First rule of Fight Club, you do not talk about Fight Club,” growls Tyler Durden as he stands facing a crowd of disillusioned men in the basement of a bar, in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. The 1996 novel was adapted into a film and now there’s talk of a musical on Broadway. So well did it capture the imagination of millions across the world that Palahniuk still gets pictures of scars tweeted to him along with quotes from his work of fiction.
Durden hated the concept of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), a mixed marital arts, full-contact sport with corporate sponsorship and public hysteria but it was the closest one could get to a controlled bar brawl that Palahniuk wrote so dourly about. Today, UFC is one of the biggest sporting events in the world, raking in TV money by the millions — the 2011 edition drew an average of 1.4 million US TV viewers for the four-day show while it quadrupled to 4 million pay-per-view witnesses during the main event. Affiliated championships are organised in Japan, Singapore and Europe and the winner of the title bout earns close to $1 million. However, the concept never reached India until 2009.
One of the reasons a UFC-like sport could never take off in India was kushti —the indigenous, low-contact form of wrestling involving mostly throw-downs, in which the technicality of a full-contact fight is alien. Moreover, with the domination of cricket, all other sports were left by the wayside, especially ones that promoted violence, as UFC does.
Nevertheless, in 2009, a young advertising professional, Prashant Kumar, organised a bout at a suburb in Mumbai. His event was called Full Contact Championship (FCC) and he could gather just about 200 people to watch the event. The fight was between two local fighters trained in various forms of martial arts. “The atmosphere on the night of the first fight was amazing,” remembers Kumar. People whooped and clapped at every takedown. The crowd erupted the first time blood was spilt. Kumar called in a few favours and got newspapers to cover the event.
FCC, recognised by MMAAI (Mixed Martial Arts Authority of India), made a flutter and got a few inches of newsprint. It was a success. Though Kumar made no money off the first fight night, the niche audience was impressed. Several attendees came up to Kumar after the event and asked him to schedule another fight. “I always knew there was a market for this,” he says. “Someone just had to do it right.”
Kumar has always been a wrestling enthusiast and has learned kickboxing and taekwondo from Javed Khan, one of India’s premier martial art experts. “I usually asked friends who had learned, say, jiu jitsu, to fight me,” Kumar remembers. “Both of us would try to take each other down.” They mixed their styles of fighting and kept experimenting.
The 31-year-old CEO of FCC wanted to start a fight club back when he was in college, where he could form a community of athletes from different disciplines. “A boxer can land punches but off his feet, he isn’t any good,” he says. “But if the boxer could learn a little wrestling, he would be deadly.” However, Kumar had to put his plans on ice until he graduated in law. Subsequently, he decided against practising law and started his own advertising company, Production House, in 2006. Soon after, he started squirrelling money to start his fight club.
In 2008, at 27, Kumar was too old to fight professionally and finally had enough funds to start a championship. But he needed fighters. He could not find any either on the internet or at local gyms. “All those I found were too afraid to get into the ring with someone who didn’t fight the same way they did,” he says, adding that he realised he would have to go to the grassroots to find raw and easily malleable young men. “Typically, martial arts or wrestling is very popular in rural India because the government has a job quota if you can wrestle at the state level… it gives you a job in schools as a PE [physical education] teacher.”Kumar, who feels their talent is thus wasted, scouts for such athletes at state events, invites them to Mumbai and trains them. “A boxer is taught to grapple and a wrestler is taught to throw a punch,” he explains. The workshops last a few weeks. Thus readied, fighters are taken to the ring. “Their background in sport helps them pick up other forms quickly,” he says. But why would they take up a high intensity sport, stepping out of their comfort zone to risk bodily harm? “₹10,000 a fight, free lodging and diet consultation,” Kumar answers.
FCC’s second season brought in a 500-strong crowd and a few small businesses as local sponsors. FCC also tweaked the format a little and instead of making the fights too technical, Kumar reduced the time allowed for each round from four minutes to two. He managed to get a licence to serve beer at the venue and played house music. It created what is described in advertising parlance as ‘stickiness’. The audience stayed back even after the bout, an impromptu after-party was hurriedly organised, and Kumar broke even.
