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Syed Rufaid discusses his incredible journey, being an MMA fighter/Jujitsu practitioner during the ongoing Pandemic and the future of the sport in India 

  • Syed Rufaid opens up about his journey as an MMA fighter
  • Syed Rufaid goes into detail about how MMA fighters are dealing with COVID-19 pandemic
Paarth Pande
Modified 31 May 2020, 16:29 IST
Syed Rufaid on the podium
Syed Rufaid on the podium

Starting training in a combat sport at the age of 28 and turning it into a full-time profession for most of us would mean a blockbuster movie starring a popular action superstar but for Syed Rufaid it was a journey. A regular Indian middle-class office goer, Rufaid was a content writer in an IT firm and by societal parameters was at a very good place in his life; he had a good-paying job, was married, and was a father. However, on a personal level, he felt stuck. “I remember that day, it was raining heavily and I saw an advertisement for Jiu-Jitsu classes. I walked in and was informed I could train in the sport if I wanted to. I was 90kgs back then and was feeling stuck working in that office 4x4 cubicle.”

The awe-inspiring journey of Rufaid

That 4-year-old decision of his to enter that class changed everything for him. “I trained for six months every single day and got into shape. It was then that I realized that this was something I wanted to do. I took the decision of resigning from my job to pursue a career in Martial Arts” Leaving your secure job for a career in any field of sports invokes blasphemous reactions in the Indian society. Leaving it when you’re married would get one declared as insane but for Rufaid it was an iron decision, one which was backed by his wife. “My father wasn’t happy that I was pursuing this sport, I had to lie to him that I was thrown out of my job to. My wife and my sister supported me unconditionally. My wife didn’t even raise an eyebrow, she supported my decision and realized this was my passion. It was the kind of support I needed. My brother too believed in me, he would come and tell me that I could become a world champion and had full faith in me

The support meant a lot because the journey by no means was easy. After training every single day for a year, Rufaid finally started competing professionally. He took up a competing in BJJ, where he went on to win the ADCC nation gold “I started competing in BJJ tournaments and picked up the DAMAU gold in 2018, International Open 2019 gold and the ADCC national gold in 2020. As a fighter, I usually go for submission wins and secured all the wins in the tournament I didn’t go for decision wins via points” It was after this win in tournaments that Rufaid’s father finally started taking him seriously. “I almost dislocated my shoulder in one of the tournaments. The injury I had suffered required attention and that is when my father realized that this was my passion and something I wanted to pursue. I always understood why he didn’t want me to take up this sport, he feared that I would get hurt but as he saw me working, he understood that this is what I wanted and since then has supported my journey.

The personal victories did bring in some stability but Rufaid knew that this by no means was permanent. “My family supports me today but the question is for how long? We need sponsors. When one takes up a sport like MMA in India, it becomes very difficult to find sponsors. After that injury, it was me and my family who had to bear the expenses. What a fighter makes after a fight is the bare minimum, they have to pay for medical, travel, hotels, camp, and everything else. After all of that is done there is nothing left from them. How are they supposed to improve if they can’t have the best coaches and guidance? I am lucky today to have a coaches and teammates like Rohit Vasudevan, Lachlan Convey, Kanatharaj Agasa and David Chhangte but I or any fighter needs sponsors support to grow.

Syed Rufaid in fight gear
Syed Rufaid in fight gear

This lack of financial support has already started hurting Rufaid. “I had the opportunity to fight outside India this year. A promotion in Italy wanted me to compete on their fight card but I simply couldn’t afford to go there. I approached multiple sponsors but not one was ready to back me. Some rejected because they didn’t think MMA was a sport popular enough to promote others simply rejected me because I was not playing cricket.” It is here where one can understand the state of the Indian sporting world. It isn’t as if there aren’t any sponsors, it’s that they simply don’t want to support any other sport than cricket. “India has so many leagues today, you have a wrestling league, badminton league, kabbadi league but how many of them earn anything close to what a cricketer earns. An average Indian team cricketer can buy out all the teams in the Kabbdi league. Sponsors simply don’t want to support our growth.

Things, however slowly were changing. “Colleges had started credits for training in karate, yoga, self-defense, kickboxing and Jiu-Jitsu, corporates have started using these as martial arts for self-defense and in general people are more aware of the sport. Things had, after a long time, slowly starting to change but that is when COVID hit.” The Coronavirus Pandemic has famously made headlines for the economic damage that it is going to cause, the MMA world and fitness industry is at the first line of this damage. “For the past four months no gym, trainer, MMA/Jiujitsu fighter has had anything to do. Two of my friends who ran a gym had to shut down everything and close their gym because they ran out of money. They didn’t only lose the infrastructure but also lost all their employees. The pandemic has drained out the industry. Only a few of us have been able to keep things active with the help of zoom classes but even that is limited to the most skilled people in the business.

The damage also comes from the fact that there are no events going on. “No promotion apart from the UFC is currently running their events. I appreciate the fact that promotions are keeping fighter safety in mind first but fighters are not earning anything. They basically have lost all sources of income. Maybe there should be some package by the government for the fitness industry so that job loss stops but in times like these we need sponsorship more than ever”

As the world dabbles with the virus, the fitness industry in general and MMA fighters in particular across the globe face a serious challenge. Isn’t it time that the corporate world, which has made so much profit from athletes and gyms, step-up and help the same athletes when they need them the most?  

Published 31 May 2020, 16:02 IST
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