One punch man - Meet Shivashankara Subarayappa, the one-armed fighter making waves in Indian kickboxing

If you think kickboxing’s hard enough as it is, try doing it with just one arm.

Published : Nov 24, 2023 11:29 IST , NEW DELHI - 16 MINS READ

As far as fighting hierarchy goes, an amateur kickboxing bout on the undercard of a domestic Indian martial arts tournament doesn’t rank particularly high. But plenty of people did take note when, on the undercard of Warriors Dream Series in Navi Mumbai last week, Shivashankara Subarayappa doubled his opponent over and then knocked him out with a vicious cross body kick.

In the Indian martial arts scene, amateur competitions are where youngsters get their first taste of competition and build up their skills before the venture into the professional ranks. Most have varying degrees of training and are still polishing facets of their game here. While every fighter comes in with some shortcoming, no one has it as hard as Shivashankara though. For if you think kickboxing’s hard enough as it is, try doing it with just one arm.

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Despite his very obvious handicap, Shivashankara, who is likely the only disabled kickboxer -elite or otherwise - in India, has shown he’s more than capable of handling himself. The 25-year-old’s win last week was his second by knockout in as many bouts. Indeed perhaps his most uncomfortable moment in the ring probably came after his win. For when the winner of the contest had to be declared, the referee standing to Shivashankara’s right couldn’t grab the wrist closest to him since there was none. Instead the official had to reach across his body and lift his left wrist aloft. It’s an awkward moment but in the video of the contest, an exhausted Shivashankara has a big grin on his face.

In case you haven’t got the memo, Shivashankaradoesn’t want your sympathy. He’s too busy chasing his sporting dreams unafraid of mixing it up with other ‘regular’ folk.

No different from the rest

Shivashankarawasn’t always a sportsperson but he always remembers being unafraid of trying new things. When he was 6 years old, he lost his right arm above the elbow after being hit by a truck in his village of Bagepalli, about 100km from Bengaluru. Despite his injury, he remembers his parents never let him feel as if he was anything different.

“My parents never allowed to think ‘oh poor me’. I was always doing the same things everyone else was. Whatever I needed two hands for, I changed to doing with one hand. If my friends were playing cricket, I’d also play even if I was only able to hit the ball with one arm. There were people who made fun of me. I would pretend I didn’t hear what they said but it hurt. I would just ignore it and focus on myself,” he says.

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Shivashankara took to cricket seriously once he shifted to college in Bangalore. “I was watching an IPL match and I thought I wanted to do this as well. I had played tennis ball cricket before but I wanted to play leather ball cricket as well,” he says.

A Google search brought him to Irfan Sait, a coach with the Karnataka Cricket Association. “Initially there were some doubts because I only had one arm and didn’t have the strength to play with a leather ball. At first I could only hit the ball about 30 meters. Irfan sir encouraged me and taught me different drills,” he says.

The work paid off. Competition for differently disabled athletes exists, and Shivashankara both made it to the Indian team and competed internationally. However he was always pushing himself to compete against regular cricketers. By the end of his years in college, Shivashankara would become captain of his college team and even playing club cricket for Herons CC in Bangalore’s second division.

From cricket to kickboxing

A batting all-rounder, Shivashankara says he became known for his aggression. “I was always someone who would attack the bowlers. I started out not being able to even beat the infield but I was able to clear the fences regularly against fast bowlers,” he says.

Spin though, with it’s need for wristy play, proved a problem. It was to improve his handspeed that Shivashankara first entered the world of kickboxing.

Shivashankara Subarayappa with his coach Vishal Seigell
Shivashankara Subarayappa with his coach Vishal Seigell

Shivashankara Subarayappa with his coach Vishal Seigell

It was perhaps luck that the first academy he visited – Koi Kickboxing academy was run by Vishal Seigell. A well known coach in the Indian MMA scene, Seigell wasn’t taken aback by the one armed man who wanted to learn to box.