The third season in 2011, however, was something of a disappointment despite an increased cover charge of ₹1,000 from ₹500 and a big name fighter from Rajasthan. “This fighter — Virat Singh — had remained undefeated since he began his career in wrestling,” Kumar says. “He had never been pinned or knocked out.” Singh was brought to Mumbai and taught the nuances of mixed martial arts; he was the star during practice. The young Rajasthani was set up as the main event with an emerging superstar, Jawed Mullah. But when the match started, Singh was distracted. He spent more time showboating than taking down Mullah. He lost his first match and the main event had a very abrupt end. The crowd was disappointed. The sponsors mirrored Singh and backed away at the very last moment. Despite all this, Kumar made ₹7 lakh.
Meanwhile, he was getting nowhere with his efforts to get TV channels to broadcast FCC. “The laws in India prevent any sport on TV from showing blood,” explains Kumar. Radio stations, too, couldn’t talk about the event and most stations had a different target audience. Word of mouth and social media could only take him so far. To grow in size, he needed a much wider advertising platform and Kumar is still trying to find one. “The other problem is finding new fighters every few years,” he says. The lifespan of a wrestler is “three, maybe, five years”. Every few years, a new batch has to be brought in and trained, and the payout at the end of a fight, too, has to increase.
FCC-5 in February 2012 saw a change in fortunes as Budweiser walked in as chief sponsor. “Budweiser sponsors UFC in the US,” says Mihir Bhojwani, brand activations manager at Anheuser-Busch InBev. “FCC is exactly like that and we want to maintain the connect.” Bhojwani explains that Budweiser identifies with the sport even though it’s not on TV. Anheuser-Busch InBev also confirms it will continue to prefer FCC over the Raj Kundra-Sanjay Dutt founded Super Fight League (SFL). “That’s much more Bollywood than a fight,” says Bhojwani. FCC attracts Budweiser’s target audience — young professionals. In contrast, SFL is considered more of an event that attracts an audience from all walks of life.
Currently, FCC’s scouting network is expanding. FCC’s team now has 10-12 scouts and about 100 fighters. Booking a studio for the fight, the major head of expense, costs “not more than ₹2 lakh”. Kumar is also looking to tie up with an insurance sponsor that will cover the event and the fighters.
Bhojwani insists that despite the hoopla surrounding SFL, popularity will remain with Kumar’s league. Pranav Premnarayan, a regular at FCC events, agrees. “I watched SFL at the venue and it didn’t have the same energy as FCC,” the 30-year-old partner at Mumbai-based Prem Advertising says. “The atmosphere was flat, the crowd was bored and it was promoting Bollywood, not the sport.” Premnarayan, who has attended every FCC event from the second season, enthusiastically argues that despite its star power, SFL couldn’t help the crowd relate to the fighters. “The fighters were from Sri Lanka and other parts of the world so it was hard to cheer for them,” he says. “At FCC, these boys could be from your home town, which is probably the USP.”
In fact, SFL has directed traffic towards Kumar’s brand. “An adventure TV channel is interested in telecasting a package of the FCC,” Kumar says. He is planning to serialise his fights on the channel over “three, maybe four episodes” and then show a TV-friendly (read: bloodless) fight night. The TV channel is also bringing in some sponsors who are encouraging him to increase the frequency of fights to six a year (from the current one or two), which includes taking the sport outside Mumbai to Pune, Goa, Delhi and Bengaluru.
The enthusiasm that’s driving FCC is finding support in unexpected places — Singapore’s One Fighting Championship has invited Jeet Toshi, a female fighter with FCC, to participate at the next event, and wants to sign five other fighters professionally for its stable. But Kumar is not looking too far ahead just yet — he is focusing on relishing the roar of the crowd when a body is slammed on to the mat.