From the Magazine

From the Magazine

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It was over a decade ago that Robbie Lawler first made his Octagon debut. At the time, the young fighter was already a ferocious knockout artist, a label he would carry with him throughout his early UFC career, and later in the IFL, Elite XC, Strikeforce and elsewhere. But in the eyes of many critics, Robbie was part of a waning breed of fighter—a sprawl and brawler who was susceptible to the rapidly evolving skillsets of a new crop of talent. Robbie had mixed results in Strikeforce, losing five of eight bouts under their flag before the UFC assumed the reigns. A return to the big show meant a new opportunity to adapt and overcome. It was time for change.

Robbie found a new home at American Top Team where the polishing of his skillset is now paying dividends. Already a competent boxer and wrestler, the time spent at ATT has honed Robbie into the most dangerous version yet. Now, a first round stoppage of Josh Koscheck and a KO of Bobby Voelker have set him on a collision course with one of the welterweight division’s brightest young stars, Rory MacDonald. Turn to page 44 where Sam Sheridan explores the mind of the “thinking brawler” to find out just how Robbie’s preparations and mental outlook have evolved.

We hope you enjoy to read!

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Ladd Dunwoody
Editor-in-Chief

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Let’s be honest, Tito vs. Rampage doesn’t factor to be the most relevant fight in recent memory—both of them are past their primes. But while some may question Bellator’s decision to feature two ex-UFC stars in the main event of their inaugural pay-per-view outing, I can understand why they would do it.

There’s no question that guys like Michael Chandler, Ben Askren and Pat Curran are legitimate fighters capable of putting on pay-per-view worthy performances, but to casual fans of the sport they remain relatively unknown. For better or worse, Tito and Rampage have the recognition to pull in viewers that might otherwise pass on anything that isn’t branded with the UFC. Let’s hope that is the case, because while Tito and Rampage have certainly earned their place in the MMA history books, it’s the Bellator fighters that have been grinding away to lesser fanfair who now deserve to shine.

No, Bellator doesn’t come close to the UFC in terms of size or influence, but they have been steadily building a solid roster of talent that is becoming harder to brush aside as simply “not good enough for the UFC”. This month, we focus on one the brightest of these talents, and one who comes with a solid MMA pedigree. Pat Curran was brought into the MMA fold at the behest of his cousin and UFC veteran, Jeff Curran, and has been on a tear ever since. Is Pat good enough to compete at the upper levels of the UFC? Does he even have any interest? We look to answer these questions and more on page 46.

Elsewhere in the issue, we visit with Ranger Up’s Tim Kennedy to find out more about his unique preparation for his most recent bout, and our expert columnists chime in to provide some great nutrition and meal planning guidance to help keep you training to your fullest potential.

Ladd Dunwoody
Editor-in-Chief

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He asked us to make him look mean, but there’s no escaping the fact that Chad Mendes is one of the nicest guys we’ve had the pleasure of putting on our cover. It’s easy to observe too. You can see it in the way he interacts with his fans, his comrades at Ultimate Fitness, and his family and friends. Easy to spark up a conversation with and quick with a smile, Chad Mendes carries himself like a champion—only he’s not. At least not yet.

In his wrestling days, a bad call robbed him of a national title, and more recently, a split second mistake against Jose Aldo left him in second place once again. But having faltered so close to the finish line in the past has only given him more drive and focus in the present. Similar brushes with greatness have plagued other wrestlers as well (Chael Sonnen and Gray Maynard come to mind), but Mendes is determined to break the cycle. Flip to page 44 where RJ Clifford tags along with Chad to see how he balances his family and outdoor life with a full-time training schedule as he prepares to take on the equally affable Clay Guida at UFC 164.

We hope you enjoy the issue!

Ladd Dunwoody
Editor-in-Chief

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It was only a few years ago that a spinning wheelkick in MMA was considered the stuff of martial arts fantasy. After all, boxing, muay thai, wrestling and jiu-jitsu had long given the flashier arts a wakeup call on combat effectiveness. Anderson Silva, Lyoto Machida, and a slew of others, slowly but surely brought pinpoint striking back to the forefront. But it was Anthony Pettis famously “running up the side of the cage like a Ninja,” that caused many of us to start believing in the magic of martial arts again. Suddenly, all things were possible, if only the right combination of talent and timing were applied. It’s that mentality that Anthony Pettis carries with him on a daily basis as he balances his rising MMA stardom and a flourishing business in his hometown. Turn to page 44, where we find out more about how Anthony is applying those talents in his personal life and in the new challenges he faces in his upcoming title bout. We think you’ll find that while “Showtime” certainly has plenty of talent and flair, his success has come largely from good old fashioned hard work.

For a follow up on this month’s cover story and tons of extra content, interviews, and videos, make sure to visit the newly relaunched fightmagazine.com and download the free FIGHT! Magazine app on Google Play or iTunes. We hope you enjoy all of the new material!

