This Sunday marks the beginning of the 4th edition of the IMMAF World Championships in Bahrain — a landmark event for the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation. Taking place outside of the United States for the first time, the World Championships will bring athletes from multiple countries under one roof, as the amateur fighters take the centre stage.
The World Championships pose the biggest, and the most daunting test yet for the athletes, as the prestigious competition continues throughout the week. The All India Mixed Martial Arts Association (AIMMAA) is embarking on a landmark journey of its own, sending female athletes for the very first time to the World Championships.
The Indian contingent for the World Championships
While we’ve talked about Nishigandha Rao before, ten other amateur fighters vie to secure a top three spot in their respective weight classes. The Indian team consists of athletes who’ve won national and international tournaments, but will now rub shoulders with the most promising fighters from around the globe.
Naipunya Sunil – Strawwweight
Naipunya Sunil from Kerala has been practicing MMA for the past two years at SFC (Swastik Fight Club) in Calicut, Kerala. Naipunya stood first in the straw weight division, during the trials at Bengaluru Open MMA Championship in late August. “I am just 18 years (old) and I’m doing my graduation from Providence Women’s College”, she told us. “I started my boxing at the age of 12 from my guru Mr. Puthalath Raghavan. Meanwhile I was inspired by MMA fighters while watching
sports channels. I train at SFC, and (I’m trained) by my coach Mr. Ranjith Kunnumal (who has) helped me in reaching this level.”
The Indian team is currently training in Mysore, and Naipunya shared her experiences so far. “The camp has been very fruitful. I came to know more about MMA – new fight techniques, new friends; all are very loving and caring, and overall it has been an awesome experience. I feel so proud and it is a matter of pride for me to represent my country for the World Championship. I will do my best to win (a medal at) this Championship.”
“I thank my parents, my teammates, and my coach Ranjith sir for the love, care and support given by them. I also thank Alan sir, Prasad Sir and my entire tram.”
Nishigandha Rao – Strawweight
We’ve talked to Nishigandha previously. You can know more about her here.
Saloni Ahwad – Flyweight
Much like Naipunya and Nishigandha, Saloni will be traveling to Bahrain with the aim of winning a medal at the championships. “I’m just another girl from small town who has big dreams, and I know what it takes to pursue what you believe in”, Saloni told us. “Three years back i believed in myself; this journey started with my college days, I’d joined MMA class just for fitness but later on I got interested and thought I could do more in MMA.”
“It was the start of my journey into the world of martial arts. I don’t know how, but every single time I failed, I wanted to do more. I was unstoppable and I was learning new techniques that encouraged me to do more.”
“Talking about my experiences, I would say it was a one heck of a journey”, Saloni introspectively said. “Nothing in life comes easy; you need something? Sweat! You want money? Sweat! You want to be successful? Sweat! Hours of training led me to the place where I am right now. I feel so proud and grateful that I got the chance to represent India on the international stage.
As the saying goes, ‘With great power comes the great responsibility.’ And my responsibility is to serve my nation and make my people proud.”
A graduate in international journalism, Saloni chose to take the more adventurous road, and started dabbling in MMA three years ago. “MMA brought the change in me and taught me to do more every day, and still I was so little for it. This game challenges me, checks my strength, checks my ability to stand in front of an unknown fighter, just to get hit and to hit back more harder; you can not cheat in this game. All you have to do is fight for your passion.
This is my first World Championship, and winning is the only option for me. It’s an honour to represent India at such big stage. I want to represent India at more such Championships and want to make India proud.”
Saloni also shared her ambitions of making it to the UFC one day. “What I look forward is to becoming a pro fighter, and represent India in the UFC. (I want to ) hoist my country’s flag up high, and to inspire people to come out and (get into MMA).
Camp (for IMMAF) is going great. Training with the other team members has charged me up. Being a part of Team India and training with them has been an honour.”
Divya Nagaraj – Lightweight
Divya Nagaraj, hailing from Bangalore picked up mixed martial arts as a passion. However, that quickly transformed into an obsession, and she hasn’t looked back since.
“I have been training (in) MMA from past 3 years, and competing continuously from 2 years and started winning”, Divya told us on the eve of the World Championships. “(It) started as a passion and it has become my profession.
It’s a great honour to represent India at the amateur world championship, and I look forward to make my country proud.”
Divya also delved into the amount of work she has put in, while preparing for the tournament. “I have been training under international instructors; I learnt Muay Thai in Thailand for couple of months. I think I’m well – rounded. I focus on all aspects – boxing, Muay Thai, kickboxing and BJJ.
I am eagerly waiting to compete at the world championship. I am totally ready for it; I have put my heart and soul into training everyday, and I kept adding new skills to my game. I am confident that I will get India a gold medal, and I’ve worked really hard for it.”
