Anshul Jubli, the 27-year-old mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter from Uttarkashi, Uttarakhand, is just two steps away from earning a contract with the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). Without question, the UFC is the biggest MMA promotion in the world. In 2021, the US-based promotion reportedly earned over $ 1 billion in revenue.
After getting a bye in his lightweight (weight limit of 155 pounds, 70 Kg) quarterfinal fight against Japan’s Patrick Sho Usmani, who couldn’t make the weight limit, Anshul will take on South Korean prospect Kim Kyung Pyo in the semi-finals slated for sometime in October 2022.
Anshul, who also goes by ‘King of Lions’, is the hottest MMA prospect coming out of India today despite having just four years of formal training in the different fighting disciplines of MMA, including Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ), wrestling, grappling, boxing, kickboxing, etc.
A native of Bhatwari village near Uttarkashi, Anshul is the son of a retired Border Security Force (BSF) officer. Thanks to his father’s postings, he remembers growing up in different parts of the country. After much moving around, his family finally settled down in Dehradun. He was first introduced to MMA and the UFC by his friend’s elder brother back in 2015.
“I’m a deeply patriotic person. At first, I thought joining the armed forces was the best way to serve your country. Despite passing the CDS (Combined Defence Services) exam, I couldn’t clear the SSB (Services Selection Board) interview. Initially, I just wanted to learn some combat sports so that I have additional certificates for my application to join the armed forces. But it was a conversation with an army colonel in Dehradun that changed my perspective on things,” recalls Anshul, speaking to The Better India.
During this conversation in 2017, they discussed his daily schedule. His day began with attending a boxing gym in the morning, preparing for his CDS and SSB exams post-lunch and then going to his friend’s house in the evening to watch YouTube videos of Firas Zahabi, a renowned MMA coach, and John Danaher, a highly regarded BJJ and MMA instructor.
After watching these videos, Anshul and his friend would imitate some of the BJJ techniques explained in these videos. There were no formal MMA coaches in Dehradun back then,
“At night before sleeping, I would study other MMA disciplines online. After listening patiently, the colonel asked whether I wanted to enlist in the armed forces. But my true calling lay in combat sports. MMA could give me the platform on which I could serve my country,” he recalls. In the midst of all this, he was giving maths tuitions to support himself and fighting amateur fights as well. He fought his first amateur fight just 15 days after joining a fitness centre/boxing gym in Dehradun where people mostly spend their time taking ‘cool videos’.
Big city dreams
Considering doing MMA full-time posed a challenge as Dehradun offered no facilities that offered any formal training.
It was another friend in the city who told him about this MMA gym in Delhi called Crosstrain Fight Club (CFC) where some of India’s best professional fighters go to train. This friend also harboured dreams of becoming a professional fighter and was going to Delhi to train at CFC. Anshul joined him on this trip, but not before finding a job opportunity in the city. They found a coaching centre, which was interviewing candidates to teach high school mathematics.
In April 2018, he made his way to Delhi. The coaching centre job didn’t materialise because he heard from people working there that they didn’t pay salaries on time. A few days after landing in Delhi, Anshul and his friend made their way to CFC. They arrived on a Saturday morning and attended BJJ classes from 11 am to 1 pm.
Those two hours were a humbling experience.
“At the gym, I met Tarun Yadav, who is today an eight-time BJJ National Champion, a top 10 fighter in Asia and a Purple Belt holder. He weighed around 60 kg at the time, was short, wore spectacles and looked a little nerdy. Looking at him, I thought I was going to crush him. In three 5-minute rounds, he made me tap out 10 times. I tried to use my strength to explode out of difficult positions, but BJJ is a very technical sport,” recalls Anshul.
BJJ is a martial art based on the concept of ground fighting and submission holds. It has long been advertised as a combat sport and a self-defence mechanism which allows ‘smaller and weaker persons’ to defend themselves against bigger, stronger and heavier opponents using leverage, weight distribution and eventually trapping them in joint locks or chokeholds.
Despite tapping out multiple times, he vowed to get better at it. Just a couple of days after that humbling experience, he met the man who would change his life—Coach Siddharth Singh. The founder of CFC, Siddharth is the first Brown Belt (one below Black Belt) in BJJ in India and a 14 Khan Grading, Silver Mongkol ‘Master’ in Muay Thai (Thai Kickboxing).