Ladd Dunwoody
Editor-in-Chief

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Check any pound-for-pound list, from ESPN to the UFC, and more likely than not you’ll find Anderson Silva’s name gracing the top spot. And for good reason. The Champion is the most dominant middleweight in UFC history. Regularly making his opponents look like choreographed kata partners from the local karate studio, Silva will be looking for an 11th straight title defense when he faces this month’s cover subject, Chris Weidman. The de facto underdog to most pundits, Weidman’s nine-fight undefeated record doesn’t seem to carry the right names or the right finishes to convince many of them to pick him in a contest against the greatest MMA fighter in the world. But Weidman isn’t fazed by the onlookers’ lack of faith. Anderson Silva is after all, just a man. And like all men, he is fallible.

Dan Henderson showed a chink in Silva’s armor when he took him down and dominated him in the first round of their fight in 2008. Chael Sonnen put a can opener to that armor when he tore through Silva for the better part of five rounds in their first matchup. And while those fighters ended up adding W’s to Silva’s win column and glow to his mystique, they only served to bolster Weidman’s confidence that the man could be beat.

It’s no mystery that Weidman’s wrestling will factor heavily in their upcoming fight. But given the failures of the long list of fighters before him and his own relative inexperience compared to the champ, how can he be so sure of himself? We sent Chuck Mindenhall to Ray Longo’s gym in Long Island, NY to find out. Flip to page 42 and find out why a certain group of individuals from a small gym in New York won’t be surprised if Weidman shocks the world, and why you shouldn’t be either.

Ladd Dunwoody
Editor-In-Chief
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5 Gym Bag Essentials
1. Fluid Replacement Drink: Stay hydrated through your entire workout.
2. Maltodextrin: Load and reload your muscle glycogen (energy for the body).
3. Energy Gel: Maintain high and stable energy levels.
4. Electrolyte Capsules: Prevent muscle cramping.
5. Branch Chain Amino Acids (BCAA): Enhance recovery for your workout the next day.

Gut Check
Ever had the wind knocked out of you from a gut shot? It’s actually caused by a spasm to your diaphragm, which is a large, flat muscle in your abdomen that runs horizontally. It separates the thoracic cavity (chest, lung, and heart) from the abdominal cavity (belly, organs, and guts). When struck, the diaphragm can spasm, causing significant pain and difficulty breathing since it is not moving properly to help the lungs inhale or exhale air.

Cut the Weight Cutting
A new doctoral thesis from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, points to the human body’s limited ability to quickly recover following extensive short-term weight loss in preparation for combat sports like wrestling, judo, and MMA. Analyses show that the athletes’ ability to quickly recover from dehydration was far from satisfactory. In fact, almost half of the studied athletes were severely dehydrated on the morning of competition.

Surf’s Up
Hang 10 this summer. A strapping young lad like Luke Rockhold can burn more than 600 calories per hour while surfing.

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Photos By Paul Thatcher

image descFor years, people have claimed Gilbert “El Niño” Melendez to be the best lightweight in the world that isn’t in the UFC. Finally, he will get a chance to prove it.

It’s lazy Sunday at the Melendez household on a sunny day in the Frisco suburb of Daly City, California, and face-punching can wait until tomorrow. The night before, women debuted in the UFC and Oscar coverage starts in a few hours. But for man of the house Gilbert Melendez, it’s time to shut out external stimuli. He’s made it through another week of punishing training, with eight more to go until he fights for the UFC Lightweight Title. This morning, he watched Ronda Rousey and Liz Carmouche on his laptop and skipped the rest.

“I fought all week,” says Melendez. “I watch the fights, and I start thinking I might fight. Too much anxiety, too much energy spent.”

He says this shortly after he trudges into his high-ceilinged living room in jeans and a t-shirt, sporting baggy eyes and a bruise over his nose. His black hair is short and unkempt—forget fighting, he wants breakfast. A run is what he’s supposed to do, according to his schedule, but a massage is what he’s getting.

“When I start doing two-a-days, you get your body in this zombie tough-mode,” he says. “But one day off a week, I never feel like I’m recovered.”

Adorable though she is, the little bundle of joy bouncing around the townhouse isn’t helping matters. Two-year-old Leylakay Valentina Melendez has her dad’s curls and breaks the morning quiet with a Gene Krupa imitation on her kiddie drum set. She’s outgrown her crib and taken to climbing into bed at dawn with daddy and mommy, Gilbert’s fiancé Keri Taylor. It’s cutting into valuable recovery time, so today’s task is to buy a new bed she can invade.

“Go Frankie, go!” she blurts during a discussion involving one particular Edgar.

“She’s a daddy fan,” says daddy. “You’re not going to print that, right?”

image descEight days prior to challenging champ Benson Henderson at UFC on FOX 7, which will take place less than an hour’s drive from his doorstep at San Jose’s HP Pavilion, Gilbert Melendez will turn 31 years old. Gone are his days of fighting and chasing tail in a San Francisco frat house beside his best friend, UFC welterweight Jake Shields. He’s a father now, with a 7,500-square-foot gym and a wedding to plan. And, lest he forget, a title shot. In other words, he’s a long way from Santa Ana, California, where he avoided local gangs and was voted homecoming king.

“I feel like an adult,” he says. “My 20s were fun, but I started to hit that 30-year-old point when I was 28. More bills, more thinking about the future. It’s more about juggling at this point in life.”

