Everyone, as the saying goes, has a plan until they are punched in the face. When the moment came, Gurpreet Singh was surprised how well he took the well-connected hook to his jaw. It was a few months ago, not more than a minute into Singh’s first sparring session at Singapore’s Evolve Gym where the 28-year-old former Indian international wrestler is training to be a mixed martial arts fighter.
“I’ve trained all my life as a wrestler. There are no strikes allowed there. So the first time you get punched in the face, it comes as a shock. For that first second you just pause. But then you carry on. You know lagna hi hai. Agar dar jaoge, you freeze aur fir aur khane padenge . Lag gaya lag gaya ( you know you are going to get hit. But if you get scared, you will freeze and will get hit even more) But you have to continue. Abhi toh bohot khane hain (I’ll have to take a lot more punches),” he says.
While he’ll look to avoid as many as he can, there will be many more punches in Gurpreet’s future plans now, as he moves to mixed martial arts. Indian fight fans will be hoping some of his success on the mat will transfer to the octagon where Gurpreet’s signed a training contract with Singapore’s Evolve with the expectation that he will ultimately feature in ONE Championship fight promotion. “I’ve come here to be a world champion. At all costs,” he says.
Former U-23 World silver medallist Ritu Phogat (7-2) has already traversed the international wrestler to One Championship via Evolve pathway but Singh will be the highest profile Indian men’s wrestler to do the same. Gurpreet though is easily the most accomplished Indian wrestler to take the plunge into mixed martial arts. He’s a silver medalist in the 77kg Greco-Roman category at the 2019 Asian Championships, a gold medallist at the Commonwealth Championships and has victories over Olympic and world champions.
For Gurpreet the plan was a while in the making. “When I was a kid I used to get into a lot of fights at school. In fact the reason why my father put me into wrestling was because he felt I should try and use my aggression in the proper way. But now that I’m actually fighting again, it feels like I’ve gone back to my roots,” he says.
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His formal introduction to mixed martial arts would come later. “I had started following mixed martial arts since 2014. It’s a game where your mindset has to be very strong. You have to be mentally very tough. It’s something that I felt I wanted to do as well,” he says.
Gurpreet largely kept the idea to himself for many years as he looked to build on a promising wrestling career and fulfill his goal of qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics. Yet the draw fight game never went away. In 2020, he went to the Evolve facility in Singapore to test waters. He also spoke to Phogat who had already made her MMA debut. “I’d already wanted to fight MMA before Ritu fought in ONE Championship but when I was in Singapore, I asked her what the challenges were. But she was very encouraging,” he says.
Gurpreet’s original plan was to make the switch after the Tokyo Olympics, a prospect that got delayed following the Games postponement due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite his best efforts – he’d twice beat the 2012 Olympic champion Kim Hyeon Woo and also beat 2017 World Champion Viktor Nemes – Gurpeet would fall just short of Olympic qualification losing to the eventual Tokyo silver medalist Akhzol Makhmudov and bronze medallist Rafig Huseynov at the Asian and World Olympic qualifiers.
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Failure to qualify planted a seed of doubt in his mind but he eventually chose to close the chapter on his wrestling career. “It was very disappointing to not qualify for the Olympics. It was always a dream but I knew that I could not give another four years to wrestling. I knew I had to make a choice. You have to give a hundred percent to whatever you chose and so I decided to pursue MMA,” he says. It was a call that has drawn mixed reactions from his compatriots. “Many of them advised me not to. They said that I was just reaching my peak as a wrestler. They felt I was giving it all away and going and starting something new,” he says.
While MMA is indeed something new for Gurpreet, he also knows he won’t be starting completely from scratch. With some of the best MMA fighters coming from a wrestling background like he does, he’s also confident he’s got a strong base to work on. “Wrestling is one of the best martial arts to help build yourself as an MMA fighter. (Former UFC champions) Khabib Nurmagumedov, Daniel Cormier, (current pound for pound number 1) Kamaru Usman all have a wrestling background. There’s something about wrestling that makes us good fighters. We keep pushing and grinding,” he says.
While wrestling pedigree will definitely help his career, it’s no guarantee for success. There have been more than a few high profile Greco-Roman wrestlers, who have found themselves unable to make the transition to MMA. Former World champion Amir Aliakbari of Iran for example is currently on a two-fight losing streak in ONE Championships, after being knocked out during punching exchanges.
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That’s a weakness in his own game Gurpreet knows he has to plug. While his wrestling skills allow him to be comfortable taking the fight to the ground, Gurpreet is working on his standing game. “I have a lot of work to do to get better in my striking. Punching is still something that comes to me because we do a lot of handfighting in Greco-Roman wrestling but leg kicks is a little hard. It’s a motion I’ve never had to do in wrestling. But it’s not impossible to pick up. When I spar, I don’t feel that I’m very weak. Honestly, it’s a lot easier to learn striking in five or six months than wrestling. You can’t even learn a stance correctly in that much time,” he says.
Gurpreet knows much is expected of him. “Right now there will be almost no MMA fighter in Asia who has the kind of wrestling background I have. In fact when (Punjabi origin Canadian ONE heavyweight champion) Arjan Bhullar knew that I’ve started working with Evolve, he was really happy because there’s another pehelwan in MMA. There’s a little bit of pressure for sure but I have to use my experience in wrestling and use it to get better in this sport,” he says.
As he looks to develop his fight craft, Gurpreet knows there’s no going back. “I have a lot to improve on but right now I’m confident enough to fight at least once this year. I’m completely determined about that. I can’t say after a few weeks that I want to go back into wrestling. I’m improving bit by bit every day that I’m here. I know that if I put in my best effort, there’s no reason I can't be champion. I’ve come here to be a world champion. I’ll do whatever it takes to achieve that,” he says.