Evolution MMA is currently at the forefront of Indian MMA. They are arguably the biggest and the best MMA gym in the country as well as across south-east Asia. They also boast of having the most feared fight team, Team Relentless, across the subcontinent.
Behind the immense success of Evolution MMA is their founder, Mr. Jitendra Khare. He is one of the most respected martial artists in the country and has trained some of India’s most successful MMA fighters.
In an exclusive interview, Jitendra Khare shares with us his great journey of reaching the upper echelons of Indian MMA.
Sangam Shukla: MMA has recently gained a lot of popularity in the country with all UFC events being telecasted on national television. People in India have become much more aware about the sport. However, it wasn’t that famous a few years ago. So how were you introduced to the sport and what made you take up the sport yourself?
Jitendra Khare: I’ve been a martial artist my entire life. During my school days, I did Judo and Karate, I did university-level boxing as well. After that I was still curious, so I dabbled with mud-pit wrestling because I’m from this district in Maharashtra called Raigad where mud-pit wrestling is quite famous. Once I got into engineering most of my physical activities stopped and I turned to weight-lifting and power-lifting which led to an injury. Thus, for a while I was away from martial arts but after coming back to full fitness, I wanted to get back to some sort of physical activity and some form of martial art. It was a time when I was beginning to watch Pride on ESPN. MMA really intrigued me because I had always done some sort of striking sport and a bit of Wrestling but MMA was a mix of both!
Initially when I took up the sport, there wasn’t really anyone else doing MMA. I started training in Judo under Mr. Ashok Chaudhary. In 2010, I represented Maharashtra in Judo nationals. After that I started a MMA gym with a friend in Kandivali in 2010. At that point, it was quite nascent and we just had a blue-belt who would come and help us train. We weren’t at a really high-level back then. So that’s how the journey began, it was the interest in MMA that got me going because after having learnt so many different forms of martial art, you always feel that in one martial art or the other something is still lacking. Hence, it was a curiosity to learn more myself that propelled me towards this journey of MMA.
SS: Which form of martial art do you think serves as the best base for MMA?
JK: In my opinion, if you work on your boxing and wrestling then that takes care of a lot. Those are the two forms on which I focus the most for my guys.
SS: Which martial art would you say is the best for a novice who wants to take up MMA in the future?
JK: I think all martial arts are good. Any martial art which has a certain element of sparring in it is good because it teaches them discipline and it also takes that fear of getting hit away. So not just drills and practicing but practically applying what you’ve learnt is very important. Thus, any martial art with a bit of sparring is good for beginners.
SS: As I said before, most people in the country weren’t familiar with the sport till a few years back. Did people around you support the decision, when you decided to start a gym and take up MMA as a career?
JK: No, it was a really tough decision. I’m an Aeronautical Engineer, I specialise in aircraft maintenance engineering. When I decided to start the gym, my family was like “Are you sure you want to do this? You aren’t getting any younger”. However, it was something that I enjoyed. The more I got into MMA, the more I loved it.
SS: So basically, your fans can call you “The Most Dangerous Engineer on the Planet”.
JK: (Chuckles) In India, at least, because I think Shane Carwin’s an engineer as well.
SS: Which weight-class did you compete in?
JK: I weighed about 137 kilos and competed at Ultra Heavyweight but now that age’s catching up I’ve learnt my lesson and I now weigh about 105 kilos.
SS: I feel it’s now safe to say that Evolution MMA is the biggest and the best MMA gym in the country. What were the biggest challenges that you faced?
JK: One of the biggest challenge has always been the popularity. However, the sport has now gained a lot of popularity. Thus, the next major challenge is educating people about the sport. Everyone feels that they are ‘tough’ and that they don’t need to properly train for MMA because they’ve been in a few street fights. Many beginners are often reluctant to train and want to go pro in their first fight. Many gyms and dojos sell kickboxing, karate and Judo as MMA because people are uncomfortable with grappling. We get a lot of people who come to us after a tiring wrestling or BJJ session and say that they want to do ‘striking MMA’ and not ‘grappling MMA’.
The business and financial aspect has always been a huge challenge as well.
SS: What would you say is the biggest challenge that Indian MMA is facing currently?
