THE CITY OF Las Vegas never slept, and neither, it seemed, could Anshul Jubli.
Just days ahead of the biggest fight of his life, which would determine the trajectory of his MMA career, the wide-eyed boy from Uttarkashi, Uttarakhand, sat up late at night in his hotel room, eyes red from sleeplessness.
He was facing Jeka Saragih, a much more experienced fighter from Indonesia who had never been knocked out in the cage. And although months of preparation with his coaches and training partners had chalked up a path to out-strategize him, it was all on the verge of being upended by an invisible enemy called jet lag.
Recalling those days now, Anshul finds some humour in it,
"The time zone is completely different there, some 12-13 hours behind India. So the jet lag bothered me a lot. We had gone about 10 days ahead; I thought we should go a bit early so that I could recover from the jet lag and get back my cardio. When I got there, I could not sleep at night for four days straight... the nights and days had reversed for me. During the day we had all the interviews and photoshoots, and I looked like a vampire in all of them."
Every crisis, he says, leaves you with a lesson. This one taught him that the next time he fights halfway across the world, he needs to get there a month ahead.
As he powered through lack of sleep and a tough weight cut, Anshul found motivation in what this fight meant; not just for him, but for every Mixed Martial Artists in India. Only one other Indian citizen had even fought in the UFC before him - Bharat Kandare - and that too just once, resulting in a quick loss. If he, as an undefeated Lightweight, made it into the world's biggest MMA promotion, it would be the biggest thing in the history of the sport in India.
The journey had taken a lot from him, both on and off the cage. He recalls,
"Around three years ago I started dreaming about representing India in the UFC. Before that I didn't even think about the UFC. I just wanted to become a good fighter. When I came to Delhi, all I wanted was to have one professional fight. When I fought in MFN and did well, only then I felt that I have the potential to represent India in the UFC. But no one really belived India would have somebody in the UFC. They all said it would take another 10 years. So I did a lot of research, to find out what I have to do to get to the UFC within 2-3 years. I found out that you have to be able to talk, you must be able to do well in interviews. But 2-3 years ago whenever there was an interview, my palms would get sweaty. I would fumble my words, get very scared. On top of that I'd have to be fluent in English because there would be intenational media. So I decided to get good in it. Slowly I read some books, people told me to watch shows so I did that... I didn't just work on my skills, I tried to become the full package. If you told me I had to sing, I'd learn that too. I am ready to do everything that is expected from a world champion."
But little did he know that this fight would test his resolve to do anything for his craft in a whole new way.
After many days of dealing with the jet lag, Anshul developed a severe bout of cough. So much so that just before walking out for the fight, he was doubling up backstage, coughing uncontrollably, completely out of breath. Despite every effort to manage the situation, he was doomed to go into the fight with a diminished health.
What kept him going through during the tribulations, other than a dogged determination, was the world class facilities he received at the UFC Performance Institute. Talking about his first ever experience of training there, Anshul can't praise it enough,
"You have everything you need for recovery. From ice bath to sauna to everything. They have world class physiotherapists over there. The physio alotted to me was with the American boxing Olympic team in the past. So the absolute best of the best doctors and physios take care of you over there. This was a very new experience for me. And the fighters you see on TV, you get to train with them and share a locker room... in one of my physiotherapy sessions I was in the bed between Branndon Moreno and Aljamain Sterling. Two reigning champions on either side. It made me think, these guys have already achieved what I am only dreaming and chasing so hard. It felt good t meet them, it was amazing. I can say that the fight week in Vegas was the best of my life so far... the weight cut was not a problem despite everything. Because we did it very methodically. UFC was also handling my weight cut. The moment I reached they took charge of my meal programme and the dieticians were also helping me."
Anshul's opponent Jeka Saragih was coming in with 13 wins to his name. Six of those came by KO/TKO and four were via submission. He was facing a complete fighter, unlike most of his opponents that came before. So, the strategy this time was slightly different from his previous bout where he outscored Kyung Pyo Kim,
"As you move ahead in your career and go from camp to camp, you start realising the mistakes you made in the previous camps. This time I allowed my injuries to recover a bit. I had a knee injury so for the first month I did not do any grappling... we didn't do anything different per se, but for the first time we had a game plan that had striking and grappling in equal measures; although you saw more of the grappling in the fight... in the previous fight we had planned on takedown defence and striking only."
But a strategy like that would require an extraordinary amount of cardio, and this was something his ill-health was threatening to rob him of.
It was with a lot of uncertainty that he lined up for his walkout. And that's when the sound system at the UFC Apex started playing his music of choice: Piyush Mishra's 'Aarambh Hai Prachand.'