He agrees he’s come a long way—look at all this domesticity, right? But for all he’s accomplished, winning belts in the WEC, Shooto, and Strikeforce, he knows there are miles to go before his recognition catches up with his skill. He’s an indie artist up against the major label act (though he’s a well-paid independent, guaranteed $175,000 if he takes the belt). But to Johnny Casual Fan, he might as well be a flyweight.

“It doesn’t matter what I’ve done elsewhere,” says Melendez. “The guy who’s 0-4 in the UFC has more credibility than me. Not that I really care, but for branding purposes, if I can’t put UFC outside my gym, I can never brand myself the same to the common person. Someone that’s a peer of mine will know, but a little kid with a mommy trying to sign up for the gym or the person in the bar, it’s, ‘Hope you make it to the UFC.’”

In December, he finally made it. He was sitting in his Toyota Tundra before practice when his lawyer called with the offer to fight Henderson. There had been rumors of a looming opportunity, and they had pushed for the fight. Only a few months earlier, he had looked into a video camera and huffed that he would never migrate to the UFC—contractual jiu-jitsu between Showtime and Zuffa wouldn’t allow it.

The lawyer heard silence and a deep breath, and eventually a “Yes.” Melendez’s mind was racing. Practice was good that day.

“You’re like, you got what you asked for, motherfucker,” he says. “Now it’s time. Let’s do it. You think you’re going to be happy and emotional, but I’ll be a little bit happier and emotional when I win. I’ve anticipated being here. This is all something I envisioned, even though I had my ups and downs and doubts. But it’s not finished. It finishes off with me being the UFC Lightweight Champion. That, or it’s a fucking nightmare.”

* * * * *

Melendez was born on April 12, 1982, in Santa Ana. His father, Gilbert Melendez, Sr., was from Tijuana, Mexico. Although also Mexican, his mother didn’t learn to speak Spanish until they got married. They spoke English in the house and raised him and his two sisters as Americans. To this day, he’s fluent enough only to get out of trouble—in East L.A.

image descMelendez Sr. believed in discipline and might smack his son if he came home too late from a friend’s house. But he also pushed Gilbert to make something of himself when his high school wrestling career ended without a state championship.

“He wanted me to be my own man and go figure things out,” Melendez says. “I just remember one day when my application for Cal State Fullerton first came in, he opened the trash and trashed it. He said, ‘You’re a fool if you want to stay here for college. Go somewhere else.’ San Francisco seemed like the place to go.”

Soon, 20-year-old Melendez found himself at San Francisco State, where he joined the school’s wrestling squad. He had declared a major in liberal studies and thought of becoming a teacher. But that plan went out the window when he met Shields, who joined the team his sophomore year. A fast-talking vegan with a gift for picking up girls, Shields introduced him to BJJ black belt Cesar Gracie and San Francisco nightlife.

Something clicked on those mats at Gracie’s gym in Pleasant Hill, which offered plenty of time for reflection on the hour-long drive there and back. Somewhere along the line, Melendez decided to push himself toward kickboxing…and then MMA.

“I knew that I had talent,” he says.

His first two fights were held in a rodeo barn during a four-man tournament on an Indian reservation in Northern California. There was manure on the floor, no athletic commission, and he finished both of his opponents. Afterward, he called up Gilbert Sr., who gave his blessing, not knowing his son had already dropped out three months earlier as a sophomore.

Melendez went on to the pre-Zuffa WEC, where he stopped three opponents to win the promotion’s lightweight belt. Shields and Melendez became acquainted with Diaz brothers Nick and Nate, and the foundation for a renowned (and notorious) fight team was forged.

“It was a great time,” Shields says. “We were young and trying to make it and having a good time. We didn’t get into too much trouble. We were too busy fighting in the cage and chasing girls.”

image descThe party went on until 2007, when the UFC bought PRIDE—the first time Melendez’s career took a right turn by the industry leader. He went back to Strikeforce, where he had captured the lightweight title in 2006. But on June 27, 2008, talented lightweight Josh Thomson took it in a bout where he appeared flat and outgunned in exchanges. Six months prior, he had lost a decision to standout Mitsuhiro Ishida in Japan.

Melendez realized he was losing a step. He started taking fighting seriously, not cutting corners, showing up for every practice, and hitting every pad with vengeance. He met Keri, and the wild nights dwindled. Sixteen months later, he had avenged both losses and recaptured the Strikeforce Lightweight Title.

“A lot of those misfortunes happened, and good things came out of it,” he says. “I lost to Josh, but it was the best thing to help me decide that this is my career. With the ups come the downs, but I wanted to focus on the positive things.”

* * * * *

At the moment, Gilbert is standing in the middle of one of those positive things. El Niño Training Center has grown from a cramped mat room with a claustrophobic loft to one of those cavernous places profiled on Inside MMA. He used Craigslist to find the place, which is nestled beside a busy road in an industrial section of San Francisco’s SOMA (South of Market) district. A leathered man he calls “Swarm” arrives with Baby, his aging pit bull, who’s getting royal treatment from his babysitter.

image desc“I’ve been on a portion control diet,” Swarm says. “I eat half of it, then I feed the rest to Baby. I’ve lost 18 pounds.”