“My first memory of Anshul is that he looked like someone who had trained before. When I spoke to him, he told me that he had no formal training. What I noticed was that he was a fast learner who could grasp things quickly and had the right body mechanics. Despite no formal training, he was moving well on the mats like an experienced fighter. He was a diamond in the rough,” recalls Siddharth.
After their first day at the gym, however, Anshul’s friend from Dehradun went back home because of some family troubles and never came back. This was a problem because they were living at the home of an acquaintance of his friend. With no job, Anshul had no choice but to move into a small one-room flat, which just had a bathroom, with three other people.
“Initially, I didn’t have a hard time in Delhi. I had some money saved up from taking tuitions in Dehradun and thought it would last me six to eight months. Having never lived in a metropolitan city, I didn’t have an idea of how expensive things were. Within just two months, all my savings ran out. Fortunately, I had friends in the city whom I consider ‘brothers’, who lent me money whenever I needed it. That’s how I survived the next six months. Whenever I had to go to Mumbai or Bengaluru for a tournament, they would pool in money for me,” says Anshul.
Instead, he was focused on making it as a fighter. Training twice a day for all seven days in a week, which included recovery time on Sunday, he put in all the exhausting work. Just three-four months after stepping inside CFC, he won his first amateur tournament in Bengaluru.
“Seeing my performances, Coach Sid (Siddharth) told me that I was very sincere, committed to training, improving and also helping out other fighters while showing great loyalty to the gym. He agreed to sponsor my training and pay for my fight gear for the next couple of months. I’m deeply thankful to Coach Sid for trusting me in that way. To get this kind of help, however, you need to show a high level of commitment to learn, train and self-care,” he notes.
While fighting in amateur tournaments, he was helping other professional fighters in the gym, sparring with them and helping them prepare for upcoming fights.
He also dedicated himself completely to training, while borrowing money from my friends. “I still haven’t returned that money. Hopefully, I can repay them once I become UFC champion. Beyond the money, I don’t think I can ever return the love, favour, trust and help my friends gave me in those early years. They believed in me,” he says.
Rising through the ranks
Despite regular success in amateur tournaments (he has an amateur record of 13-0), there was no shortage of serious obstacles, one of which almost forced him to quit the sport.
In December 2018, he was invited to an amateur tournament in Shillong offering decent prize money. Usually, in amateur tournaments, fighters have to pay about Rs 2,000 just to participate. Seeing this opportunity to potentially earn something, Anshul endured a strong training camp, went to Shillong and made weight before his opponent went AWOL. To sponsor his trip, he had borrowed money from his friends. He came back empty-handed and deeply frustrated.
Another opportunity emerged in February 2019, when he was invited to an amateur tournament in the Philippines. Slated to fight in the main event, he was promised a sum of Rs 50,000 if he won. Excited by this opportunity, he again went through a rigorous training camp.
“Again, I ended up borrowing money from my close friends, who themselves were borrowing from other people,” he said, adding, “The event seemed well organised. I enjoyed a good face-off with my opponent before the fight, and even the local media were present.”
But as he was warming up, a fight broke out at the venue and the fight was cancelled.
“The cancellation upset me. The first thing I thought about was the money I had to pay my friends back. So, I approached the promoter of the event, who gave me all sorts of excuses about how he couldn’t compensate me. If not anything else, I asked him to give me enough money to buy a flight ticket back home. The shady promoter vanished from the venue, didn’t pick up my calls and even blocked me on Facebook. I was heartbroken,” he recalls.
The journey back to India was brutal when a connecting flight to Delhi via Singapore was cancelled. He had to sleep overnight at the airport and catch the only flight available to Bhubaneswar. From there, he had to take a train to Delhi. Sleeping overnight at the railway station, he caught a terrible fever but somehow made it to Delhi.
“Even though I pride myself on being a very tough guy, the constant worry about money and finances made me feel like I couldn’t take it anymore. Despite doing so well in the amateur circuit, training twice a day for seven days a week, no money was coming in. Disheartened, I called my sister, told her of my desire to quit MMA, and that I was coming back to Dehradun. But she told me that I had promised the family to give this sport one year.”
He adds, “Those two difficult nights played a big role in forging the personality you see today. It toughened me up.”
Making it as a professional
Despite these setbacks, on the bright side, Anshul had months of intensive training camp behind him. He felt sharp and confident and was looking for other opportunities to fight.
