More than three years ago, another twenty-something-year-old in Uttarakhand, was being persuaded to appear for a public service commission examination. It was a familiar story. One that plays on repeat in many, many Indian households.
But Rudraprayag’s Angad Bisht believed in writing himself a story that is far from conventional. It wasn’t the security, perks or stability of a government job that enticed him. What intrigued him was the gore, thrill and adrenaline rush that came with fighting inside an octagon.
Today, Bisht is the top-ranked fighter in the Flyweight division, according to Tapology’s recent South Asian Pro Ranking and one of India’s top mixed martial arts fighters.
His friends and supporters believe that becoming popular enough to feature as one of the questions in the Uttarakhand Public Service Commision Examination – the same one he was once being coaxed to take – is the ultimate definition of ‘making it big.’ But Bisht has even bigger plans.
A maverick’s path
His immediate plan is defending his flyweight title against Brazil’s Hugo Paiva in the main event of India’s biggest MMA promotion, Matrix Fight Night 12 at the Noida Indoor Stadium on July 1. For somebody who began his fighting career when he was 21, which is relatively late by MMA standards, Bisht has come a long way.
“I remember coming back home after winning my first amateur fight in 2015 and the adrenaline rush that followed,” he recalled, in a conversation with Scroll.
“Wo paaon thartharana, jo punch pad rahe the, phir jeet ke wo haath uthana aur jab aap wapis ghar aa rahe ho... wo jo feeling thi na, that rush made me feel like main iss hi ke liye bana hu aur main yahi karunga,” he said. “The shaking of the legs, the punches landing, the hand being raised and when I was finally returning home... that feeling, that rush made me feel like I am made for this and this is exactly what I will do.
“I used to think, ‘if I want to become a big man in the future, I can’t do it with a 9-5 government job, with a Rs 30,000 salary adn the same routine every day.’ I can’t do the white-collared life. So each time I was home, each morning, my father would give me one nudge on my head and say, ‘Kya karein ab tera?’ That continued for years but I kept my resolve,” added the 28-year-old.
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Bisht, on the insistence of his parents, was initially navigating his way to becoming a doctor but it wasn’t where his happiness lay. He admitted that he had the smarts, but by making the switch from an extremely conventional career path for to one of the most unorthodox choices for an Indian, Bisht charted his life out as a maverick.
Even as the waters remain largely untested with no clear path for success, MMA in India today has seen an organic rise in popularity. Five years ago, there were much fewer professional MMA training centres in India than there are now. With training centres in Thailand and Indonesia also acknowledging the talent Indian fighters possess, Bisht has made his way through a time when the scope for this sport was even more challenging.
“The levels to this are insane.... The competition just gets better after each fight. I love that competition and I love the training I need to do to get there,” said Bisht.
Currently, Bisht has a professional MMA record of 9-3-0 (Win-Loss-Draw) and is on a four-match winning streak. With the experience of fighting in the Brave Combat Federation in 2019 and in the Super Fight League in 2018, Bisht is now one of the most consistently active Indian MMA fighters in the last couple of years.
He is also the first fighter in MFN history to fight and win in three consecutive weight divisions. But it was only his title victory against Egypt’s Mohamed Gamal for the Flyweight title at MFN 10 in November last year that finally got him the acknowledgement at home.
“They saw my following and since my recognition increased, they’ve relaxed a bit,” he said. “But no matter what I achieve, there is still going to be some hesitation. For instance, I have to deal with my mother’s sarcasm. She once looked at my niece and said to me, ‘Hum toh chahte the ke tu bane doctor. Tu toh bana nahi, ab ye banegi,’” he added with a laugh.
Outside the cage
For his upcoming fight against Paiva, he is currently training at the Bangtao Muay Thai and MMA centre in Thailand. He runs Mutant MMA Gym back in Dehradun but since he now trains at an advanced level, he begins training overseas one month prior to his fights. When in India, he focuses on strength and conditioning and altitude training.
However, while what a fighter does inside the cage is important, what happens outside it is just as crucial. In fact, it is a big determinant in the kind of contracts one gets – for promoters to take notice and for the kinds of fights you land. Bisht acknowledged that it is especially challenging for fighters to build a personality that is exciting even outside the octagon, especially when there are very few success stories from India to borrow tips from.