These days, Melendez’s scale registers 170 pounds in the a.m. Within two weeks, he’ll come to rest at 166, and then he’ll start his cut down to 155 pounds. As deprivation goes, it’s a small ordeal compared to the 20-pound drops you hear of so often these days, which has lead some to conclude he’d be better suited at featherweight. He did fight in Shooto at 143 pounds, and he considered dropping when Nate Diaz fought Henderson for the title. But his teammate lost a one-sided decision, and he has no plans to take a run at Jose Aldo’s belt if he’s unsuccessful on April 20.

“I’m going to fucking win,” Melendez says. “I’m going to look strong, big, and they’re not going to say that. Am I taller than him? I’m a little taller than him.”

If it were a contest of height, there would be a new champ. He measures 5-foot-10, which is actually an inch taller than Henderson. So he’s right—by no means is he a small lightweight. He’s got long arms and skinny legs. He just wears it deceptively, as Henderson’s long torso makes him seem taller inside the cage.

“I watch his tape,” he says. “He’s really slick. We might get into a scramble, and the fucker might do a backflip and land the best choke in the world. That’s the kind of guy he could be. But am I, like, scared of his striking? I’m scared of him maybe kicking out my ankle and maybe hurting my leg—those things are on your mind. But am I scared of, ‘C’mon, hit me?’ Not at all. I don’t think he’s the Anderson or GSP or Jon Jones of the lightweight division. I think at 155, that torch can be passed quick. But it would be nice to be the guy who does it. It’s going to be good TV.”

All this talk about Henderson has made him antsy to shadowbox. 

* * * * *

The noodles are served in a steaming heap at the Vietnamese joint Gilbert and Keri swear by, but it’s the whole shrimp slathered in this brown, sweet-smelling sauce that awakens salivary glands. Eating them whole with the shells on is a sure way to incite a riot in your stomach, Gilbert says. He’s gotten the pho, imploring the waitress to bring a plate’s worth of limes, which he squirts every which way.

image descBy the time Benson Henderson won the undisputed WEC Lightweight Title in 2010, Melendez already was ranked among the top-10 lightweights in the world. While his UFC counterparts enjoyed the recognition brought by booming business and an overpowered marketing machine, he quietly built a 10-2 record both abroad and domestically, beating Clay Guida, Tetsuya Kawajiri, Shinya Aoki, and Josh Thomson. He won his last seven bouts under the Strikeforce banner, and, during a second run as Champ, defended his belt four times.

Ben Henderson, of course, is no longer a B-level king. He’s at the top of the rankings after tearing through the UFC’s lightweight division following the loss of his WEC belt to Anthony Pettis, who is expected to meet the winner of the April 20 bout. But while most hardcore fans take no issue with Melendez’s title shot, not everybody sees him as a contender. Keri, who’s not yet learned to refrain from trolling the Internet for articles about her husband, rants about a writer who recently made the argument that he’s neither popular nor accomplished enough to fight Henderson.

“The funny thing is, he tried to get a job at the gym,” she says. “Maybe it didn’t work out and he held a grudge, because he came in and he was the biggest fan of Gilbert.”

A constant presence at her fiancé’s fights, she face-palmed a heckler after he beat Thomson last May. A former Muay Thai champion, she thought better of using her fists. But the couple still had a heart-to-heart about keeping emotions in check. As Melendez’s star rises, critics are bound to multiply.

Nevertheless, the smear job presents a good opportunity for the fighter to sell the fight. Why does he deserve the opportunity?

“My record and accomplishments speak for themselves,” Melendez says. “I think from a business standpoint, Champion vs. Champion is a good thing. Why risk me losing to someone like Gray Maynard? With that said, timing wise, I think I’m there. I’m debatably the number one guy in the world. I’m kind of a mystery man right now, but look at my record. I’ve only lost twice. I avenged both those losses. Every fight, I’ve pretty much dominated. When I’m watching Kenny Florian fight Sean Sherk, I was ready. When I see Joe Stevenson fighting for the title—that should have been me. When I see Roger Huerta fighting Kenny Florian to get the shot, I was ready then. I’ve been ready for all those years. UFC guys have been there for a couple.” 

* * * * *

The Rolls Royce of beds is some sort of magical melding of memory foam, innersprings, and probably a few unicorn pelts. It is not what the Melendez family needs, yet it’s too tempting to pass up. We’re at a mattress store near the condo, and Gilbert and Keri hop on for a test run. In a few seconds, he’s fighting the urge to snooze. A Tempur-Pedic mattress is just the kind of swag a discretionary bonus might buy, especially now that he’s eligible for them in the UFC. Then he gets a look at the price tag: $8,000.

“Whoa! Let’s see the shitty one,” he says.

image descAlong with a few smacks, Gilbert Melendez Sr. gave him many lessons on frugality—and enterprise. He’s one of the few fighters to have monthly sponsorships in an abysmal market—three of them, in fact. His gym is making money, and he and Keri are always on the lookout for new branding opportunities. But a bed the cost of a Kia Rio is a little too rich right now. They settle on a full-size that costs a little more than a grand. After his Octagon debut and wedding, they plan to buy a house.

