The Elite Football League of India launched this summer to yawning indifference from audiences in the sub-continent and curious derision from observers in the U.S. Importing American football — shoulder pads, helmets, down markers, and all — to a country where even rugby is a fifth-rung sport seemed foolhardy, but league officials, citing the paucity of sports on Indian television and the expanding desires of a swelling middle class, were convinced of the EFLI’s prospects. This despite the admitted weaknesses in their product. Talking to the New York Times, Richard Whelan, the American CEO of the sports venture, disparaged his own league even as he touted its potential. “It’s an absolute joke compared to the NFL,” he said. “But it’s not a joke compared to anything else on Indian sports television, and that’s all we’re going up against.”
In other words, even if the Indian, Pakistani, and Sri Lankan players who suited up had little to no prior experience playing the world’s most byzantine sport, the on-field drama inherent to football would convince Indian audiences to throw down their cricket bats, order some nachos, and tune in -- or at least be intrigued enough to merit a second season.
Whelan may have been dismissive but he wasn’t exactly wrong. My summers in India as a child were spent flipping between reruns of cricket matches, reruns of professional wrestling, and reruns of more cricket matches. Live cricket, because of its culture-consuming vastness, can be something of a thrill. When weeks old, however, cricket no longer excites. These days, as India’s ballooning middle class is yearning for more things to consume, sports are picking up. F1 racing is marginally popular, and Bollywood stars have made cricket a sexier (and shorter) sport with the Indian Premier League. Soccer, meanwhile, has made the most headway — Chelsea and Arsenal jerseys have become popular street wear.
But those hoping to seize upon India’s exploding sports and youth culture should take note of the EFLI’s poor media strategy: If you import crap product at least give your audience a bit of credit for sophistication. Because the competition for Indian eyes and ad revenue is about to get more competitive.
This September the Ultimate Fight Championship announced that it will be taking a shot at India. In partnership with the Indian satellite channel SONY SIX, the world’s biggest MMA promotion will be airing The Ultimate Fighter: India in the coming year. Replicating successful models of expansion in Brazil and Australia, TUF India will offer a UFC contract to the winner of a reality-show-styled-but-very-real tournament. So, will the UFC’s efforts resemble those of Whelan and company and leave the joys and subtleties of MMA lost in cultural translation? Or is there something universal about choking someone out and kicking someone in the head that will transcend those boundaries.
The answer seems simple. Fighting, martial combat, the grappling of limbs is, if anything, the closest sport comes to non-sport, a Hobbesian version of life — nasty, brutish, and short — made real. India like every country I can think of, has indigenous, homegrown styles of wrestling and grappling that, with the right encouragement, could support the rise of a true UFC fighter, and a true MMA fanbase.
At the press conference in Mumbai on September 11, 2011, announcing TUF India, Man Jit Singh, CEO of SIX’s parent company, pointed to India’s “long legacy of Kushti,” and hoped that “our fighters from the akharas and gyms will progress and eventually become UFC champions.” Kushti is a centuries-old grappling discipline. Fighters live and train in monastery-like schools called akharas and abstain from alcohol and sex while surviving on a vegetarian diet of protein-rich dairy and nuts. Kushti wrestling matches take place in mud pits that are infused with clarified butter, or ghee, which causes the mud to stick to wrestlers’ bodies. Looking at pictures from the akharas, it’s as if the fighters emerge fully formed from the earth, nobly slicked with the muck of existence.
Kushti is a waning subculture, one that’s cordoned off from mainstream Indian culture and probably even less popular than rugby, but it holds the promise of adding something particularly Indian to the polyglot mix of UFC disciplines. Just as college wrestling has produced a crop of excellent UFC fighters, so too could Kushti add another set of fighting ideas to the growing knowledge base of MMA and help create new ways for one person to beat up another.
After all, Hinduism’s greatest epic is the Mahabharata, a dynastic struggle between two warring branches of the same royal family tree. The final battle for control of the kingdom in that legend isn’t a clash of two mighty armies but a surreptitious one-on-one contest between the best warriors of either side -- Duryodhana (the bad guy) and Bhima (the good guy). That fight ends with a low blow. Whatever it takes, I guess, to wear the crown.
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