I got a yes from PFL two days after Diwali... we started the paperwork, the contract happened... PFL made it very smooth for us, they appointed attorneys to get the visa for Vikas. And the visa process was smooth. We requested PFL if they could send us early tickets to USA so he could train at Marquez MMA Philadelphia and they did."
Vikas got the word about PFL's interest about six months ago, and immediately began training. It took 3 more months to get the signing done, but Vikas wasn't going to wait,
"Every athlete wants to reach their peak of potentials before retiring. I was going through a bad phase. I had a bunch of injuries. I was missing my camp."
Part of the reason for his eagerness was the fact that he was coming off a long layoff. Returning to action at a higher level, he admits, brings some added pressure,
"Whether you're fighting after two months or two years, nervousness is fine. Until you have some nervousness you wouldn't be able to achieve what you want. Overconfidence is of no use."
But PFL Challenger Series, he insists, is the ideal comeback platform for him, and his long time coach Jitendra Khare at Team Relentless tends to agree,
"Vikas is a 16 fight veteran. He's unbeaten in the last 7 fights... he has proven himself time and again. And at that stage, the experience also counts. He has handled the bright lights at SFL and MFN. Now this is a step up for him... I definitely see very good chances of him winning this fight and that's why we have taken it. We don't want to just fill a spot... we want to have that win and that first contract for an Indian in PFL."
Vikas, and the team around him, are leaving no stone unturned to make sure he has the best chance to defeat Igeu Kabesa (12-6) this week. To give him a chance to acclimatise, he has spent more than a month training at Marquez MMA in Philadelphia, which is home to multiple UFC and Bellator fighters. In the weeks before the fight, Jitendra Khare also flew out and joined him. Vikas explains the reason behind this move,
"I'm with Team Relentless for a long time. When you train with the same people for five-six years, you get to know the skill-sets, patterns of everybody and the training becomes a familiar exercise. The reason my coach told me to come here is that I'd be in a new gym, everyone will have a different, new pattern. I don't know anybody, I don't know how they train or fight, so training with them would be a completely new experience for me. Trying out new things is very important... it's been weeks, and I'm already observing changes within myself... coach here is very helpful. It doesn't matter if there are 30 people on the mat. He has an eye on everything and gives very precise advice... I had no problem adjusting with the team. The weather here is good too. I cook for myself, so that's sorted too. Those are the important things... I have never had so much fun in a training camp before. Not in India, not in Thailand, not anywhere. There are so many top wrestlers and strikers here from all over the world, it's a complete package."
Coach Jitendra also backs the decision to train in the USA for this fight,
"Vikas will be in the best shape of his life for this fight... he came to Team Relentless about four years back. He already had a very good record but he was eager to learn, there was no ego... he's training in Philadelphia now and he's been able to adjust there quickly as well."
What makes PFL Challenger Series different, however, is that a win doesn't guarantee a contract. Out of the four winners in a given fight card, only one is awarded a place in the main PFL tournament on the basis of audience and judges' polls. This means Vikas not only has to get the win over his opponent, but also stand out from the other winners to earn his spot in the main roster.
Asked whether this puts a pressure on him to get a flashy finish or do something extra risky that he wouldn't try in other fights, he is quick to disagree,
"There's no such thing as a pressure to finish. It's simple, you play your game. The focus is on winning. Then there's public voting, judges' voting... you can't worry about those. Firstly we need to have a good fight and win it. Then we'll see what happens."
Coach Jitendra, too, agrees with his star student,
"If you saw the Welterweights, there was one finish out of four but the contract went to a guy who actually had a decision win... what they're looking for is entertaining fights... so I don't think a burden of finish lies on him but he will have to give it his everything."
Asked to sum up his approach to the fight, Vikas said he wasn't looking at it any differently than his previous fights, and his only focus was to make sure he was well prepared,
"In the cage everyone has two arms and two legs. So you figure it out in there... watch the fight. You'll have fun watching it. I'll give my 200%. It's been a while since I fought but it's not like I've forgotten everything. I'm ready, seriously. Enjoy the fight."
Coach Jitendra also stressed on the need for Indian MMA fans to pay attention to this fight, believing this was a pivotal moment for India's presence at the world stage, similar to what some other emerging nations in MMA went through recently,
"I won't say that our guys can fight for the UFC or PFL belt tomorrow but we're definitely at the point where we can make a mark. And of course, it's an evolution. It's a growth cycle... who would have thought that New Zealand and Australia have so many world champions? Even when Robert Whittaker won the Ultimate Fighter, everyone knew he was good but nobody thought this was the future world champion. But he evolved in that atmosphere... it's not about getting there, it's about staying there and growing from there."
Get the latest in the world of Sports, Teams, and Players! Free Delivery to your Inbox.