“I’ve always put myself in a good place,” he says. “I’m ready whether I win or lose, which helps me perform even better. I feel like I’ve set things up well in my life. I’ve just got to go out there and do it.”

Driving back home, Gilberts talks about a jiu-jitsu tournament that’s being attended by a few of his students. Somewhere between the gym and the restaurant and a stop for coffee, he’s gotten a text informing him that Henderson is in the audience. It’s impossible not to conjure a daydream about Melendez and his Cesar Gracie teammates swarming around the Champ, as they once did to another fighter on national television. Would mean mugs be displayed? Sure. Would fists start to fly? Maybe. Would homies be scared? Never.

Even though it never would have happened, it would have made for great TV.

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FIGHT! Magazine’s T.R. Foley traveled to India to investigate the semi-monastic life of the Indian Pahalwans and experience their unique mixture of spirituality and aggression.

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You would be surprised how many armed soldiers show up to a wrestling match in India. Standing atop guard towers, sitting in vehicles, and monitoring exits, Indian soldiers don’t have the bulk or fine tailoring of their American counterparts, but they do carry Belgian-made AK-47s.

The wrestling match is hosted by a local committee of ascending politicians who want to earn the favor—and votes—of the unemployed population in this area of north Delhi. There is a large bandstand at one end of the field, with cream and orange couches for the committee and their invited dignitaries. Many of the highest-ranking officials wear long white gowns. Orange flags are posted on 20-foot poles around the large, circular competition space. On the left hand side of the festival grounds are 300-feet of gold-dyed linens meant to block the view of the parking lot of a Radisson Blu. On the right side, there’s a drainage pond the size of a football field being used largely as a bathroom.

image descMy new friend Deepak Prasad has brought me here. An accountant with an absolute, all-consuming passion for India’s traditional wrestling style called “kushti,” Deepak has arranged for me to compete in a dangal (a traditional Indian wrestling festival). I agree, and though I expected a few dozen bored spectators to be in attendance, there are more than 3,000 fans crowding rope lines, smoking clove cigarettes, and chatting in Hindi.

The committee members hosting the event once belonged to a social caste formerly referred to as the “untouchables”—a fact Deepak refuses to discuss because of the stiff penalties that mentioning caste can bring someone in India (as many as seven years in jail). However, only a few decades ago, these organizers were street-level workers with little wealth outside generational, family-held property. Now, thanks to the hottest real estate market in the world, their formerly humble dwellings in desirable parts of Delhi are fetching tens of millions in sales and hundreds of thousands in rent. To pay for some of the area’s top wrestlers, committee members have to be wealthy. Dangals consistently pay out more than $10,000 in prizes to winning wrestlers of all ages, with the champion of the headlining bout typically earning more than $2,000.

Deepak ushers me past the growing circle of fans, and asks me to take off my shoes. He tugs on my wrist and brings me to an official in the middle of the wrestling area. The announcer takes my left hand, a customary gesture in India, and begins his Bruce Buffer-like introduction in Hindi.

I hear three words: “Tim! Chicago! Pahalwan!”

In an instant, a parade of challengers duck rope lines and sprint toward me with their hands extended. They’re kicking off their shoes and grappling with each other to increase their position and reach me first. I shake hands with the first wrestler to break into my personal space, a gesture I’d hoped would disperse the crowd, but actually means I’ve agreed to wrestle. Deepak would later tell me that the committee had offered 6,000 rupees ($120) to anyone who could beat the American. Apparently I looked like an easy mark.

Quarter, a successful international freestyle wrestler with a face that resembles the frying pan-to-the-nose look of all wrestlers, has won the race to shake my hand. He is 30 pounds lighter than me but immensely confident, a combination that leaves me concerned about what else I don’t know about the rules and techniques of kushti.

As the wrestlers disperse, the referee helps me out of the circle. The crowd suddenly begins pushing the rope line, hollering semi-English cordialities my direction: “American! Hey! You wrestle! Okay. Good luck.”

The armed guards, who moments before were content to sit and watch, now stand with guns placed firmly against their chests.

I’d be wrestling in 20 minutes.

*****

Two days earlier, I was in a wrestling pit with Jitu Pahalwan, the 17-year-old son of Deepak’s best friend, Rajinder. Jitu is proportioned like an action figure and is one of India’s most promising freestyle wrestlers. Like a Hindu Popeye, the dark-skinned bruiser has 18-inch biceps, eight pack abs, and concrete pillars for thighs. Adding to the young, agile, brutal aesthetic of his body, the high school junior also has a 10-inch scar across the right side of his face and jaw, the consequence of a childhood accident involving a bike and a piece of sheet metal.

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Deepak, Rajinder, and I met Jitu at the Guru Badri akhara, deep in the vegetable market of Old Delhi. The akhara was hidden from street view by a row of stalls selling picked cabbages, mustard leaves, spices, and hemp sacks stiffened with cashews and almonds. Akharas house local youths—some who live in slums and others who were orphaned by their parents and have nowhere else to turn. Like the organizers of the dangal, some of the boys in the akhara would’ve once been considered “untouchable.”