Divya also spoke about her experiences, training in Mysore with her teammates. “Training at the camp in Mysore under Mr. Alan Fernandes (has been) a good experience. My coach Shivaraj is a part of a team as well. He is fighting in the flyweight category at the World Championships. He has also been a big supporter (of mine), who stands by me all the time.
With their help, I looking forward to winning gold for my country, and make my country proud.”
Pathian Malsawmdawngliana – Flyweight
Known by his peers as Dawnga, the 24 year old will step inside the cage with invaluable experience. “(I have an) MMA record of 12 wins and 2 losses. Before stepping into the sport of mixed martial arts, I practised Taekwondo for years, and currently I’m a first dan black belt in Taekwondo.
Regarding my fight camp in Mysore, I’ve been working a lot on my boxing and my ground game. I do believe my fitness has reached the next level, and after training under Alan sir and Akash sir, I firmly believe (I can) come back home as a champion.”
“In 2009, I joined the Sports Authority of India as a Taekwondo student”, Dawnga continued. “I took several medals at State and National levels. After over 6 years of practising Taekwondo, currently I’m a First dan Black belt in Taekwondo, along with 2 years of practising MMA.
I’m the current state Flyweight Champion in Mizoram, took home two silver medals in Nationals and was awarded the ‘Best Fighter Award’ in Mizoram. I’ve been practising in Magnus gym and SPES gym under the instruction of Samuel sir (who is one of the international MMA referee) before joining the fight camp here in Mysore.
The upcoming championship, as we all know, is a World Championship, so I take it seriously because opportunities like this does not always stick around, and also aren’t in hands – reach for each and every fighter. So I’m blessed to have this opportunity and also for the support from Mizoram — especially from my hometown Kawrtethawveng, as they are even willing to sponsor me for whatever I require to be able to get to this.”
“By the grace and guidance of God, I’ve been blessed with good health, a good team, coaches and gyms. I push myself beyond my limits each day and I do expect to return as the Champion.”
The Mizoram native also emphasised on the need for mutual respect, and talked up the team’s chances of bagging medals at the IMMAF World Championships.
“We have mutual respect for each other and the type of martial arts we brought together in the sport of MMA. My teammates have become my friends and we have a good time training together and helping each other to get better.
Trust plays a crucial role in this camp and I want to thank my friend Krishna for filling the gap between me and others due to some lingual barriers amongst us. I do believe each one is brought closer to one another and we have a great time together during this training camp.”
Shiva Raj – Flyweight
The flyweight hails from Bangalore, and trains out of Fitness Time and Abhiva Fitness. Shiva also dwelled on his time at the trials in Bangalore, and gave his thoughts on going to the World Championships.
“My experience during the trials was great! I was honoured to share the cage with the best fighters in my weight class, and my respect to my opponents. I won gold in my weight class; I am really happy and privileged to showcase my skill and hard work to the world at World Championships.
I have been training in boxing , Muay Thai , BJJ and wrestling from the past 8 years”, Shiva explained. “I won my first Muay Thai international fight held in Dubai. And in BJJ I am a purple belt. I have won four grappling tournament and secured gold. I have won in K-1 (kickboxing semi pro) and grappling at Combat Carnival. I am undefeated in my weight class with the record of 15-0.”
The Bangalore native also spoke about what it takes to prepare for such a momentous occasion. “I am looking for many things. In combat sports, you need to be in top shape – physically and mentally. I am prepared to face it.
The camp is coming along great. It’s the best place to train as it a hilly region. We are close to nature, and (it is the) best location to train at.
Krishna Kumar Yadav – Featherweight
Krishna Kumar Yadav began his career as a Muay Thai fighter, but in 2016, the fighter from Jaipur decided to make the transition to mixed martial arts.
“I have pretty good thoughts about Bengaluru Open, and I was very confident to perform well in the tournament. It was a very proud moment for me and people who supported me all over this journey to World Championships to represent India.
I started as a Muay Thai fighter in March 2014, but somewhere in my mind I wanted to fight in a complete way. I started dabbling in MMA from 2016, and I am going to represent India at the world championship. I look forward to a great experience, and understand how MMA has evolved in international arena”, he told us in an exclusive interview.
Krishna Kumar was also quick to point out the learnings from the training camp in Mysore. “The camp has been pretty good, and it gave us new sense about MMA. I am thankful to my coaches – Alan Fernandes, Vikas Dahiya, Mr. Vikram sir and Mr. Dhruv sir.”
Suraj Kumar – Welterweight
Suraj Kumar is one of the more experienced campaigners in the team, and has so far amassed an amateur record of four wins and one loss. Hailing from a small village near Pauri Tehsil in Uttarakhand, Suraj had to toil away, with unrelenting perseverance to make a name for himself in the sport.
Suraj won the state kickboxing championship, and found solace during the Bangalore Amateur Open, where he was selected for the World Championships.
