We meet a new wave of martial arts practitioners who enjoy the sport alongside their day jobs as they gear up for the WCB 2015, a few months away. By Ruma Singh
Varun Pereira | 33
Day job: Chef, Monkey Bar, Indiranagar & Wood Street;
Fight style: Muay Thai; Fight name: The Great White
Varun Pereira’s childhood love for martial arts led him to learn taekwondo. “I’ve loved contact sports, plus swimming, football, cricket and basketball since I was a kid,” he says. On his honeymoon in Thailand, he caught a mixed martial arts event and ‘was hooked’. “I returned to Bangalore, hunting for places to train, and found the Fitness Fight Club.” He has fought in three WCBs, won some, lost some but says it was a learning experience. “You improve, and understand your weaknesses.”
His wife supports his passion despite his bruises and black eyes. “At first, you get bruised, your ankles swell, your body gets sore. Then, it becomes fun and addictive.”
Fighting is a huge stress buster, he adds. “Our lifestyle can be unhealthy because of the odd hours, so it’s important to work out.” His idol is well-known British chef, April Bloomfield, known for her love of mixed martial arts. His dream is to learn Muay Thai from the masters in Thailand.
Poonacha has a tattoo of two tiger cubs – her children – on her right shoulder, so her fight name, Tigress, seemed fitting. The IT professional is among the older fighters, but that doesn’t deter her. “My family’s used to my skydiving, river rafting and other extreme sports. So they didn’t turn a hair when I decided to start fighting,” she says. She started in August 2013 to manage her weight ‘differently’, and is now a regular. Poonacha fought her first white collar bout in Bengaluru in December 2013. “My opponent was a Frenchwoman, a super-fit mother. But it was about having fun so I didn’t care if I won. Though my daughter, six, did start crying while watching,” she says. Sports in school was in a ‘controlled environment.’ “Fighting, on the other hand, is being in the ring, getting bruised, and taking informed risks, though there are rules governing the fights.” The biggest lesson is one she wants to pass on to her children. “I’ve told them to stand up to bullies, but not be aggressors. I don’t want them to have preconceived notions about what a woman should do. This is a good way to do it .”
Against the ropes
Fighters qualifying for WFC must attain levels of fitness benchmarked by their coaches. “Because of the different training techniques and fitness modules taught. Every fighter eventually switches to ‘beast mode’ at the sound of the bell (survival instinct) – and improper training could lead to injuries. I’d say 95 percent come to get fit, and stay on to fight in the WCBs. You need courage and heart. That’s what makes it different.” Ritin Ravindran, director FFC
An advertising professional and part of the JWT team that produced the Cannes award-winning Nike campaign in 2014, Dhruv Warrior has always been a football lover, with sports as his greatest passion. When he was looking for a new way to work out, his cousin Varun Pereira took him to the fight club.
“I feel fitter, happier and better when I fight regularly,” he says. “My entire lifestyle reshapes itself. I have a desk job, and I think one needs to be challenged in life. Muay Thai challenges you physically and mentally. You are always under pressure during a bout, your mind has to process what you’re going through and recast quickly. I also enjoy the structure it adds to my life – waking up early, regular exercise. Since starting my work life, I’ve realised the importance of physical activity.” Warrior fought his first WCB in 2012. “I needed far more serious fitness for the competition. Now, after a patch of irregularity due to my busy work schedule, I’m coming back to fighting. I’ve never been happier than when I’m fighting.”
The Fitness Fight Club (FFC), started here over two years ago, courtesy Singaporean venture capitalist Austin Prakesh and his passion for boxing. He found Bangalore the perfect spot as the city is known to be open to new things, most top sports companies are headquartered here and real estate is more affordable than,say, Mumbai. They eventually plan to open in Chennai, Hyderabad, Pune and NCR. FFC teaches boxing, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Muay Thai, kickboxing, fight yoga, Wrudo (wrestling and judo, a takedown fight technique) and mixed martial arts, and is recognised by the World Muay Thai Council. “We aim to remove the stigma surrounding the sport and educate people about its benefits,” says Rithin Ravindran, director, FFC. They teach martial arts at a professional level, with qualified international coaches and have 58 registered Indian white collar fighters. We meet up with a few.
Omer Basith and his petite wife Komal work out at the Fight Club together, four times a week, waking early to get a headstart on their hectic days. Omer, a boxing champ in his early school days, mastered Brazilian jiu-jitsu, boxing, kickboxing and Muay Thai, while Komal, who runs a beauty and fashion website, practises kickboxing. Omer, the only Indian fighter to win his WCB fight in Dubai 2014, acknowledges the tournament atmosphere was quite unsettling. “The huge crowd, was roaring for my opponent and booing me. It’s easy to get affected mentally. You need to be tough.” Omer fought with an injured left leg, which his opponent targeted with repeated low kicks. “I kept blocking him. Eventually I won, and he got a broken shin.”
But fortunately, his fight career has hitherto been free of major injuries, he adds. “Fighting, it’s like a game of chess, where technique beats strength every time. You can be strong, but without a game plan, you’d lose.” Boxing and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, another of his favoured forms, is all mental. “It’s about distribution of weight and which parts of your body can be used against your opponent.”
Most WCB competitors fight at a good level, adds Omer. “Interest is growing. But it still needs to gain popularity, understanding and respect. Everyone loves to watch a fight. And it does so much for you physically and mentally. You will never learn as much about yourself in a gym.”
Pics: Jithendra M
Komal started fighting much later, after being exposed to Muay Thai at a Thai training school in Phuket with husband Omer. “I fell in love with it during my week’s training,” she says. Komal won her first WCB in 2013, but her second in Dubai 2014 ended in disaster. “The crowd was hostile and noisy. My opponent, aggressive in the ring. I felt like a lamb led to slaughter. I didn’t have Omer’s natural calmness. My opponent punched me in the liver, I shut down mentally and the referee stopped the fight. The loss is one of my biggest regrets. If I had continued, the outcome may have been different.” Regular fight sessions mean you get super fit, adds Komal. “I’ve become toned, lost weight without trying. That your clothes fit you better is a happy coincidence!”
Xerses Bodhanwala spends 12 hours cooking up a storm in his popular bistro, then heads to the FFC where he boxes his heart out. Always sporty (football, hockey and squash) his sous chef stint in Australia saw him on the soccer field a lot. His wife, Sneha supports his ambitions wholeheartedly. “My worst injuries have been on the football field!” he laughs.
A football injury made him switch to boxing. “I injured myself on the football field and instead of resting it, went to fight. I heard my knee snap but I still managed to win. Because of physiotherapy, Muay Thai, which requires kicking, was out. So I switched to boxing, but I’m planning to return to Muay Thai soon.”
Xerxes aims to master Brazilian jiu-jitsu and pick up his Muay Thai again, and ultimately become competent in all the forms of fighting.