JK: I believe we are currently at a point where we have somewhat surpassed the popularity and education challenge. Now we are at the second stage and the biggest challenge that we now face is the financial aspect. Financial support for fighters is a big challenge. Most of the fighters have to do personal trainings to support themselves. For instance, a couple of my guys will be fighting in Malaysia and because it’s an amateur tournament so they don’t get tickets. Hence, they have to do trainings just to get enough money to get their own tickets so that they can compete.
It’s an organic process and I feel that since the popularity of the sport is growing then people will also soon start to financially support the fighters. MMA is clearly on the rise and it’s been gaining a lot of popularity because of some movies and shows. The MMA India Show is doing a phenomenal job as well in promoting MMA in the country.
SS: Tell us about the coaches at the gym and what style does the gym focuses on?
JK: I’ve always said that we focus on MMA. We try to inculcate and train in everything. As for the coaches, we have a purple-belt and three to four blue-belts in the team. We do a lot of BJJ. We’ve always been actively involved in the Jiu-Jitsu scene in India. We’ve also got some great strikers in our team. We have Anil who’s been very successful in Muay Thai and has fought in K-1 across south-east Asia. We were also fortunate enough to have Nick Kilstein who’s a former NCAA Division 1 wrestler. Unfortunately, he recently moved back to USA.I along with the help of Sujay Janardhan handle the strength training for the fighters. We have also been fortunate enough to have great visiting coaches as well.
However, I still claim that our gym is dedicated towards MMA. So, our striking and grappling are all geared towards MMA.
SS: India has produced great mud-wrestlers and very good boxers as well. So how difficult is it for them to transition into MMA?
JK: We had a lot of traditional boxers who came over and wanted to switch to MMA but they had a mental block towards grappling. That is usually the biggest challenge working with pure boxers and kickboxers and their transition into MMA. However, the wrestlers find it a bit easier. For instance, Yadwinder Singh was a great mud-pit wrestler and he took up striking and BJJ and excelled at them. If you watch his fight at WSOF, he managed to out-strike a great striker like Alex Schild.
SS: How do you prepare the fighters for an upcoming bout? What do you do during the fight camp?
JK: Fortunately or Unfortunately, we never had the luxury of a fight camp till about a year ago. We trained and stayed in shape the entire year and took fight on two weeks’ notice. So till about a year and a half ago, our goal was to work hard and keep getting better at what we were usually doing and trying to improve all the aspects of the game. With the amateurs, there room for growth is massive and they should not train particularly for their next opponent. They should be thinking about long term.
So in the off-season we train more for cardio and conditioning but leading up to the fight we focus mainly on sparring for three 3-minute rounds for the amateurs, whereas training for five rounds for the pros. With certain pros in the team, it’s now that we’ve reached the level where we build their camps around who they’ll be fighting next.
SS: Chaitanya ‘Dangerous’ Gavali is one of your most successful protégés. Unfortunately, he recently lost via a really close decision at Brave 5. Thus, what new changes we’ll be seeing in his style of fighting? What’s next for the dynamic duo of Chaitanya and Vicky Sir?
JK: Honestly wins and losses happen, you’ll always win some and lose some. We are not sure about the changes that we’ll make in his training because Chaitanya always wants to improve and excel at everything he does. As for now, he is taking some time off due to some personal issues.
SS: Is there a place for rookies at the gym or for people who aren’t looking to compete professionally?
JK: Absolutely. We have people training with us for fitness purposes. We do tend to keep the training sessions for the pro-team separate, we do let them roll around and wrestle with us once a while. Although, during fight camps we only involve pros in the sparring.
SS: What advice would you give to a novice who is looking to get into MMA?
JK: I believe that skill is not an issue, will is. If you’re open to learning and understanding that at some aspects of the game you will be very uncomfortable. However, such issues are always there so you have to keep working hard whether you like it or not.
SS: Where do you see Team Relentless and Evolution MMA five years down the line?
JK: I’ve never been one to make big claims but I trust my team and I believe when the dust settles, we’ll still be around in the Indian MMA scene for a long time.
SS: Finally, if people are interested, how can they get in touch?
JK: We have our Evolution MMA page on Facebook as well as on Instagram, anyone interested can easily get in touch with us via social-media platforms.