“Most guys wouldn’t have wanted to work with Shiva because there are just so many limitations. But about ten years back I had worked with a taekwondo player who had a similar disability. So I knew that it was possible,” he says.

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Indeed after about a week of training, Seigell felt Shivashankara had the ability to compete as well. “He obviously had come from a sports background so he had a basic level of fitness. I realised he has some qualities in strength, agility and certain qualities because of which he would adapt to things faster than an average person. He’s differently abled but not average. You can teach a lot of things but you can’t teach heart and chin (the ability to take a punch)” he says.

Shivashankara himself wasn’t particularly worried about fighting against a fighter able to use both his hands either. “In my first day of training Vishal sir told me if I had the ability he would put me in a fight with a regular fighter. That didn’t scare me. I have a lot of self belief,” he says.

Self belief is one thing but as Seigell admits, the fact is with only one hand, Shivashankara will always be at a disadvantage.

“He is entirely open on his right hand side. He, of course, can’t throw a punch from his right hand side but he also can’t block anything coming from that direction. He can’t stay in the pocket and exchange punches because he will certainly take a punch. So he has to punch and step out. He also can’t set up any punches or combinations because his jab and power hand is the same. So, we have to use a lot of footwork to compensate,” he says.

Punching above his weight

This was hard for Shivashankara but, as Seigell told him, doable. “I gave him the example of Nick Newell who also had just one functioning arm but eventually rose to fight in Bellator (a top MMA promotion in the USA) and even fought (UFC lightweight title contender) Justin Gaethje,” he says. Indeed Shivashankara had some advantages as well. “Because he had lived most of his life with just one arm, it was really strong. It’s like a piston. Additionally since he’s missing an arm, he can actually fight in a lower weight category than he would otherwise be able to,” says Seigell.

With just about two months of training, Shivashankara went into his first amateur fight - at the Warriors Dream series. “I wasn’t nervous at all. I was just thinking about following my training,” he says.

He won that fight by knockout in the first round. “He was just so aggressive that his opponent couldn’t even get a punch off,” recalls Seigell. That first win got people taking notice of Shivashankara who even won an award for best fighter of the day .

“Love to see this,” Bellator fighter Newell posted on Instagram. Not all the reaction were as supportive though. “We had people saying that we were giving false hopes to him.” says Seigell.

Nick Newell
Nick Newell

Nick Newell

There are other issues too. “There’s a feeling that it’s a no win situation to fight Shiva. If you lose, you become the guy who lost to someone with one arm and if you win, you only beat a guy with one arm. There have been a few times where people have pulled out of a fight because of that. Some said opponents were going easy on him and that there was no point in fighting someone like him But we have always made it clear that we don’t expect anyone to give us quarter and we don’t give that to any opponent either,” Seigell says.

Persistent but pragmatic

Indeed Shivashankara though is always up for a fight when one is arranged. He fractured his left hand while fielding in a cricket match a few weeks before his second fight and was unable to spar at all until the cast was taken off a few days before the bout. “I wasn’t sure if he should fight since he had no training at all for a month and he was up against an opponent who was training for two years. But he went ahead. He showed a lot of rustiness and made some mistakes but he still got the win,” says Seigell.

Although Shivashankara’s record is perfect, Seigell says he wants to be realistic about his prospects. Although Shivashankara is a strong fighter, being an amateur, he has to balance his training along with his office job in a Bangalore corporate office. “I’m not going to say he will become a Khabib Nurmagomedov. But he still is a long way from getting to his peak as a fighter. Right now we need to keep him training regularly. He needs to get a few more amateur fights before we can think of putting him in a professional bout. We have already got some interest from an overseas opponent but there’s still time to go for that to happen,” he says.

Shivashankara is up for it. “It will be a tough challenge. But I’m someone who is up for this,” he says. Expect him to change a few mindsets along the way. “As a youngster there were always people who would make jokes about me or treat me badly because of my disability. Back then I’d just ignore or laugh along with them. Now of course no one tries to do that,” he says.

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