Enter the Octagon: India reaches fever pitch as the Maharashtra ‘Superhuman’ inspired by Bruce Lee makes his UFC debut
The first India-born fighter in UFC, Bharat Khandare is sending shockwaves across his home country ahead of debut in Shanghai
Bharat “Daring” Khandare is on a mission as the first India-born fighter to grace the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).
First, he said, he would win his bout against China’s Song Yadong at the Mercedes-Benz Arena on Saturday night, and through that victory he would inspire.
“Right now there is only me,” said Khandare. “But soon there will be 100, 150 fighters from India. I want to show them how they can make a mark on the global stage.”
Khandare’s bout is among the 12 lined up for the UFC’s first foray into mainland China. It’s being headlined by the clash between the recently-deposed middleweight champion Michael Bisping (30-8) of Britain and aspiring American contender Kelvin Gastelum (13-3).
But there will be almost if not more attention paid in these parts to the fact China has eight fighters on the card, including rising welterweight star Li “The Leech” Jingliang (13-4).
Khandare said he expected interest in his own fight back home to also reach fever pitch.
The 28-year-old fights out of the western state of Maharashtra and when news broke he had been signed on to the UFC it sent shockwaves across India, ignited by social media and the millions of MMA fans who focus their attention on chat rooms each day.
Speaking before his first pre-fight photo call – and after signing his way across a huge stack of promotional posters – Khandare explained that while the sport of mixed martial arts had a massive following in India, fans had been waiting for a fighter to make a mark internationally.
“Sports are huge in India but up until now we don’t have that many sportsmen in mixed martial arts,” Khandare said. “I saw an opportunity to make a name for myself, and if I can be successful in the UFC more and more fighters from my country will emerge.”
A nice line about his fight with Song is that – in terms of potential alone – more people could have an interest in it than any other MMA bout in history.
Combine the populations of the two countries being represented – India with around 1.32 billion people; China and its 1.38 billion – and you have near a quarter of the people on the planet.
Khandare said he realised before leaving home his every move here in Shanghai would be watched but that he welcomed the weight of expectation.
“I am not feeling any pressure,” he said. “This is a golden opportunity for me. There are very few people who get the chance to fight with the UFC, so I feel honoured.”
An injury to his original opponent saw a late debut call-up also for the 20-year-old Song (10-4) – and means Khandare (5-2) will be fighting at featherweight rather than bantamweight, as was first agreed. But, he said, no matter – he has in the past been a featherweight champion back home.
“Even if I had got this fight on one day’s notice I would have taken it,” said Khandare. “I’ve been in this sport for 10 years and I have been watching UFC broadcasts and clips, particularly of Conor McGregor. “I think it’s high time I progressed. I was cutting weight to come down to bantamweight. Now I don’t have to so I feel more comfortable. I would fight anyone they ask me to.”
Khandare, who fights out of the Superhuman Gym, grew up in Maharashtra under the tutelage of his father, a brown belt in karate, and in awe of perhaps the greatest martial arts hero the world has seen in Hong Kong movie star Bruce Lee.
Enter the Dragon was the film that first caught his eye – along with Lee’s handy use of the nunchucks – and the door to combat sports was thrown open.
He started out as a wrestler before turning to MMA and as well as fighting across promotions in India, he has also spent time fine-tuning his craft at the Jackson-Wink MMA Academy in Albuquerque, New Mexico, home to UFC superstars Holly Holm and BJ Penn.
Now, said Khandare, comes Saturday night and a UFC debut in front of an expected sellout and fiercely loyal local crowd.
“I am completely ready for this fight,” he said. “Not everyone gets this opportunity. I will make the most of it.”