India is a nation that has a certain tradition with MMA, but only this year are they on the cusp of welcoming a serious promotion back onto their shores. They can enjoy local shows, with promotions staging events such as the X1 International Women’s Fight Night, the Matrix Fight Night and Underground Fight Night, all in Mumbai. Still, a major international promotion has given the industry there a massive boost.
In addition, the Times of India reports that the Professional Fight League (PFL) are also turning to India, staging its International Qualifier Series there. It is a huge step forward for a country that is hungry for proper MMA action, as confirmed by Rajesh Kaul, Head of Sports Business at Sony Pictures Networks India
“UFC remains the most watched mixed martial arts property in India,” he said in 2019. “The sport has enjoyed considerable growth in viewership over the past few years, with close to 100 million viewers in 2018. Viewership is also largely gender agnostic, with women contributing a sizeable 44%. One of the reasons for this is the following for fighters like (Conor) McGregor and (Ronda) Rousey.”
Whilst Rousey has since left UFC and McGregor out with injury, it will be up to secondary fighters such as Jose Aldo to hold the nation’s attention. They will be aided by a selection of domestic shows, such as The MMA India Show, hosted by popular actor Parvin Dabas. With PFL touching down in 2021, fans can begin to go all-in once again on their favorite sport.
MMA in India is not new, but it does have something of a checkered history, with another high-profile figure staking big on India’s love of combat. Raj Kundra is as high-profile as they come, and he’s adept at spotting trends and reacting to them. He’s married to one of Bollywood’s biggest stars, Shilpa Shetty, and he’s been something of a trendsetter when it comes to innovation in India. He gambled on the Super Fight League (SFL), a short-lived promotion launched with huge fanfare in 2012. It attracted the attention of British boxer Amir Khan, and for a short while, it looked like Kundra was holding all the aces in the Indian fight game. It fizzled out in 2018, with low-quality combat the main concern amidst falling numbers.
The failure of the league could have been more to do with Kundra than the appeal of MMA. He also bet big on online poker in 2018, around the same time the SFL fell away. Poker.org explain how online poker has experienced a massive boost in 2020, courtesy of the pandemic, and playing with friends online is one significant growth area. For that reason, his app, released in conjunction with Shetty, is still available for download, yet his involvement tarnishes it. Kundra might not be able to enjoy the proceeds of that endeavour, as a third, rather less salubrious venture has currently landed him under house arrest, according to Yahoo.com. He has his fingers in many pies and may not have been entirely committed to driving MMA in India, alongside his other ventures. Is that why the SFL suffered? With poker, SFL and his other ventures, was Kundra simply trying to play too many hands at once?
It certainly seems as though there is a thirst for MMA in India, but not any old promotion churning out low-quality content. The Indian market might be emerging, but it is discerning too, and whilst 100 million viewers want to see action, they won’t be sold an inferior product. That’s why PFL touching down in India and the growth of their promotions are both great for audiences over there.
Kundra’s league might have folded, but if MMA organizations play their cards right, they’ll find a ready-made market hungry for high-quality action on the Indian subcontinent.
Roberto Villa is the CEO, Founder, Executive Writer, Senior Editor of FightBook MMA. Has a passion for Combat Sports and also a podcast host for Sitting Ringside. He’s also a former MMA fighter and Kickboxer.
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