It’s not easy to compress a near decade of struggle into a TV friendly thirty second quip. Indeed, Anshul Jubli felt the weight of pressure when he spoke his first words inside the UFC octagon last month. Just minutes earlier, the 28-year-old from Uttarakhand had knocked out Indonesia’s Jeka Sargih in brutal fashion to win the Road To UFC lightweight championships.
That result saw him become the first Indian mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter to earn a contract at the UFC – the world’s most prestigious mixed martial arts promotion.
Now, as he was put on the spot by UFC commentator and former champion Michael Bisping in the post fight interview, Anshul wanted to get his words just right.
“Namaste UFC! India has arrived,” he bellowed into the microphone. And just like that, on the biggest MMA platform around, Anshul announced himself as the first bonafide star of the sport in India.
Fame has come with its fine print, though. When he does interviews he is constantly reminding himself not to mix up ‘s’ for ‘sh’ while speaking Hindi in the way people from Uttarakhand sometimes do. Already blessed with rakish good looks and an easy sense of humour, the increased attention has his long-time girlfriend worried. “ Woh pareshan hai (She’s also worried). A lot of people are saying now that I’m in the UFC, I’m going to become a ladies man,” he says. Another acquaintance has heard about the USD 50,000 knockout of the night fight bonus he won in Vegas and asked if he could loan him ₹10 lakh.
‘All crazy now’
His Instagram account has attracted attention. He has over 1,70,000 followers now, up from around 5,000 before his latest win. It’s a bit overwhelming. On his first day back training at New Delhi’s Crosstrain MMA academy, a senior coach asked him why he didn’t respond to his Instagram story. “I used to reply to every message that I got. Now it’s impossible to do that. It’s all crazy now,” he says.
There was another time though, before his path-breaking five fight UFC contract and the fat fight bonus. Earlier, he fought at glitzy Las Vegas and minus his hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers – back when he was just another fighter, barely scraping by, chasing what seemed to anyone like a fairly ludicrous goal of becoming the first Indian fighter in the UFC.
India’s MMA culture is still in its infancy, far more so five years ago when Anshul first started learning the sport. Before him, only one Indian – Bharat Khandare – had fought on a UFC card. Khandare had been knocked out and then been cut after testing positive for steroid use. Even in that barren landscape, Anshul believed he’d be a pioneer.
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“A few years ago, there were a group of us at Crosstrain who were discussing when would the first Indian fight in the UFC. No one was optimistic. We hadn’t had any great results at One Championships or Brave (fight promotions considered to be a rung below the UFC) so how could we think about the UFC? Some people thought it would take at least a decade. I was quiet then but I was thinking to myself ‘I’m going to be that guy. I’m going to have (ring announcer) Bruce Buffer introduce me, Michael Bisping interview me after a win and one day have Dana White put a belt around my waist’,” he says.
He kept his belief to himself for another year. But finally, in late 2021, when he had all of five fights under his belt, and two years before he made history in Vegas, Anshul Jubli did tell one person exactly what he was going to do.
Personal message to UFC owner
On November 18, 2021, Anshul sent a direct message on Instagram to Dana White, billionaire owner of the UFC – that he was going to fight in his promotion. “Later on, I realised that there was probably no way he would have seen that DM. But at that time, I felt I was writing a contract there itself,” he says.
In a message that’s still marked unread, Anshul wrote:
India is coming!
2023 UFC fighter
2026 UFC Champion.
Anshul Jubli didn’t start out thinking he’d be a UFC fighter. The state of Uttarakhand, where is from, has one of the highest rates of army enlistment in India. Most boys from the Army school in Uttarkashi, a small town of 40,000 in the lower Himalayas, where he studied, aspired to be in the army, says Anshul, whose own father served in the Border Security Force.
The fascination with the army was mixed with dread. “People say that MMA is tough but it’s maybe 0.1 percent as hard as how being an army guy is. Dad has escaped death many times. He escaped a bomb attack in Kashmir just by a few minutes and in Jharkhand, the BSF truck in front of his was blown up by a land mine (planted by the Naxals). These places have no mobile connectivity. We would hear on the news only that there is firing and only find out a few days later that everything was okay,” he says.
A real scrapper
Uttarkashi, up in the Himalayan foothills, might be mentioned in the Skanda Purana as a place for meditation, but wasn’t immune to violence when Anshul studied there. He was a good student – excelling in maths – but didn’t shy away from trouble. “I fought all the time. Didn’t matter if they were bigger and stronger than me,” he admits. The bravado didn’t always work out for him.
Indeed, while Anshul hardly has a mark on his body from his fighting career – befitting someone who has never lost in the cage – he wears a nasty three-inch scar on right torso, trophy of a clash with someone who preferred knives to fists.
While fighting was instinctive, MMA was still a while away at this point. After graduating from high school, he thought of becoming a footballer while taking maths tuitions on the side to earn money.
It was the chance look at a Facebook meme that drew Anshul’s attention towards fight sport. “They were comparing a footballer faking an injury and comparing it to two MMA fighters who were absolutely bloodied in the cage. They were saying how easy football was. I thought I was a tough guy. So I started trying to find out more about what this sport was,” he says.
He found his way to a local coach who taught MMA off videos he saw off the internet. While he wasn’t learning much in fight training, Anshul excelled in the real thing – he was entered for his first unsanctioned amateur event just fifteen days after he first walked into the gym. “There was blood spurting, teeth flying and people getting knocked out. That was the first time I felt like throwing up before a fight,” he says.
Fighting against a seasoned karateka, Anshul took some heavy kicks to his ribs but improvised to take a decision win. The lesson was painful but revelatory.