“I learnt a lot of things from the coaches during the trials”, Suraj added. “It was a totally new experience for me to perform under such experienced fighters.
It feels great to represent India. It’s a huge responsibility. I am not really nervous; I am more excited than nervous. You can also say it’s a mixed feeling. I’m excited as the day comes closer. I’m getting sharper, and I’m more excited for the moment. I’m just taking it all in, and appreciating the significance of this (tournament).”
Suraj has been training to compete in mixed martial arts for the past 2 – 3 years, and the upcoming tournament will mark his debut on the international stage.
“This is my first international level championship”, he quipped. “So I will be competing with a lot of (top level athletes). I just want to give more than 100% and want to see where it leads me. I want to use all that i have learnt in the past 3 years.
The camp has been great. I made a lot of friends. Everyone was very good to me. They helped me overcome some of my mistakes too. In the cage everyone wants to win, but after the fight we have been like a family.”
Coach talk – Alan Fernandes exudes confidence ahead of the IMMAF World Championships
For years, the budding athletes have been training under Alan Fernandes, as the All India Mixed Martial Arts Association (AIMMAA) has brought the prospective fighters under one roof. Talking about the trajectory of skill set of the athletes over the past few years, Alan gave his thoughts on how the talented fighters have started coming out of the shadows.
“On the contrary, I feel extremely proud to have started the MMA wagon in India. Over the last few World Championships that I have witnessed, I feel the skill set of the fighters has definitely been on the rise, which is a good sign, as moving forward defines progress.The willingness to learn and improve is there. The hunger is there, the drive is there.
I am actually quite happy with the Indian athletes that are taking up to the sport. Understanding that one skill set is not going to help, but it’s an over-all improvement of the all-round game, that is mixed martial arts. During the early years, everyone relied on the one good skillset they had, and little pinch of everything else. Today’s athlete wants to be great at everything. So we are work in progress.”
This year, the Indian team will send female athletes to the World Championships for the very first time, and Alan told us that it was the perfect example, of the metamorphosis of MMA in India.
“This is probably the biggest encouraging sign that Indian MMA can receive, that female athletes are taking up MMA in a country like ours. This World Championship will be a pioneering effort for us, where female athletes are concerned in India. My job with the Indian team has been pretty much what I have always told all my fighters; it is to be mentally tough. Because that’s where you win and lose all fights.
Skillset, potential and ability are secondary, but mental toughness has been my biggest target with all the athletes at the camp. We have fighters who have been very successful with their traditional styles of boxing, kickboxing, wrestling, Muay Thai and Jiu-Jitsu. My job has been to package it together to the benefit of our athletes, which is shaping up well. So yes, the training camp setup by AIMMAA is a definite help.”
With the Indian contingent consisting of athletes, who have tasted success on the national and the international stage, Alan Fernandes understands that expectations are going to soar from now.
“Expectations are always there. You can never count them out. That is the nature of competition. However, it can work both ways — it can motivate an athlete, or it can pressurise an athlete too. And with a population of billion following, there is always someone expecting something.
As a coach, my job has been to ease that pressure off the athletes and allow them to relax their minds and execute their game plan. If they think straight and fight, they will really shine. All the team needs is support and encouragement and results will come.”
“I am actually quite optimistic with where the Indian MMA scene is, and where the athletes are placed at the moment. The next generation (of fighters) just need a lot of exposure, by which I mean more fights against foreign opponents. With that in place, in 2 – 3 years of this happening, I see our athletes rubbing shoulders at the highest level.
The current lot are a no-nonsense, hungrier bunch, and know where they want to be in MMA. That attitude is the key. Amateur athletes can greatly benefit from sponsorship as well. These kids need a lot of support.”
However, with more than half of the team still in their teenage years, they could face turbulent times at the World Championships. But Alan maintains that mental fortitude is the most important factor, and not the age.
“Like I said before, that is the mental attitude I have told them to keep. To relax and carry out their natural game, and treat it like any other fight. I don’t want them to get caught up in the moment of this being the biggest platform in the world for amateur MMA. That’s pressure. I would be lying if I say that I wouldn’t want results, but if these kids fight their hearts out, I would have achieved my goal.”
Finally, with the domestic season wrapped up for 2017, the Indian athletes can expect a more cumbersome season from next year.
“2017 has been a phenomenal year for AIMMAA ‘s domestic calendar”, Alan told us. “It has been back-to-back events, probably in every corner of the country and the most we have done in a single year, excluding a European, Asian, African and now the World Championship.
2018 is only going to get bigger, I can promise you that. And we have already announced our first event of Bodypower India Open in January 2018. We have developed the Sport MMA program for kids, which is opening up a bigger division this year, and a nationwide structure of amateur MMA training and tournaments. Within that, we also plan to have international competitions for our amateur athletes.”