“First you will wrestle Jitu, and then you will wrestle Akash,” said Deepak from the side of the wrestling pit. “You are good wrestler, so I give you the two best to compete with.”

I was a D-1 All-American wrestler in college, but as I’ve found with wrestling in China, Mongolia, and Vietnam, traditional styles have new and often quirky rules that prevent immediate success. Kushti is simple ground wrestling, but with no points. The only way to win is by placing your opponent’s back flat on the dirt. Wrestling is the skill, but Kushti is the “game,” and that means takedowns that once worked on a slick surfaced wrestling mat are slowed in the dirt. Super-ducks don’t play, and rolling across your own back to put your opponent in danger (Google: “Funky Ben Askren”) results in a loss.

Rules differ, but Kushti wrestling is about more than techniques—the heart of the sport lies in a wrestler’s observation of a chaste lifestyle and in the celebration and respect of the Hindu god Hanuman. No meat, alcohol, movies, or sex. Many wrestlers only eat a diet of almonds and milk, which in India is considered “pure veg,” while others like Jitu will supplement that diet with as many as a dozen eggs per day. Meat, sex, and booze are a trio of powerful temptations for a 16-year-old to ignore, but when asked about their draw, Jitu just flexes his cartoonish biceps and says, “No. Stay strong!”

image descBefore we wrestled, Jitu sanctified the wrestling pit—a 20-by-20-foot pile of brown dirt mounded two-feet high—by burning incense and tossing loose dirt over the smoke as he walks in circles. For wrestlers, once the dirt is sanctified, it becomes “mitti,” the Hindi word for mud. The wrestlers before him mixed in ghee, marigolds, and a scented oil to ensure the dirt maintains a pleasant fragrance. While you and I think of dirt as dirty, the Indian wrestler considers it a blessed surface.

Deepak found a langot for me to wear—a Speedo-like cotton cloth that wraps through the crotch like a diaper and ties off below the belly button. Having never wrapped and tightened one, I needed Deepak’s assistance, a humbling experience since it required being mostly naked in front of two-dozen Indian wrestlers I’d met only 10 minutes prior. The langot felt too small, too revealing, so Deepak also handed me a jonghai, a tough cotton overall in the shape of a Speedo that had been made popular in recent years by self-conscious Indian boys.

Jitu headed to the end of the pit and bowed to a statue of Lord Hanuman, the chosen Hindu deity of wrestlers enclosed behind a steel cage and adorned with candles, wreaths, and burning incense. Hanuman is an ape-faced human who was originally celebrated by wrestlers for his celibacy, but who is now charged with delivering them strength before their matches. One translation of the name “hanuman” is “broken jaw,” a coincidence that wasn’t lost on me as I prepared myself to wrestle Jitu.

As he entered the pit to wrestle, Jitu touched the sanctified dirt and then his chest in recognition of the gods and in respect to the akhara’s guru, or coach (Jitu belongs to the Shyam Lal Akhara, named after his grandfather). Deepak gave me some final pre-match coaching as I stepped into the cold, soft dirt of the pit. “You have to shake hands and apply your strengths,” he added, “maybe immediately,” and descended into a childish chuckle.

image descJitu pulled my head down with his right arm and dug in his left for a controlling underhook. I tried to pressure down, but Jitu used that pressure to help him snap my face down into the mitti. It was an aggressive start that ignited an exchange of takedowns and ill-intentioned cross-faces. Near the end of our first go, Jitu grabbed my jonghai to help him earn a fall and what would have been a victory if we’d been in real competition. Like any maneuver in combat sports, it takes feeling a new technique to understand the pressure, and I’d just felt part of what made Kushti a unique wrestling game.

After 15 minutes of non-stop wrestling, Deepak pulled me aside and asked for me to “rest for some time,” before he sent out Akash, a much meaner but less talented version of Jitu. Another 15 minutes of hi-crotches, spin behinds, and failed cradle attempts left my lungs burning. I was mouth breathing, but the tenderfoot duo of Jitu and Akash headed to the side and began a 30-minute calisthenics routine. I debated lying flat on my back in the mitti, but felt confident it was disrespectful and would have made me seem weak.

The akhara’s wrestlers took pity on my circumstance and brought me a post-match badam, a drink made of sweet milk, almonds, sugar, and cardamom. I sat cross-legged on the edge of the wrestling pit and captured a few generous sips and moments of peace as the akharas wrestlers continued with their curious stares. After a traditional and mandatory 10-minute cool down, the akhara’s houseboys brought a large bucket of hot water. I filled a plastic drinking cup and poured it lazily over my head and gently rubbed the dirt from my hair and arms. Deepak loathed my inefficiency and used his hands on my back, shoulders, and abs like a surgeon debriding a burn victim. It took 10 cups of water and a bar of soap, but I left the akhara that day feeling as clean as when I’d entered, though substantially more tired and equally humbled.

*****

With a quick bow of their heads the referees signal they’re ready. My opponent and I reach down, grab a few fingers full of mitti, and touch them to our hearts.

Announcements begin over the loudspeaker and the organizers grab my wrists and raise them to the sky. “Tim! Chicago! Pahalwan!”