“Any fear I had disappeared once the fight started. I started MMA late. I’ve not always been the most trained but I know how to adapt to difficulty and win. I don’t have pre-fight anxiety like many fighters do. I believe I was built, physically and mentally, just to fight,” he says.
In quest of a dream
A year after his first amateur fight, Anshul decided to train properly. Armed with a dream and money he’d saved up while taking maths tuitions in Dehradun, he showed up at New Delhi’s Crosstrain fight club. Operating out of the basement of a house in South Delhi, Crosstrain is run by Siddharth Singh, a man who had a similarly crazy dream.
A former finance executive in London, Siddharth was the first Indian to earn a brown belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu – one of the foundational skills of MMA. He returned to India a decade ago with the goal of producing a UFC fighter from India.
He didn’t make much of Anshul at first. There were dozens like this young man from a small town who showed up every month at Crosstrain, inspired by the UFC or action films. Meanwhile, Anshul, who had given himself a year to make it in Delhi, ran out of cash two months into his mission.-
“Delhi was far more expensive than I thought. But I couldn’t quit. I borrowed money from everyone. I shared a ₹2,000-a-month-room with five other guys and a fan that only turned at the ‘1’ setting on the regulator. Rather than take an auto-rickshaw and save time, I took a bus and walked and saved ₹60 a day so I had money to eat,” he says.
Anshul isn’t saying this to get sympathy. “Struggle made me harder. It that was the best thing that happened to me. If I’d gotten things easy, I wouldn’t have been as committed,” he says.
His drive and determination to improve saw him continue to grind out wins in amateur fights. Eventually, after Anshul won an amateur tournament in Bangalore, coach Siddharth took the youngster under his wing. “Coach Siddharth has paid for all my camps, training and flights. I’m indebted to him,” says Anshul.
That investment has been well worth it. Making his professional debut at Matrix Fight Night, the MMA promotion led by Bollywood actor Tiger Shroff, Anshul became a breakout star. “Anshul had the heart of a fighter when he joined Crosstrain in 2018 but he wasn’t a well-rounded fighter. At Crosstrain, he got a specialised boxing coach (he currently trains with Commonwealth Games bronze medallist Rohit Tokas), 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 (70.7kg) division,” Siddharth tells Sportstar.
As his career blossomed, in some way things have gotten easier for Anshul. “I started my career fighting in cages where the walls had to be held up by people. When I got USD 1,000 for winning my first fight, I finally moved to an apartment near my academy. That was the first time I stayed in a house with a security deposit. It’s nice to have money. Back when I was a rookie, I’d split a ₹30 plate of momos with my girlfriend. Now I can take her out to dinner at a nice restaurant,” he says.
His time in the ring has become more challenging, though. Untroubled against any of his opponents in India, he was taken to his first split decision by South Korea’s Kyung Pyo Kim in the semifinals of the Road to UFC competition last year. “I knocked him down twice in the first round but he figured out my punch combination and adjusted for it. That took me by surprise at first because that’s the mark of a quality fighter. Once I understood what was going on, I put on the pressure in the last round to take the win,” he says.
Rubbing shoulders with the best
Despite that check against Kim, Anshul’s confidence has only been growing. He says he wasn’t at all overawed when he travelled to Las Vegas to compete in the final of the Road to UFC. “I’m a small-town guy. I was wide-eyed the first time I went abroad. Now, it’s nothing special. When I scheduled a physiotherapist appointment at the UFC performance centre, (UFC flyweight champion) Brandon Moreno was on one side of me, [and] (UFC bantamweight champion) Aljamain Sterling was on the other. I didn’t care about getting a picture clicked with them or anything. They were just fighters and I was just chilling next to them,” he says.
Anshul met several others fighters he has only known from TV at Vegas. While they were uniformly friendly, his ethnicity drew some curious looks. “In the USA, Indians are only seen as engineers and doctors. No one believed I was a fighter born and trained in India,” he says.
While his impressive knockout of Seragih will change some perceptions, Anshul and his coach want to leave a deeper impact. “Anshul’s career growth has been tremendous. When he fought his first professional fight, he was at about 20 per cent of what I felt was his potential as a fighter. I told him if he ever reached 60 percent of his potential, he’d be fighting in the UFC. If he got to 80 percent he’d be ranked in the top 10. And once he reached his limit, I told him he would be fighting for a title. But right now there are so many areas for him to get better,” says Siddharth.
Anshul knows he has got a long way to go. “My dad’s started following MMA now. I thought he’d be happy after my last fight but he said you aren’t as good as Islam (reigning lightweight champion Islam Makhachev). My mother on the other hand wants me to quit and take up a steady job. When a politician comes to our house she told me to ask him for a government job,” he laughs.
A regular pay cheque wouldn’t be a bad thing, actually. “The contract and fight bonus seem like a lot but 30 per cent of my purse was deducted in taxes at Las Vegas. Another 20 per cent went to my coaches and managers. By the time everyone got their cut, I just about have enough to prepare for my next fight,” he shrugs.
He’s not complaining, though.“When I started my career in MMA, I never thought I’d be famous on Instagram or have a lot of money. The only thing I’d visualised was that (ring announcer) Bruce Buffer would announce my name and Michael Bisping would call my name after I won and interview me. All that happened just as I dreamt,” he says.
With the adrenaline pumping in the way it only does after beating an opponent in the cage, Anshul didn’t get everything right. “I started out well but I had all these things planned out. But I was so excited that I forgot a bunch of what I wanted to say,” he recalls. “Maybe I’ll say it next time around,” he says.
For those who heard him in the octagon, however, Anshul couldn’t have said it any better. “From the Himalayas of Uttarakhand, from the great country of India. We aren’t stopping here. We are going all the way to the top,” he said.
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