Hyderabad MMA, run by coach Shaik Khalid who trains Team India at international competitions, currently has eight centres in the city.

MMA champion Mahboob Khan celebrating on the cage
Features Mixed Martial Arts Sunday, January 30, 2022 - 13:18

In a city known to be laidback and evocative of old aristocratic culture, Hyderabad MMA’s (Mixed Martial Arts) gym seems like an alien presence. Yet, entering its facility on the third floor of a building in Chaderghat, one realises that nothing could be more organic to the city. At 8 am, fighters can be seen warming up before they undergo rigorous tutelage under their coach, Shaik Khalid.

“Skip-roping mein rhythm nahin dikha tho phod de toon (If I don’t see rhythm in the skip-roping, I will wreck you),” the disciplinarian asserts in a thick Old City accent.

Khalid, who started Hyderabad MMA in 2013, has quite the ability to turn motivated learners into championship calibre MMA talent at an amateur level. In late 2015, the coach came across a physically fit Mahboob Khan, who was a driver and an employee at an apparel store. Mahboob was unable to manage both training and work. Gauging Mahboob’s motivation and potential, Khalid told him to quit his job. The coach then bore the Old City native’s daily expenses while training him.

The upshot is that now Mahboob has an impressive 36-5 amateur win-loss record and won India its first gold medal in MMA at the 2018 International Mixed Martial Arts Federation (IMMAF) championships. These feats have also been noticed by renowned US-based organisations like Professional Fighters League (PFL) and Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).

Mahboob Khan wins gold at IMMAF Championships in 2018
Strawweight Mohammed Abdul Aziz had no prior experience in any combat style before joining Hyderabad MMA in late 2019. Three months later, he defeated a three-time gold medallist at the 2020 Naresh Surya Classic India Open MMA Championship. After coming up short of a gold medal at the Indian Open MMA Championship, Indore in September 2021, he dominated his way to a first place finish in his weight category a few months later in a Bengaluru tournament.

Khalid himself began his combat sport career in a wrestling akkhaada. “In wrestling, one can take down a guy but not strike, so I took up Karate. The non-full-contact nature of Karate later drew me to the Muay Thai style,” he recalls. Muay Thai utilises all limbs for potent strikes via elbows, knees, fists and shins.

After experimenting with these different styles, Khalid and some of his earlier students-cum-training partners, Mohammed Bilal and Khurshid Mohiuddin — currently a trainer at a UFC gym in Chicago — veered towards MMA. They began to grasp the cross-training nature of the sport which combines methods and techniques of various combat sport styles.

Coach Khalid (in grey t-shirt) with Hyderabad MMA fighters
According to IMMAF referee Nitin Singh, Khalid’s early experiences with these diverse styles enable him to create technically sound, well-rounded combatants.

More than just glorified street fighting

MMA incorporates not just the striking elements from Muay Thai, but powerful punches from boxing and Karate too. It also has elements from wrestling, Judo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, which all involve a combatant grappling with the opponent to get them on the ground.

MMA may seem like a hyped-up street fight within a cage known as the octagon. However, to ensure competitiveness and safety among fighters, several rules have been put in place, such as prohibiting groin attack, head butts, eye gouging, biting, hair pulling, deliberately throwing your foe outside the cage, among others.

Legendary martial artist and actor Bruce Lee eschewed the rigidity of a particular style with his hybrid martial art, Jeet Kune Do. Once a troubled teenager who got into many street fights, Lee understood that total adherence to “rules” of regulated competitions and techniques specific to a certain style wouldn’t win real-life brawls. Many, including UFC President Dana White, consider Lee the spiritual father of modern-day MMA.

Sharif Bapu, President of the body that governs MMA events in the country — Mixed Martial Arts India (MMA India) — elaborates on the more strategic aspect of the sport. He stresses, “A game plan is not required just for the first round, but subsequent ones too. A strategy to finish the fight in the first or second round is preferable because playing all three rounds may lead to long-term injuries.”

