As recently as December of last year, The Guardian- the UK’s pre-eminent left leaning broadsheet newspaper- published the following article: Mumbai Develops a Taste for Fight Clubs, in which the author, The Guardian’s South Asian correspondent Jason Burke, achieves the egregious distinction of having written and 815 word article on Mixed Martial Arts without using either the phrase “Mixed Martials Arts”, or as it is more commonly known, MMA.
No, in his efforts to artfully build an image the supposed anarchy, barbarism and squalor of the combat sport fast gaining popularity in India- and much of Asia- Burke neglects to even accord it its proper title, nor does he pay reference to the sport’s heritage and lengthy list of rules derived from all currently known and sanctioned combat sports, explaining it only as:
“The sport is an import from the US, where the ultra-violent Ultimate Fighting Championship, which shows fighters battling in cages, has gained millions of fans.”
This piece is significant in that it underlies the resistance met by those ignorant to the nuances of the sport from the left and right of the political spectrum. Hardly a week goes by in which some reactionary local daily newspaper doesn’t express its outrage when “cage fighting” arrives in their parochial back-water, usually accompanied by similarly strident hyperbole from local politicians, interests groups or religious representatives. Here, in India, informed more by the middle-class preoccupations of bourgeois exploitation, Burke plays to the effete sensibilities of the Guardian readership; the imagery is cynical, but the reaction and criticism from all over the political spectrum is fairly consistent from country to country until there is broader comprehension of the sport and the skills of its participants.
The difficulties that exist, then, for what has billed itself as India’s first major MMA organisation were profound, but well known, and in this context, the Super Fight League’s inaugural event must be regarded as a qualified success. The brainchild of IPL entrepreneur- and husband of Shilpa Shetty- Raj Kundra, and Bollywood superstar Sanjay Dutt, the Super Fight League has ambitions toward being an internationally recognised brand that dominates Asia in the way that the UFC towers over mixed martial arts in the West. There is certainly the market, and the tradition of martial arts in India, where various forms of kickboxing, wrestling have been formalised into practices for sport, combat and self-defence for thousands of years and, legend has it, through an antecedent of the Kalari fighting systems, introduced “Kung fu” to the Shaolin temple.
However, while India has a history of many warrior religions, castes and classes, as with all the modern nations to which MMA has arrived- the sight of genuine full contact fighting at all ranges appears, at first, to be unpalatably violent. Ergo, the organisations spectacular opening ceremony with singing, dancing and pyrotechnics- all in front of a selection of specially invited Bollywood stars- gave way to the action, and the fighting was often met with a mixture of bewilderment and disgust by the more famous attendees.
Of course, it will take time to educate a mainstream audience, and the SPL’s scope is not national but global, and hundreds of thousands are assumed to have watched the evening’s live stream on Youtube. For each of those who recoiled at the blood realities of MMA, there will be hitherto ignorant spectators fascinated by the technical and tactical skills displayed, in addition to the heroic spirit inherent in so many of the fighters performances- especially those neophyte talents sourced from India and Sri Lanka.
The card itself was, as might be expected, an uneven affair. Ostensibly comprised of local fighters and the odd journeyman from the international scene, it was topped by a clash of former PRIDE super-heavyweights, Bob “The Beast” Sapp and James “Colossus” Thompson. It was a main event driven my marketability. Of course, both Sapp and Thompson have been around for some time; Sapp a perennial novelty on the Japanese circuit for his hulking 350lb frame, is a man who can claim to have come within a whisker of defeating PRIDE legend Minotauro Nogueira, and twice defeated one of the all-time great heavyweight kickboxers in Ernesto Hoost, but those days have long since passed.
In fact, not even the most charitable could suggest Sapp provides a legitimate threat to any mediocre heavyweight fighter at present, and “The Beast” came into the fight on a lengthy streak of losses, mainly by submitting to not especially powerful strikes. His opponent, Thompson, is another who no longer competes with the elite of the sport with any regularity, but has been fighting more regularly of late, and is never short of the sort of aggression that ensures and active fight. The meeting of the two styles ended in a supremely- if predictably- messy and brief main event, culminating in Bob Sapp submitting from a double-leg takedown, claiming a leg injury- later speculated to be little more than cramp.
It was a disappointing conclusion to an evening of fights that had demonstrated some of the untapped, raw, local talent pitted in some impressive battles. However, Sapp Vs Thompson served as a worthwhile promotional tool to draw attention to the organisations potential as established names in the sport. Likewise, UFC veteran Phil Baroni was brought in by SFL to promote the event and provide colour commentary; and, of all the decisions made by the ambitious young promotion, this was one that met with almost universal acclaim. Baroni himself was philosophical yet encouraged by SFL 1:
“I think the SFL was great, especially for it being there first show. I think the live show went over great. I think the fans really enjoyed the SFL. The weigh-ins were packed and the feedback I got was all good regarding the SFL and the broadcast team. I think Osborne did a great job as lead commentator.”
Baroni, who last fought out a decision loss to Yoshiyuki Yoshida last September has a long time association with Ken Pavia, the CEO of the SFL, which could lead to the fighter stepping out from behind the commentary booth. When asked about whether he intended to concentrate on media duties, the New York Badass was unequivocal:
“I’m a fighter. I have goals to accomplish. There is no if it’s just a matter of when I fight again. I’m a prize fighter who ever makes me the best offer pay wise I’ll fight for. It could easily be the SFL they have strong backing. I’d love to fight there or anywhere the price is right. These days I am a road warrior. I’m what some would call a journeyman. But I plan on getting healthy winning fights and being a contender again.”
Baroni would certainly provide the sort of entertainment in and outside the cage that draws fans to the sport. And, were he to sign, he would join a growing list of quality fighters that have already agreed to fight in India for the SFL, including Paul Kelly, Trevor Prangley and, most significantly, the hugely talented heavyweight Todd Duffee, looking to rebuild his career post-UFC.
The short history of mixed martial arts is littered with stories of promotions whose ambitions toward market dominance have ended in ignominy. Elite XC’s epitaph is now almost a byword against excessive risk and hubris, and even the UFC’s road to near omnipotence has been a rocky one, but early indications are that the Super Fight League may at least be on the right path on the sub-continent.