For Anshul Jubli, life has evolved with a confluence of destiny and passion. There are no fairytales, no miracles in his story. In his own words, he is “an ordinary man” from picture-postcard Uttarkashi, a north Indian town of rich cultural, religious and yogic heritage. Where he is headed is the bone-crunching world of combat sport, which practitioners say combines the best of ring craft, skill, strength, endurance, heart, intent, and a calm mind which ties all facets together to deliver destruction.
A decade after picking up combat sports as a pastime, Anshul is three wins away from securing an Ultimate Fighting Championship contract. He will get his chance at the Road to UFC competition in Singapore.
The 27-year-old, who once wanted to join the Indian military, stands on the verge of a pivotal moment for himself and India’s Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) industry. If he succeeds, he will be only the second Indian after Bharat Kandare to bag a contract with the world’s biggest MMA promotion. However, it’s a contract and feat that another Indian fighter, Pawan Maan Singh, is also eyeing.
READ: Asian medallist Gurpreet Singh swaps wrestling mat for the octagon
Both are in the lightweight class (70.3 kg) for the tournament, which will give Asia’s top 32 fighters a chance to make the cut for UFC across four weight classes.
Anshul and his coach, Siddharth Singh, will touchdown in Singapore on June 5, with the first of his three crucial fights scheduled ahead of UFC 275 on June 10 at the Singapore Indoor Stadium.
Speaking from his training camp at the world-renowned Tiger Muay Thai centre in Thailand’s tourist destination Phuket, Anshul is calm amid the weight of opportunity.
The conversation veers to his WhatsApp DP (display picture), which has lines from American poet Robert Frost’s work, The Road Not Taken: ‘ Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— / I took the one less travelled by, / And that has made all the difference.’
Anshul cannot help but look back on his journey. “I read this when I was 16 or 17 in someone’s Facebook post. I did not even realise it was a poem. But it has stuck with me since. Yes, this road has made all the difference (smiles) .”
READ: Road to UFC schedule: India's Anshul Jubli faces Sho Usami in opener; Pawan Maan Singh takes on China's Muratbek
He is enjoying the democratised ways of the brutally individual sport. “Everyone, from the top-level athletes to the young fighters, trains together. But the top-level fighters train in the arena on the right and the newer ones move to the left. I wanted to start somewhere in between because most of them will choose their training partner at the start and wouldn’t pick you,” he says.
“When I came here for a month earlier, I moved towards the right in the last week. This time when I came, I made a lot of friends and got good partners. This can only happen in MMA where you train with the best. For instance, even if you are a bright prospect in cricket, you would hardly get to train with Virat Kohli, isn’t it? You have to make it to the Indian team to train with the best. That’s not the case if you want to train with the top-10 UFC athletes. Maybe for a fight, you might need to enter the top level, but not to train.”
For Anshul, whose father worked in the Border Security Force (BSF), combat sports happened in the pursuit of a career in the Indian military, and eventually took over his heart. “I started pretty late. I understood the sport when I was about 20 years old, and took it seriously only at 23.”
He made his amateur debut in 2015 and had a bewildering experience. “ Uss time mein MMA ka matlab ye hota tha ki boxers aur wrestlers ek doosre se lad rahe hain (Back then, MMA meant boxers and wrestlers are fighting each other) . Nobody understood the art of this sport. My first fight was with a karate specialist. I was a light heavyweight then. I was pretty heavy (laughs).”
There were about 30 participants in his first contest. “Some were being knocked out, one had blood running down his face. I was like, ‘Do I want to do this?’, but after my fight, it was, ‘Oh my god! This is what I want to do!’”
He considers himself an obsessed student of the sport. “I love to study the science and technique of the sport. If we stop speaking for two minutes, I will go back to thinking about the last technique I executed.”
Anshul’s pursuit brought him to Delhi in 2018, where he joined the Crosstrain Fight Club run by Siddharth. “I am very emotional when I talk about Siddharth sir. I remember when I used to be new to Crosstrain. I won a tournament when Siddharth sir sponsored my fees,” says Anshul.
Siddharth, India’s first brown belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ), transformed Anshul into an all-round MMA fighter. Anshul soon smashed his way to the next stage - from Amateur to Pro with a 13-0 record.
Plunge to Pro
The transition took work. “It was not easy (laughs). It was all fine until the night before the first fight. My first pro fight was in MFN (Matrix Fight Night). Earlier, I used to fight in arenas where people had to hold the cage to prevent it from tumbling down. And suddenly, you had these big lights and cameras... a YouTube team, an Instagram team... your interviews are happening... you are staying in a five-star hotel. Everything was professional,” says Anshul. “I wasn’t nervous but took my time to adjust. I am a very, very good fighter (laughs) and that’s why I’ve come through.”
Anshul and Siddharth were not surprised when the Road to UFC spot came.
On the UFC radar
Siddharth is stoked about the opportunity Anshul has created. “UFC has been eyeing the Indian market since 2008. Back in 2011, they sent a scouting team to visit various gyms in India to find potential fighters. It did not work out then because the infrastructure wasn’t great and not a lot of gyms had MMA training.
“When Anshul joined us in 2018, he was an amateur with a few fights but wasn’t a well-rounded fighter. But at Crosstrain he got a specialised boxing coach, kickboxing coach, and wrestling coach and I was his jiu-jitsu coach. He then went on the rampage in MFN. There came a point when he wiped out the entire lightweight division. At 70kg in India, he had nobody to fight. In his last MFN fight, he got an international opponent from the middle-east and he finished him in the first round. He wiped out the entire market. He has been the face of Indian MMA for the last two years,” says Siddharth.
READ: UFC Fight Night 207, Volkov vs Rozenstruik: Preview, full fight card, streaming info, timings, key stats
“The Road to UFC was focusing on three weight classes: 61.2kg, 66kg and 70kg. What they have also done is that they have set up a UFC India team who are acting as scouts/coordinators with different coaches. They got in touch with me after Anshul’s last fight in MFN.
“The next discussion was about whether Anshul was a clean fighter. He is a completely natural fighter. He started having whey supplements only when I got him one last month. The next thing was whether he could fight at short notice. Again, Anshul is always training and has no off-season. So yeah, we told, we were ready. Ideally, if we had time, we would have gone to the US and trained at AKA (American Kickboxing Academy), but opportunities do not wait for you,” says Siddharth.
Anshul and Siddharth were given the lowdown on his quarterfinal opponent, Japan’s Sho “Patrick” Usami, two weeks ago. “We don’t know much about him. We have seen a few of his fights and have been studying him. He is one of the slickest strikers that I have ever coached against. He has very high boxing credentials. He was in Japan’s Youth Olympics boxing team. He has won most of his fights by knockouts. He is a very high-level guy and also trained by former UFC title contender Yushin Okami. No Indian has ever fought an opponent of this calibre.
“If Anshul can pull this off, it’s going to be the biggest win ever in the history of Indian MMA,” says Siddharth.
Siddharth believes Anshul is a unique fighter. “Some people are naturally talented and some are hard-working. He is a mix of both… There’s something about his cognitive ability that helps him grasp things fast. He is mentally tough. He has sacrificed a lot to get here and he understands this is a one-time opportunity,” says Siddharth.