Keeping this in mind, Hyderabad’s MMA gladiators always step into the cage with well-thought-out mental battleplans and holistic techniques.

Well-rounded warriors

Renjith Ravindran, co-founder of LockerRoom, a premier combat sports news outlet, explains why Team Hyderabad MMA stands out. “Their fighters are technically competent. They are well-rounded in both striking and grappling. They also equip themselves with a solid plan of action against their foes rather than going in with random swings,” he points out.

Haryana native Ravindar Kumar, although having previous wrestling and boxing experience, has become an even more multi-dimensional fighter under Khalid’s tutelage. He learnt how to set himself and his opponent up for the slam and how to balance his weight on both legs. Khalid helped him position his feet at an optimal angle as one has to keep one’s balance even when being kicked.

Ravindar Kumar
Ravindar is all praise for the coach, “Changing old habits is hard. Khalid patiently and effectively helped me transition into a wholesome MMA fighter by altering certain stances and techniques from my boxing and wrestling days.”

Taking Hyderabad by storm

The all-encompassing nature of MMA is exemplified by champion Mahboob Khan. Besides his prowess as a brawler and his mentor’s Midas touch, MMA is catching on in Hyderabad for various reasons.

Four years before Mahboob commenced his training, MMA came to India on a professional level with the SFL (Super Fight League). Bilal was the first pro-fighter from Telangana to compete in it.

Mohammed Bilal
Despite the league’s initial popularity, it didn’t catch on. Instead, films such as Race 2 (2013), Brothers (2015) and Sultan (2016) began showcasing MMA not just through slick action scenes, but with engaging story arcs too.

Eventually, two landmark events in late 2018 further rekindled interest around the sport.

The first was grappling prodigy Khabib Nurmagomedov’s UFC 229 victory over striker Conor McGregor, which made waves globally even among non-combat sports buffs. Considering Conor’s colourful remarks towards his rival’s family, country and religion — also relevant to Indians — Khabib has fans among celebrities as well as ordinary folk across the country.

A month later, Mahboob made Kazakhstan’s Yerlun Kabdulov submit within 76 seconds during the IMMAF-WMMAA World Championship’s first round. He slithered out of every grappler’s clutches and knocked out Bahrain’s Ebrahim Darwish for the gold medal.

Mahboob Khan during a fight
Team Hyderabad MMA has also been promoting the sport by holding state competitions. Last November saw the eighth Open Telangana Championship at the Victory Stadium in Hyderabad with exhibition match-ups held not just between amateur participants but kids too.

Bilal, Aziz and Mahboob weren’t merely celebrity attendees, they served as cornermen for contestants to attract youth to MMA. Like any other coach in between rounds, these gladiators advised less-seasoned fighters on how to approach their competition. During a bout between two middle school girls named Hafsa and Anum, Bilal could be seen cheering on the former while another teammate was doing the same for the latter. The event was a big success.

Not just for the boys

Khalid is well aware of the cultural taboos that prevent girls and women from competing and rising in the game. But that hasn’t stopped him from training three female Hyderabadi brawlers who performed at the national level. One of them was Simran Fatima, who later opted to study medicine. The second left for a more lucrative career opportunity while the third got married and left the sport. Hyderabad is yet to find another rising female star with the potential to follow in the footsteps of Ritu Phogat, who recently began fighting in the Singapore-based ONE Championship promotion.

Nonetheless, Khalid and his Hyderabad MMA squad have surely come far. He coaches Team India at international competitions and currently has eight training centres in the city.

The UFC wanted to sign Khalid’s most notable protégé to take part in Dana White’s Contender Series where up-and-coming fighters showcase their talents in hopes of fighting in the professional promotion. But Khalid wants all his fighters to hone their records and skills at an amateur level before venturing into pro-territory.

Who knows, Mahboob Khan’s post-victory chameleon crawl could become a common sight in a UFC octagon.

Daneesh Majid is a Hyderabad-based writer and researcher on South Asian culture and security.

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