In two days, the festivities in Bahrain will come to a close. After a week of many firsts, the athletes will return to their respective countries, while the IMMAF officials close yet another highly successful year.
This year’s edition of the amateur world championships has seen many firsts — from this being the first edition to be hosted outside of the United States, to seeing a record participation – more prominently, from the women. The International Mixed Martial Arts Federation (IMMAF) President and CEO, Kerrith Brown has exuded confidence and satisfaction over the week, and for a good reason.
However, arguably the biggest positive from the tournament came in the form of two nations surpassing the expectations. While the Kazakistan athletes made history, by notching up multiple impressive victories, the Indian contingent wasn’t far behind, in terms of bettering their record in the competition.
Over the past couple of years, the fighters from India failed to win even a single fight at the World Championships. This year, the Indian team, led by Alan Fernandes as the head coach, was one of the youngest teams participating in the tournament. With an average age of nearly 22, Alan banked on the youth and exuberance of the athletes, and it paid dividends.
A cause for optimism – Faith in the youngsters pays off
From fielding an 18 year – old Nishigandha Rao, to banking on the more experienced athletes such as Shiva Raj, the Indian team was more well balanced than the previous years. Before coming to Bahrain, the athletes trained in Mysore, and the camaraderie, and having a common goal helped in bringing the athletes closer together.
For the first time since the All India Mixed Martial Arts Association (AIMMAA) decided to send fighters to the world championships, three Indians came within touching distance, to stand on the podium at the World Championships. On Day 3, Nishigandha Rao, Shiva Raj and Divya Nagaraj entered their respective cages, knowing that one win separated them from etching their names in the annals of Indian sporting history
However, the three fighters faltered at the final hurdle, bringing the curtains down on Team India’s campaign at the tournament. However, their showing at the World Championships, in hindsight, prove how far the athletes have come along over the course of the past year alone.
By comparison, during the World Championships in 2016, only three Indian athletes managed to compete in the tournament, and all of them exited in the first round. While the visa issues prevented majority of the team to travel to Las Vegas, it also highlighted the work that was needed to put in, and the trials and tribulations ahead for the Association.
A historic campaign, yet a sense of disappointment clouds the team
This year, the Indian contingent broke multiple barriers — multiple women, for the first time, were a part of the team, while this year’s World Championships also witnessed the Indian athletes winning their fights for the first time.
In doing so, Shiva Raj defeated Pakistan’s Irfan Ahmed in the round of 16, and reached the last 8. Nishigandha also became the first female Indian athlete to compete — and win a fight at the annual event. However, with exceeding expectations also comes the realisation of truth.
While the coach and the team can hold their head up high, there is a sense of disappointment — the perennial “so close, yet so far” emotion, that lingers around their performance. A single win on the third day would’ve ensured a podium finish for the Indian athletes, but that wasn’t meant to be.
There was a time when such a showing at the biggest amateur tournament in the world would’ve been a dream, but with the foundations now being laid, the future can be built on the back of their performances in Bahrain. For the first time in years, there is a cause for optimism in Indian MMA, a much needed boost for the athletes, as well as the Association.