“I think it matters a lot but to be able to balance it is very tricky,” he explained. “It is especially tricky where we come from because the respect for talent is still not up to the mark. You have to be able to sell yourself, promote yourself but a lot of times, guys get trapped and get distracted. Then the focus for the fight is gone too.”
Bisht added: “Today, it is easier for an upcoming influencer to thrive because nobody really cares about the life of an upcoming athlete on social media. They work hard, train rigorously but nobody knows them. So I think it is important to get people to care. You ought to work on being able to talk, develop your personality but at the same time, balance is key and that is toughest to achieve.”
To pull through multiple five-minute rounds or to end the fight early in one of the many gruesome ways MMA allows, one’s physical preparation for the sport has to be supreme. However, physical and strength training mean nothing if you are not mentally strong as well.
In his title fight with Gamal in November, the Egyptian mocked and lured the Indian frequently in the first two rounds. It was easy to get carried away, admitted Bisht, but his learnings from meditation came to his rescue.
“I used to think that work ethic is everything but if you can’t handle the pressure...,” Bisht said. “Since I started meditation, I can see the changes in my life. I have become far more stable. Earlier, I used to get too cocky, too aggressive but now, I am okay.”
Here’s a look at his title-winning fight from MFN 10:
According to Bisht, this mental strength also comes in handy when a fighter is faced with yet another occupational hazard, the inevitable injuries. He found himself pushing through pain on multiple occasions because of his mental strength. For instance, during his amateur fighting days, he sustained his most serious injuries – a hip injury in 2017, a rib injury a week before his first professional fight in 2018 and a wrist fracture that same year.
“My mental strength prevailed many a times because not once in my career so far was I close to giving up because of physical pain. It was more like, ‘chot lag gayi, koi baat nahi, chalta hai’,” he said,
“I went to the gym even though I wasn’t able to walk (due to the hip injury) but I wasn’t able to continue so I was like, ‘That’s okay too, let’s rest.’ Even before my first professional fight, I simply took a painkiller and said, ‘Let’s go. Jo hoga dekha jayega.’ I was fearless then. It did not matter to me that I won or lost,” he continued, before proudly adding: “I won, though.”
Recalling an injury after he was knocked out by Sumeet Khade at MFN 5, Bisht said, “My head was swollen to the point that I was throwing up. That day I told myself, ‘This is your rock bottom and you needed it.’ As fighters, there will be a lot of these moments in our lives. The time spent during injury, that kind of downtime is also very limited so one must enjoy that too. So, that’s what I do now.”
Not seeking but providing support
Interestingly, Bisht is not big on seeking or being dependent on emotional support to move forward in life. In his non-conformist style, he believes that it is a double-edged sword.
“Maine seekha hai ke aapko apne hi dum pe aage badhna hoga. I have learnt that to move forward, you can only rely on your own self,” he said. “So, for me, I am strong on my own, by myself.”
It is rather odd because if one were to question him about the legacy he wants to leave behind, it revolves around providing support to others. Even through his own academy in Dehradun, the vision is to give fighters the assistance and guidance that he didn’t necessarily have when he needed it.
“I started my own gym because I remember, I had learnt a technique three years into amateur fighting,” he stated. “It was three years later that I understood how to execute a takedown. Only when I ran into a black belt in a gym did I learn what a side mount was. I felt like teen saal tak mere saath mazaak hua hai. I gave three years of my life and I didn’t even know this!”
Now, Bisht makes sure that when he is coaching, he first teaches the younger fighters the same technique that took him three years to learn about because it is, indeed, personal. Like a maverick, Bisht charted his own path. As much as he denies that support is not important, in his success and those around him, he is also making the path easier for many others.
“When I leave the world tomorrow, I want my fights to stay,” he added. “I want people to say, ‘Haan, ye ek banda tha aur isne aisa kiya hai...’ Main chahta hoon ke sirf main hi aage na badhoon, mere saath aur bhi log aage badhein.”
Through his work and achievements, he’s already been mentioned in an important public examination. But he’s not quite done yet. He’s still training, working, and fighting to get better and excel. And he’s not stopping, no question about that.