Anshul received a sudden shot of energy,
"Oh my God, what a song it is. It gives you goosebumps. When you hear every line, and perceive the meaning... I don't think there's a better war song in the Hindi language... it says, the one who is ready to give life and take life, that's the real warrior... whenever I listen to it I become war-ready. I don't listen to it all the time, no. Never at home. But in the gym, or before sparring, or before a fight I listen to the song. It motivates me to understand that I'm going out to the cage, I have chosen this violence... you can call it a sport all you want, at the end of the day it's a fight. You have to get in a cage and fight, man to man. So you need motivation like this. So it will remain my walkout song until I find another song that motivates me like this."
By the time he walked out towards the cage, there was not a hint of weakness in him. All the coughing, the jet lag, the fatigue, the breathlessness... he didn't let any of it show.
Walking towards the Octagon, what surprised Anshul was how loud the place was,
"The thing about the UFC Apex is that you never feel like you're not in a big arena. The music, the people... the stadium has a capacity of 200 or 300 but it's always full. They make a lot of noise, it gives you a good feeling... gives you a surreal feeling. There's so many moments that I still can't believe were real. But I believe I am made for this. If somebody was meant to go to places like these and experience these things, it had to be me. Because if not me, who?"
The fight got off to a cautious start. Both fighters showed intent on going for the big shots. But soon, something surprising began to occur. Anshul could read his opponent's movements a bit too easily.
Asked what was going through his head during the fight, the disbelief still comes through in his voice,
"What felt strange to me was that he was throwing everything with full power and I could see it coming. When you're in a fight you try to fake, and make sure your movement isn't seen. But he was throwing everything very obviously. Since you don't see people being so obvious, it felt a bit weird to me. It took me a while to adjust because, what was he doing? Once I adjusted it was all right."
When the two fighters walked off to their corners after the first round, Jeka looked exhausted and Anshul was full of energy. Looking at them, you'd think that it was Jeka who was coughing himself breathless before the fight, not Anshul.
In the second round, a tactical error by Jeka allowed Anshul to take him down and hit him with a barrage of ground-and-pound from the top. That was it. The fight was over. Anshul had won by TKO, and Jeka had been stopped by strikes for the first time in his MMA career.
Anshul describes how it went,
"His ground game was quite good. He was very technical. It took me a lot of time to finish him in the second round. I believe I have one of the best top games in the MMA world. I have trained with some really good fighters, who are champions in BRAVE and UAE Warriors, ex UFC and UFC fighters. I can confidently say that if I am on top my game is very strong... but the way he defended, it was very technical and surprised me a little bit. But I was always a step ahead... the game plan was to strike and when he wouldn't expect it, go for the takedown. But my job of closing the distance was done by Jeka himself. The way he was throwing everything with full power... my job was to close the distance and he helped me with that."
When he had his hand raised, it all seemed like a dream to Anshul. What he had just realised wasn't just his own dream but that of everyone in Indian MMA. Even now, as he talks through his thoughts immediately after the win, and his experience of being congratulated by UFC President Dana White, he stresses on the significance it all held for all Indian fighters to be represented in the biggest MMA promotion in the world, not just himself,
"When I finished the fight, when we won... I was very numb but I felt like, out of this world. Now when I'm recalling that moment I'm still feeling like it's a dream. Like, is it true?... You always dream of things like this but in the back of the head you're like, will it be fulfilled or not, you know? You always have a doubt. And more than you, people have a doubt. They even tell you they have doubt. So, it was amazing... you can say that we have started something, and now we have to work really hard. We have a long way to go still but we have seen the path now... after the fight before we went to the medical room a crew took me to a room to meet Dana White. He asked me for an autograph and I refused (laughs)... he said to me, 'welcome to UFC' and I really liked that. I mean the person who owns this company is recognising an Indian MMA athlete. That means we are on the right path."
Unfortunately, he didn't get to enjoy the high of winning the fight for very long. The health problems that he had managed to overcome ahead of the fight, re-manifested with renewed vigour in the form of a high fever that, he discloses for the first time, could have been COVID-19,
"I have not told this to anyone. After the fight when I came down with fever, it was about 102 degrees. So I met the doctor. I told him I had cough before the fight. So he told me I probably had COVID. I told him that can't be because I had no fever before the fight. He said yeah it's a bit weird because all the symptoms like cough indicate it's likely COVID. So I don't know which divine power determined that I should not have any fever... but I had a lot of cough. I was coughing so hard I could not sleep on the night before the fight. Even backstage while warming up I had problems... I'm not saying this because I want any pity, it's very common. Every fighter has to deal with something or the other before a fight."
So, it's fair to say that Anshul defeated two opponents on that night; Jeka Saragih and COVID-19.