On the horizon later that year was the second edition of Matrix Fight Night (MFN), which is considered India’s biggest professional MMA promotion founded by Bollywood actor Tiger Shroff, his sister Krishna Shroff and mother Ayesha Shroff. The event was slated for June 2019.
His opportunity came when the main event at MFN 2 got cancelled. To replace one of the fighters, they brought in Sanjeet Budhwar to fight at Lightweight (weight limit of 155 pounds/70 kgs). At the time, Sanjeet was among the scariest names on the professional Indian MMA circuit. A couple of months before the MFN 2 event, he had knocked out a strong contender in Dhruv Chaudhary. The promotion reached out to every fighter in his weight category to fight him, but no one accepted this challenge on short notice.
Despite no professional experience, Anshul wanted the fight and was very confident about beating him. It took him a bit to convince Siddharth, but he eventually agreed.
“We were offered that fight at the last minute because no one wanted to fight him. When the MFN people asked me whether I had a fighter for the main event, I told them we have an amateur fighter who could beat Sanjeet Budhwar. The organisers were initially laughing at us for even suggesting that, but Anshul ended up beating him via unanimous decision and even won the Fighter of the Night award in his first professional fight,” recalls Siddharth.
In less than a year, Anshul had climbed up the amateur ranks and won his professional debut. He had finally turned a corner and proceeded to win his next four fights at MFN.
Taking it to the next level
Thanks to his stint at CFC, Anshul’s ground game has reached new heights. Coach Siddharth and his team have been helping him primarily with his BJJ, grappling, wrestling and some kickboxing. Anshul also trains at another gym called the Tokas Boxing Club. There, he receives top-notch boxing coaching from India’s best male amateur boxer, Rohit Tokas, and his team. Rohit was recently selected to represent India in the upcoming Commonwealth Games.
“Anshul has only reached 60 per cent of his potential as an MMA fighter. When he started training with us, the biggest hole in his arsenal was his ground game. When he joined CFC, there was a lot of focus on improving his BJJ and grappling. In a very short period, his ground game grew leaps and bounds. After BJJ, we introduced him to wrestling, and he started picking that up very fast. Again, within a short time, he became one of the top MMA wrestlers in India. He has an excellent Fight IQ. Following wrestling, he worked on his boxing and became very good at it as well. Now, he’s working on his kickboxing,” says Siddharth.
Coach Siddharth believes there is still room for improvement when it comes to transitioning between different fighting disciplines in live fight scenarios like using his boxing skills to create space where he can take down an opponent with wrestling. “Among other things, MMA is about transitioning from boxing to BJJ, kickboxing to wrestling or wrestling to BJJ in a live fight scenario. He has very good transitions, but there is real room for improvement,” he adds.
“Coach also understands that I need to train with higher calibre training partners and always encourages me to work in some of the best MMA gyms in the world. He told me to get out of my comfort zone and arranged everything for a recent camp in Thailand. I trained at the Tiger Muay Thai gym in Phuket, where some of the best UFC fighters come to train,” says Anshul.
At Tiger Muay Thai, he trained with some of the best UFC fighters and coaches. He attended MMA striking sessions organised by Rafael Fiziev, who is currently the No.8 ranked lightweight fighter in the UFC, and grappling sessions with head coach Joseph Henle, a Black Belt in BJJ.
“When Anshul trains at Tiger Muay Thai or any of the top gyms in the world where we are planning to send him, he gets UFC calibre training partners which we don’t have in India. He is fighting guys who are quicker, faster, bigger and stronger. So, when he does eventually fight at that level, the intensity doesn’t overwhelm him. Training there allows him to get used to that pace, quick transitions and timing, which are very important. It’s also good for him to learn new patterns of fighting, figure out new puzzles and different skill sets,” says Siddharth.
“Training with high calibre coaches and training partners increases his vocabulary of techniques, transitions and combinations. Today, the Indian MMA ecosystem is very young. There aren’t many high-level guys for him to train with when he’s coming into fight camp,” he adds.
Anshul believes that “in the next four years I can become a UFC champion”.
“Training in elite gyms like Tiger Muay Thai with some of the world’s best MMA fighters, I’ve noticed that many of them aren’t that much better than us. We’re not at their level currently because they train smarter and work with higher-quality training partners. Despite the violence, there is beauty in this sport. Performing this craft requires real intelligence. I’m undefeated in MMA because my Fight IQ is very good, and soon you will see me at the top,” he says.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)
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