A pastor from Maharashtra will arrive in Beijing on 22 May morning, accompanied by two tough young men.
They have no plans to spread the gospel in communist China. Their mission: to fight and pocket maybe a few lakh rupees at one of China’s biggest professional mixed martial arts’ one-on-one bouts this month.
An Indian Jean-Claude Van Damme?
“It’s not as dramatic as that,” says Daniel Isaac, 32, a man of the cloth at the Church of the Living Waters in Nashik, referring to the actor popular for his street-fighting movie moves. “But I am enjoying it, the boys are enjoying it. These are prestige title fights. And every fight is a business venture.”
Isaac’s “boys”, including 28-year-old veteran fighter Alan Fernandes and 22-year-old former street-gang member Sashi Sathe, are among a handful of Indians beginning to see a career in fighting professionally in countries such as Japan and China, where kickboxing is immensely popular, drawing up to 60,000 screaming spectators in stadiums.
High kicks: Pastor Daniel Isaac (in black track pants) at practice with one of his kickboxer trainees at his Nashik gymnasium.
Fernandes, for instance, earned $10,000 (Rs4.1 lakh) at one London championship alone in March 2005.
While mixed martial arts also include judo and wrestling, its kickboxing component is the main technique and a huge draw for fans.
Kickboxing, quite literally, requires participants to kick and box each other. Generally, victors emerge after accumulating points based on aggression, measured by jabs, punches, knees, opponents’ falls—or total knockouts. In the US, kickboxing has been modified to become a popular individual aerobic exercise, spawning a movement of videos, classes and gyms marketing the sport.
Isaac, who won his first world championship in Russia in 1994 before turning to coaching and managing 20 professional fighters such as Sathe and Fernandes, concedes that the sport has had a low profile in India. But his company, Tigers Gym and Fight Club, has already found financial backers for staging the “big show” over the next few months in India, he says.
Isaac says he also talking to multiple television broadcasters for selling telecast rights. He is not ready to name his backers or broadcasters, saying negotiations are still in the early stages.
There are other developments that suggest kickboxing could make inroads here.
In 2005, the International Kickboxing Federation recognized India, and inducted Isaac on to its advisory board. The no-holds-barred and often-bloody Ultimate Fighting Championship of the US has now begun looking at the Indian market for a new revenue stream—and future fighters. Sending Indian fighters to the US circuit is his dream, says Isaac.
Isaac, who learnt the nuances of the sport from his father, started looking for future fighters in 1999-2000 in small-time tough guys on the street, telling them if they gave up crime, he would give them a career in what they loved doing: fighting.
“Either they were in big-time trouble, or were fast heading towards big-time trouble,” the evangelical priest said of his pupils. “Real fighters exist on the mean streets, that is where I found my fight squad. I’d say 70% of my boys are from the tough world.”
Sathe, for instance, was involved in gang violence a few years ago; one particular brawl left his face split by a splintered bottle. Fernandes comes from a broken family in Punjab and had taken to petty crimes. Another fighter, Abhijeet Petkar, 20, an orphan brought up by his grandmother, would always get into fights before he came across Isaac’s website (http://www.angelfire.com/rings/kickboxing/dan.html) and decided,?“This is the world for me.”
Life as kickboxers suits these young men. “I’ve always loved to fight, even as a kid,” admits Sathe. “When I was 18, I got a bad reputation for fighting. Today, I get paid for it.”
Fernandes says he is representing more than himself. “Foreigners think we are a Third World country, poor, can’t fight. I want to show them India is not Third World any more,” he says.
In July 2004, India’s first professional team of six fighters competed in the Professional Kickboxing Challenge in Abu Dhabi. A series of fights followed in the UK, Japan, Abu Dhabi, Thailand and Macau.
Recently, one of China’s biggest martial-arts promoters, Adora Entertainment, signed up Sathe and Fernandes for four fights in 2007. Adora arranged for them to fight in the Art of War Fighting Championship in Beijing on Saturday. Isaac declines to divulge the contract amount, saying the deal didn’t permit public disclosure until the event ends.
But he did say payments, per fight, ranged from $1,000 for the lesser-known fighters to $50,000 for the crowd-pullers. “Even a $1,000 payment for one fight is not bad for an Indian,” he says.
Interestingly, Isaac’s star pupil is a foreigner, an Iranian management student at Pune University, Jaffer Khezeli, who goes by the ring name of “The Tiger”.
At 28 years of age, Khezeli has fought in the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, apart from Iran and India.
His record is impressive: as an amateur, he lost only one of his 55 fights, while as a professional, he has won all six fights. In the most difficult category, mixed martial arts, he has similarly won all his bouts.
Khezeli doesn’t have a violent past, nor does Vishal “The Cyclone” Balkawde, a former Indian-style wrestler now trained in mixed martial arts by Isaac. Balkawde, who won $1,000 at the Abu Dhabi Brazilian Ju-Jitsu Championships earlier this month, will now represent Tigers Gym India at a professional show on 29 June in Russia.
Isaac says his recruits regularly go through thorough medical check-ups and tests for HIV, hepatitis B and lung capacity. But there is one problem: No insurance company in India is ready to cover professional fighters; it’s Tiger Gym’s international partners who arrange for insurance and coverage of medical expenses at the fight shows.
But then, Isaac says, kickboxing is not for the weak-bellied: “This is the real stuff.”