That he had achieved something extraordinary finally sank in when he returned to India. Usually, after a fight, he likes to go back to his hometown and spend a few quiet days with family & friends to ground himself. This time, he didn't get a chance to do any of that. He was mobbed with adoring fans and a demanding media from the moment he landed,
"I wanted to hang out wirh my friends, go on a trek with them but someone told me that this is the best time to push Indian MMA and promote it. And it's true that people here don't know that much about MMA. You can't just say that I have won and it will reach the people. You have to deliver your message to them. It's your responsibility. So I tried my best. So I went everywhere. I went to Mumbai, did a lot of big podcasts and interviews. Also did the same in Delhi and Dehradun. I went and tried to prommote Indian MMA and UFC. So that's how it has been. I haven't gotten the chance to take time for myself... of course I went home and met my family but ever since I flew back from Vegas I was just running around for this and that. Yes, now I am back in training and focusing on that above all else, but even when I was in Dehradun, it was all about meeting this person or that person."
It was a long time before he could switch off his phone and take a few days to catch up with his friends and family. And when he did, he understood something about his newfound fame,
"It's good when people praise you. But when your family shows that trust in you, when they say you have made us proud, that's a whole different feeling. When your mother hears from her relatives that Anshul has done really well and she feels proud, it shows in her eyes. And that's what really matters to you. The other stuff is here today, not here tomorrow."
It was also finally time for him to address some of the lingering issues with his health,
"I had an injury in my leg. It was there for a while. We could not address it because we had the tournament going on. I was going from camp to camp. First for Singapore then the one for Abu Dhabi. I spent over a year just doing camps. The damage started from the very first camp. But we could not stop. I didn't even go to the doctor for it, only consulted the physio. Because the doctor might say, this is a very serious injury, and that could mess with my head. But after winning 'Road to UFC' I did consult a doctor. There was a lot of damage."
However, Anshul was keen to not let complacency get a grip over him. As soon as he had recovered a bit, the search began to find an opponent for his UFC promotional debut. And the process wasn't without its own challenges,
"I wanted to fight as soon as possible but I realised that in UFC you can't just fight whenever you want, that too when it's your first fight. There are a limited number of options. Many fighters were booked for the rest of the year... many fighters who have already fiught twice or thrice in the UFC want a ranked opponent so they won't fight me either."
Although whom he would fight was still a question mark, Anshul had no doubt about where he wanted it to be,
"I definitely wanted to fight on the Abu Dhabi card in October. Last time I fought there it was the Islam Makhachev vs Charles Oliveira fight week. I went to see the fights... and that time I had decided that I have to fight in this arena... I have never fought in front of big crowd before. It's always been about 100-150. When it's a pay per view in Abu Dhabi, and you can imagine the whole arena is full, people are going crazy... fighting in that atmosohere would be totally different and new for me."
Earlier this month, it was announced that Anshul's first opponent under the UFC banner would be Mike Breeden, a 10-6 professional who has lost all three of his previous fights in the promotion. It's set to happen in October at the UFC 294 pay-per-view event, in Abu Dhabi.
In Breeden - a striker with his back to the wall, facing being cut from the promotion - Anshul faces an opponent who will throw the kitchen sink at him. But given the strategic maturity he has shown in previous fights, he can go into this bout with a high amount of confidence.
Asked about facing a non-Asian opponent for the first time, he says,
"I haven't fought South Americans or North Americans but I have trained with them a lot. I've sparred with them. I had training partners from Mexico, USA, Switzerland. I have a lot of experiences with them. It's not like if it's an American his wrestling must be dominant, I have trained with Russian fighters whose wrestling is really bad. Of course Dagestan is an area where everyone's wrestling is great because they start out with that... but you'll still see Dagestani fighters whose game isn't wrestling-dominant. So it's about the gyms, it's about your own style. One has to study the individual fighter. It's not like if your opponent is American, you have to study some American style... this is MMA. Every personality develops its game as per itself."
But he is quick to add that while he isn't letting the challenge of his first UFC fight get to his head, he is not letting the stardom it brings change who is is as a person either,
"I'm humble... it's not like I try to act like that. Everyone tells me I'm humble, but I don't know how not to be humble. Where I come from, the mountains, how would you develop an ego? You have seen how little you are in front of nature... If you study my whole career from the first fight itself, my personality has not changed. You may see more intensity because it's a big stage, more cameras, you are more visible... but I'll stay the same. I was already a star at MFN, I have reached the UFC, I am the face of Indian MMA, so I don't think I need to change anything about myself. I just need to improve myself, skill-wise, maybe with the way I talk... because some things will change. I will go to the UFC, I will get bigger paychecks, so obviously... I've always dressed well. Even when I had no money I used to find a good t-shirt from Sarojini Nagar. So you will see me dress in better clothes, that's just who I am... I like watches, so you will see me with new watches. I really like good suits and good shoes... you'll see all that but my personality will stay the same."
This dissociation of self from status has been a central theme in Anshul's MMA career, keeping him true to his roots.
The wide-eyed boy from Uttarkashi, who is no stranger to uphill journeys, has done something no one expected an Indian fighter to achieve for another decade. Miles ahead of his compatriots in the sport, he is now in the uncharted waters of the UFC's most difficult weight division. Whatever storms he may face in the months and years ahead, he can count on his anchors - identity, friends & family - to keep him steady and sailing straight ahead.
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