For years Asia dominated the MMA market, a fact that may be lost on fans born and bred on the heady post-Ultimate Fighter years that saw the UFC capture the hearts of America's mainstream. Before that, the UFC was an underground promotion here in the States. The real action, the money, the interest, the raving crowds, were all overseas in Japan where Pride Fighting Championship was the top promotion in the world.
Now the UFC, and a host of other promoters, have their eyes on Asia once again. The UFC is planning a metaphorical invasion of China later this year (even an army of Brock Lesnar clones might not be enough for an actual invasion) and regional events like One FC and Legend Fighting have sprung up to capitalize on the open market.
More than 3000 miles away, another dormant giant lies sleeping. Seventeen percent of the world's population lives in India, upwards of 1.2 billion people. Billion, with a capital "B." In Raj Kundra's mind, those are 1.2 billion potential mixed martial arts fans. Kundra, the millionaire mogul who owns the Indian Premier League cricket team the Rajasthan Royals, says Indian culture has an itch for violent entertainment. It was an itch he thought he could scratch with MMA.
"I love the sports business as a whole. I own a cricket team in India and over the past four years have been seeing huge potential for a real action sport. WWE was and is huge in India with stadiums selling out 25,000 people at a time. MMA was the obvious transition and I have enjoyed this sport for the last five years," Kundra told Bleacher Report in an exclusive interview. And while Kundra can't pinpoint a particular MMA event that inspired him to enter the promotion business, it struck him as something Indians would enjoy.
"No one particular event to be honest just MMA as a whole. It has to be the love Indians have for action in this country. Bollywood is the biggest driving force and action movies are the people's number one choice. I am giving them their dose of Bollywood in the form of a small pre show concert followed by real hard hitting MMA action."
Of course, no one builds a portfolio like Kundra's by leaping before they looked. Kundra knew he needed an MMA expert to help build this venture from the ground up and found what he believes to be the perfect partner in Ken Pavia. A former manager to the stars, Pavia sold his management agency last year in the wake of a lawsuit filed against him by the UFC's parent company Zuffa. He was looking for a way to stay in the sport when Kundra came calling with the idea for the Super Fight League.
"He is a genius in the MMA business and has extensive knowledge after being part of the industry for the last 15 years," Kundra said. "We discussed various MMA plans and I liked his sincerity. He helped me as a sounding board without expecting a dime in return. It was here when I offered him the job as CEO of SFL. He kindly accepted and there has been no looking back. It helps when the senior management come with knowledge, execution abilities and a good fighting spirit. Ken has taught me many things in the fight business. I realize money alone does not guarantee you the best fighters or support staff—it's all about relations."
Relationships were something Pavia had in spades. Twenty years as a sports agent had filled his Rolodex and put him in the position to help Kundra walk a tricky road. It's easy for new promoters to make mistakes. Often they spend so much on their first show that they can't afford a second. It was Pavia's job to draw on his experiences to help Kundra and his team avoid the pitfalls that only seem obvious in hindsight.
"It was (Kundra's) vision to bring the sport of MMA to India and he saw me as someone who could help make his vision a reality," Pavia told Bleacher Report. "There's really no substitute for experience. Over the last eight years, I've been backstage and watched the inner workings of every major organization. I've attended over 40 UFCs, probably 25-30 Bellators, Dream, Strikeforce, WEC, across the board. I think I brought a little bit of that experience into the Super Fight League. The flipside of that? I'd never put on a show. I didn't have a lot of preconceived notions about how things would work. So it was pretty unique."
Before they could launch, Pavia had to face a number of problems. For Indian fans it was like September, 1993 all over again. That was when the UFC launched in America and changed the martial arts world. But it was a revolution that might as well have never happened as far as Indian fans were concerned. For the most part they were unaware that the sport even existed. Pavia would be starting from scratch.
"First and foremost we had to solidify a fan base in India. The Indians were very naive when it came to MMA, naive to the sport," Pavia said. "WWE professional wrestling had been very big, but interest had waned a bit because it was fake. We understood the need to approach that WWE audience, but show them the sport was in fact real. That was the cornerstone."
The Indian entertainment space is tricky though. Not just anything can attract attention. Kundra puts it in a nutshell, outspoken and blunt as always. "In India only sex and Bollywood sell," he said. "So if you are not using either of them, forget launching any product, sport or business in India."
Luckily for Pavia and the Super Fight League, Kundra didn't just have one ace up his sleeve. He had two and was willing to play them from the outset. His partner, Sanjay Dutt, is India's leading action star. His wife, Shilpa Shetty, a Bollywood actress who also made a big name in Britain on the reality show Big Brother, is perhaps the biggest Indian celebrity worldwide. When it came down to it, Kundra knew he could get the media's interest. Eyeballs would be on the fights. Then it would be up to the sport to sell itself.
"The number one English newspaper in the world is the Mumbai Times. It has a larger circulation than the USA Today," Pavia said. "Twice, the week of the fight, we were on the front page. Not of the sports section. Of the paper. Our television deal with Colors reaches 500 million homes. The city was littered with billboards. It was unbelievable. Our press conferences had more than 500 photographers. It was overwhelming, the amount of support from the Indian people."
The main event of their first card featured Bob Sapp and James Thompson. On paper, it was a match that made sense. Sapp was Asia's biggest MMA star in the glory days and Thompson had appeared in the most watched MMA fights of all time in both Europe and the United States. But in the ring it was a disaster, with Sapp tapping out to a phantom injury, befuddling many watching world wide.
The headliners will be replaced by fellow heavyweights Neil Grove and Todd Duffee for the second show this Saturday in Chandigarh, India. But everyone involved understands keenly that while the international stars are the icing, the product's success or failure rests on the shoulders of India's own fighters.
"Indian fighters are the key to success in India, win or lose the fans here are very patriotic and a complete foreign spectacle would never work," Kundra said. "So therefore, we combine the best of both and we are training our Indian fighters by some of the best international coaches in the world and we have my COO Daniel Isaac the real pioneer of Indian MMA. We have been up and down the country and continue to do so with regular tryouts to find good potential Indian fighters whom we then offer scholarships to train, eat and live for free."
While Pavia admits his Indian fighters aren't ready for the world stage, and will match them among themselves until they can compete with international fighters, he believes they are more advanced than some might suspect.
"MMA is very new there in general. So there haven't been a lot of opportunities for Indian fighters to develop or grow. In other promotions they've generally been used as opponents when they did venture out of India. We've created a training center to help with their development. Right now Dennis Hallman and Benji Radach are there running it. Andy Wang has been there as well," Pavia said. "Will they emerge to an elite level? That's our goal. Are they there yet? No. It's a process that's not going to happen overnight.
"It's 1993 in India to the fans, but it's not 1993 to the fighters. I think we have 15 guys in the training facility, all of which would have won UFC 1. Now obviously, the competitors from UFC 1 would not be competitive in today's UFC. But I think we're somewhere between 1993 and the elite level in the UFC."
Like many smaller promotions across Asia and the world, the Super Fight League has one eye on the UFC at all times. They can't help it, especially after UFC President Dana White announced plans to film a reality television show in India, the first wave of a full fledged attempt at bringing the sport's biggest brand to the market. Pavia says the SFL has a reality show of its own in the pipeline and has confidence they will have a home in India no matter what the UFC does.
We are establishing our roots in India which is the fastest growing economy in the world," Kundra said. "Our key focus is obviously to become the most recognised brand in Indian MMA, which I believe we have done and continue to do so. We will go international sooner than later and combine Bollywood with international acts for the international audiences who love the mystic east culture. Since martial arts was invented in Asia, there is always that extra touch we can bring in."