“Blood sport”, “violent”, “graphic”… these are the terms often associated with combat sports. When you’re a global juggernaut trying to find your way into a new market, it often takes years to completely understand the mentality of the people and the likelihood of the business to thrive. Unfortunately, since a very young age, the children in India are taught not to get involved in anything related to combat sports.
We’ve all grown up listening to our parents, telling us not to watch WWE, although it is purely entertainment, but when it comes to combat sports, the possibility of the Indian fan base appreciating the art is very slim, or so is the general feeling.
For a sportsman in India, it is hard to get recognition if you’re not the cream of the crop, and it gets even harder if you’re not a cricketer. One of the biggest complaints that the sportsmen/women have, is the fact that cricket was always given priority over other sports. While it is true that the Indian cricket team has time and again provided reasons for the country to celebrate in unison, whether it is by winning the world cup or notching up a monumental victory, there have been individuals from other sports who have done the same with little to no recognition in return.
Although the current generation has embraced different sports, and has chosen athletes from different sports as their inspiration, the current status of combat sports in India is stagnant. Only Vijender Singh has managed to put a dent in an otherwise impenetrable wall of misconception and false ideology.
It would take more than one person to open the eyes of the fans. Why is the UFC, which has been eyeing the Indian market since 2012 still hesitant to pull the trigger? Why has ONE FC, which is undoubtedly the biggest MMA organization in Asia, completely ignored the Indian market? The answer to some of these questions lies in the current state of affairs of these sportsmen/women in India.
Promising talents go unnoticed
India, with its rich history in martial arts, should’ve enticed global organizations long ago. With a population of nearly 1.3 billion people, and a median age of 25 years, it makes all the sense in the world for these organizations to at least scout the talent, and test the waters in the country. However, the reality of it is completely different.
Promising fighters, such as Bharat Khandare have no major opportunities to showcase their talents. When Super Fight League (SFL) laid out plans to capture the imagination of the fans, most believed that it would be the dawn of a new era, a much needed paradigm shift in the status quo. However, there is one very important issue that SFL failed to address – sensitizing the people. The MMA community in North America, which represents the biggest share of the global MMA community, didn’t evolve overnight.
It took more than a decade for UFC to get over with the fans. Markets don’t grow in a year, and that is something UFC has been cautious about in its approach. It was reported that after the very first SFL event, the celebrities who were present left the event, vowing to never return, or to be associated with the organization.
India in need of more Vijender Singhs
Similar to MMA, boxing too has been vilified by the Indian audience. What people fail to understand, is that combat sports aren’t violent, or “blood sports”. This common misconception was partially lifted when Vijender Singh proved that Indians too can stand toe to toe with the elite. But one person cannot solve the existing problem, which is now engrained in the society.
While Devendro Singh and Shiva Thapa have time and again proved that they too deserve the adulation and respect similar to the cricketing heroes, the ground reality remains the same. Unlike the American system, which promotes amateur wrestling from high school through college, including national championships (which happen to be one of the biggest events in the calendar year), the Indian educational system has shied away from promoting such events.
India isn’t a developed market, but it does have the potential to grow in the next few years. However, the fact that major organizations have been hesitant to enter the market doesn’t paint a positive picture. We need to produce more Sascha Sharmas (first fighter of Indian roots in the UFC) to give these sports a fighting chance, although that should’ve happened years ago.