Drums begin to beat rapidly. We both grab a handful of mitti and shake hands. With prompting from the emcee, the crowd begins an excited cheer. Some begin to chuckle.

image descThe match lasted six minutes and gave the crowd plenty to cheer. Quarter showed courage on his feet. He set up a nice hi-crotch and defended a threatening leg cradle with ease. Three minutes into the match, he managed to reach back from bottom and hook my elbow, hitting a “fat-man’s roll,” which put me to my back for the win. However, the whistle had already been blown and the action happened off the pit. The Indian fans made sure to note this to the referees, waving their fingers in the air side-to-side. In the end, I was too big for Quarter to take down, and too flexible to bait into another risky roll. Quarter stood too tall after a tie-up, and I hit an inside trip on the edge of the wrestling surface, lock in a wrist-and-half, and placed both his shoulders flat in the dirt. The Indian fans threw their arms in the air and began shouting. The drums began beating, and an announcer immediately pulled me to my feet and raised my arms.

Pinning a smaller wrestler and in the traditional setting might seem unsporting, but it would be more injurious and insulting to not compete with all my ability. Anytime I’ve competed in a similar setting outside the United States, fans from other countries have never booed me for winning or cheered me in a loss. Just like we welcome wrestlers from Japan, Uzbekistan, Russia, and Japan into our NCAA tournament, so too do the Indians in their traditional wrestling tournaments.

Fans crossed the rope line and raised my arms. They were joined by dignitaries, politicians, and police, who laid wreaths of brown-tinted marigolds and dandelions around my neck. The flowers smelled sweet, but the more tender gestures came from the crowd. Although I was aware of being used by the local committee as a piece of propaganda, the enjoyment of the fans felt genuine.

“Now, you must walk around and shake hands with all the fans,” Deepak said. “They will want to pay you money and take a photo with you.”

image descMore than 50 fans gave me money. Some were Muslim, others Hindu. There were rich men with 1,000 rupee notes and the very poor men with 10 rupee notes. There wasn’t an option to decline the money. It was a gesture of thanks that I couldn’t refuse.

The news cameras were a bit shocking. They’d heard I’d shown up to wrestle in a small dangal hosted by what had traditionally been considered a lower class. Like good journalists, they wanted to know, “Why?”

My answers ended up being broadcast the entire night across four major news channels. It was embarrassing, but some Hindi friends I’d made in town made me watch. I asked them why there was such a strong response, as all I’d done was enter a wrestling match. “Most Americans come here to buy property, start call centers, or talk about yoga,” he said. “Indians aren’t used to people celebrating their tough side.”

*****

Pahalwans don’t accept cash for good deeds, so to pay back my new friends for their hospitality, I take Deepak, Rajinder, and Jitu to the Taj Mahal, the center of tourism hell. We pull up in our taxi and are greeted by abused camels, juvenile pickpockets, and 15,000 tourists working their way around the entrance in the hopes someone will take a photo of them tugging on the dome of the great Mosque.

As unpleasant as it is to be hassled, it’s equally encouraging to have Jitu by my side, protecting me from pickpockets and overly assertive salesmen. Already large enough to scare me—much less a 12-year-old pickpocket—Jitu is puffing out his chest and feinting violence against those who hassle us. Only seven days before, we shared our first unfamiliar handshake. But through wrestling, we now enjoyed a type of loyalty—a realization much more beautiful than any mosque.

We stroll through the grounds for a few hours and take photos, leaving around 5 p.m. The mobs of memorabilia salesmen hawking Indiana Jones whips and buggie rides greet us on our exit. With a hint of Delhi Belly creeping through my body, a 6 a.m. flight the next morning, and a four-hour ride home staring me down, I’m turning into a cranky infant. No, I don’t want a marble elephant, I think to myself with each persistent salesman. I just want to get back to the apartment, pack my shit, and go home.

Amidst my moaning internal dialogue, Deepak begins talking up a 10-year-old snow globe salesman who claims that just over the hill is a traditional akhara. Better still, he says, the wrestlers are preparing to practice.

image descWe follow the boy through a thicket and over a small hill. On the way, we catch a view of the Taj Mahal that makes the tourist trap suddenly feel like a Mayan temple peeking out of the forest. The sun is beginning its long descent, and the white marble tiles of the mosque are beginning to fleck orange. Only moments before, I’d been declining photos and now I was snapping away on my own camera to capture this new angle.

Snowglobe leads us on a trail past a few lounging bovine, before stepping into a small town with 10 earthen and clay structures. To our right is a large well, workout room, and a cage for Hanuman. Monkeys are running over our heads, watching us from the roof of the weight room as we make our way in for greetings.

As though they’d been expecting our arrival, gurus and wrestlers emerge from around corners and small rooms already dressed in red langots and jonghai. The periwinkle-colored akhara in the shadow of the Taj Mahal with traditional wrestlers milling about in preparation for the day’s practice makes for a stunning view. Deepak has been to the Taj three dozen times and yet never knew this akhara existed—now he’s standing by my side with an explorer’s grin, snapping photos of everyone and everything. We mill about for 10 minutes as Rajinder takes down the names and email addresses of the gurus, and I ask some of the younger wrestlers to pose for portraits and explain the history of the akhara.

