Dubai-based Indian Bhupesh Kamble looks to realise his MMA ambitions inside the octagon.
Fighter looks to achieve his ultimate dream
Growing up in the suburbs of Mumbai, Bhupesh Kamble remembers being picked on by bigger boys almost every day.
By his own admission he was a "weak kid who could not defend himself or fight back", making him an easy target for the bullies.
One day Kamble started fighting back. He refused to be intimidated any longer. Now 29, and built like the proverbial outhouse, few would want to pick a fight with Kamble..
"It made me stronger and now, I never back down from a challenge," Kamble said. "I always had to fight for the things I want and for survival."
Kamble, however, refused to fight his battles on the street. Instead, to "stay away from the trouble that was around", he translated his aggression into the ring and turned to boxing at 14. He found his calling.
For six years, between 2001 and 2006, he was the Maharashtra state boxing champion and his success in the ring took him to other forms of fighting.
A few weeks after winning his sixth state boxing title, Kamble packed his bags and set out for Thailand to seek professional training in kick-boxing, Muay Thai, jiu-jitsu and other mixed martial arts (MMA) styles.
"Growing up, I always dreamt about becoming a good sportsman," he said. "But gradually, after participating in couple of boxing championships, I discovered that martial arts is the only way through which I can express myself as a good sportsman."
In Thailand, Kamble, who turned professional at the age of 23, fought more than 170 bouts and instead of leaving him battered and bruised, the fights only deepened his passion for the sport.
He has been training hard since to realise his dream of becoming the first Indian to compete in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).
"The UFC is a special motivation," he said. "Just the chance to be in the UFC, among the best fighters in the world, is inspiring.
"It does not matter whether I am knocked out or made to tap out, the glory is in the experience and showing others they can do it as well - get out of really difficult positions in life, like we do in the cage, and overcome all obstacles."
To achieve his UFC dream, Kamble moved his base to the UAE six months ago, taking up a job with a major international chain of health clubs.
He had been a regular visitor to the country, taking part in various championships, including the 2010 Abu Dhabi Fighting Championship.
"This country has helped me so much thanks to the good facilities and fighters available," he said. "There are many who love the sport here and more corporate entities are getting into the picture."
Back home in India, MMA is still not considered a career option. Kamble is hoping he can change that perception but he has a challenge as even his own parents were reluctant in their approval.
"At first, they [his parents] questioned whether fighting could be a career, but when they saw my passion for it and determination, I began to get some moral support," Kamble said.
"Of course, they still worry if fighting can sustain a living as it is a new thing for the older Indian generation to see as a profession.
"It's a full-contact sport and given this fact, most parents in India don't allow their children to take part. Also, people in India are not very educated about the sport so it becomes more difficult to get sponsorship and support to survive as a fighter."
He has been invited by Ed Herman, a UFC veteran and The Ultimate Fighter Season 3 runners-up, to train at his gym in Denver, Colorado.
Herman is preparing for the UFC 150 next month and it is a golden opportunity for the Indian to experience the training regimen of the top UFC stars.
"This means a great deal," Kamble said. "The Trials MMA Gym run by Ed Herman and Ryan Schultz is internationally recognised as a top training centre for MMA champions. I am honoured to have been given this opportunity."
Kamble's employers, who have nominated him as their fitness ambassador, are supporting the trip, but he left for Denver yesterday with only the money for his plane tickets.
"This financial burden impacts on the mental side," Marlon Weir, his manager, said. "Just because he has been invited to the States does not mean his life is all roses."
Kamble has already been struggling to balance his day job as a fitness trainer with the punishing training demanded of a professional fighter. He says there is not "enough time to train" or take care of the "nutritional needs" that are required to stay in peak performance shape. However, these obstacles have not been able to diminish the Indian's enthusiasm for the sport or to make it big.
"He is determined and disciplined," Weir said. "I see him as someone that is goal orientated and who accepts that in life there are many challenges, but there is always a way around or over them. Bhupesh will not accept mediocrity so he works very hard to get himself in peak performance to achieve his objective."
Kamble's dream is to build academies in the slums and the poorest areas of Mumbai and India, and give the youngsters in those neighbourhoods a "positive outlet" for their energies.
"He is a kind person, one that is not only pursuing this goal for himself but for the good of the less fortunate and those who lack opportunity," Weir said
"Most importantly, future generations will now have a hero that has shown them a positive outlet of a sort that takes both discipline and courage to pursue."
"Bhupesh knows that a sport like MMA on a major level in India can really save a troubled, poverty-ridden youth's life and this is his passion."
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