Murli Baba, a Muslim who’d held influence over the area surrounding the great mosque, established the Guru Kalwa akhara in 1857 as part of a small village that supported the workings inside the great mosque. Today, just outside the walls of the akhara, there is still a tent community, set up by camel riders and their beasts of burden as a place to rest and eat between shifts pestering tourists. The entire atmosphere was reminiscent of an early 20th-century circus—if an elephant had waddled in and stood on a stool, nobody would have been alarmed.

We share cordialities, but soon exit. The sun is setting, and by the time we reach the top of the small hill, the dome of the Taj Mahal is pinkish in hue. As we stand on the hill and take in the sites, it becomes apparent that this is the most idealistic and quixotic wrestling scene I have ever see. I could make it to another dozen countries, compete in another hundred tournaments, but perhaps nothing could ever beat this—a centuries-old akhara preparing for a sunset practice in the shadow of the Taj Mahal.

“I have to wrestle,” I tell Deepak.

I turn and jog down the hill and jump over the wall of the city. Greeting me is a very large and intimidating Pahalwan named Anoop, repping pull-ups in the doorframe of the small, dark weight room.

“Humph. Humph. Hu-hu-humph!” I look to him, make eye contact with Snowglobe, and ask if this monster would like to wrestle. Like Quarter and Jitu, Anoop agrees without hesitation.

One of the boys fetches a red langot, and after a few poor attempts to tie it firmly across my lower belly, Rajinder readjusts the knot and pulls hard enough to pinch my skin. Another boy begins blessing the pit with incense, leaving the remainder to burn at the edge of the pit with the smoke blowing downwind, across the pit and toward the mosque.

Anoop and I line up in front of the wrestling pit—facing the Taj Mahal—and begin our pre-match warm-up. He spins his arms a few times and reps out some deep squats. I reach my hands over my head to stretch my lats then kick my leg across my chest to help crack and loosen my back. In front of me is the pinkish dome of the mosque through the trees. Then a camel meanders by in a huff. To my side, some boys giggle and pull out their cell phone cameras. Jitu keeps an eye on my clothes.

Anoop and I stroll to the edge of the pit, touch the dirt, and bring our hands to our hearts. Once we are in the center, I give it a last deep-knee bend and take a final look at the Taj.

I breath deep and Anoop grabs a palm full of mitti and looks me in the eyes. I grab some mitti, step forward, and like centuries of Pahalwans before us, we shake hands and begin to wrestle.

MMA In India

Combined with India’s rich history in the combat arts, the global phenomenon that is modern Mixed Martial Arts has made the country’s billion person population a prime target for the growth of the sport. While the UFC has plans to expand into India in the near future, one organization is already there. Founded in late 2011 by Sanjay Dutt and Raj Kundra, The Super Fight League can be seen on Indian ESPN Star Sports starting this month.

With a reality TV show, a growing fighter roster, and a recent partnership with the Women’s MMA organization Invicta FC, expect The Super Fight League to play a big part in introducing MMA to the country with the second largest population in the world.

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Ballsy Moves
Thiago Alves was a ballroom dancer and instructor in Fortaleza, Brazil, before moving to the United States when he was 19 years old. When you make your professional MMA debut in a bare-knuckle fight in Brazil at 16 years of age, you can dance if you want to.

Cake Fight!
UFC lightweight Jim Miller is the unofficial baker for AMA Fight Club—his specialty is carrot cake.

Opposites Attack
Stefan Struve (7’0” tall, 25 years old) vs. Mark Hunt (5’10” tall, 38 years old) at UFC on Fuel TV 8 featured both the youngest vs. the oldest and the tallest vs. the shortest heavyweights in the UFC.

Great Brit
Beautiful British lassie Carly Baker—the first European UFC ring girl—made her Octagon debut at UFC on Fuel TV 7 in London in February.

Finish Him
With his win over Nick Diaz at UFC 158, Georges St-Pierre has now logged the longest time in the UFC without a finish, having fought 150 minutes since
July 2009.

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King for a Day
“I think it was cockiness more than anything. He [King Mo] was so—I’m not going to say full of himself—but in his mind, there was no way I was going to beat him.” —Emanuel Newton to mmajunkie.com

Hollywood Ending
“I still have goals that I want to reach in this sport. I want to fight as soon as I can. I’m ready to go in June or July. I didn’t have the best last few months, but I feel a lot better now, and I want to be real active this next year. That much time off is never good. I don’t want that to happen again. I’m getting a little old.” —Dan Henderson at the UFC 157 post-fight press conference

A Cut Above the Rest
“Why is it whenever someone gets cut early by the @UFC, everyone gives me shit? I would have cut me way before @JonFitchdotnet too!” —Dan Hardy on Twitter

Natural Selection
“I’m happy to not have to put up with and keep my mouth shut and deal with Dana [White] as well. It goes both ways.” —Randy Couture to to sherdog.com

White Hot
“I don’t respect him at all. Not even a little bit. The only time Randy Couture is a man is when he sets foot in the cage. As soon as his big toe steps out of that cage, he’s the furthest thing from it.” —Dana White to reporters post-UFC 156

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