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Sneak peek: Coach and academy behind GAMMA medallists

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By Purnungba Longkumer Updated: Sep 12, 2021 9:26 pm
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Khriemelie Metha with Imkongsunep Jamir (left) and Ketholetuo Nagi (right).

Purnungba Longkumer
Dimapur, Sep. 12 (EMN):
Mixed martial arts (MMA) has emerged as one of the world’s fastest-growing spectator sports in the 21st century, especially with the establishment of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), an organisation that is one of the leading promoters of MMA events.

MMA has also successfully penetrated the far reaches of the Indian state of Nagaland with the most recent success story being three lads — Kekhrieneitso Angami, Longtsukumba Ao, and Arsenba Ozukum –winning medals at the recently concluded Global Martial Arts Association (GAMMA) Asian MMA Championship held at Kyrgyzstan.

The fighters were trained at The Combat Academy (TCA), an MMA institute based in Dimapur.

Its owner, Khriemelie Metha, shared his thoughts, challenges and experience of MMA in Nagaland in an exclusive interview with Eastern Mirror.

Metha, recalling his childhood, shared that during the mid-90s, the television channel Star Movies would always play a martial arts movie once a week at 9 pm. As a child, 10 pm was his bedtime and he would cry so that he could be allowed to watch Jackie Chan and Jet Lee do their magic on the big screen.

That is when his curiosity about martial arts began, he shared. However, his formal training in martial arts began much later. It was in high school that he began feeding that curiosity and started learning Krav Maga in Delhi.

Metha informed that his training in competitive martial arts began just after school and even travelled to Thailand, where he lived for a few months and trained in Muay Thai. It was only when he moved to Mumbai for college that he began to learn the other aspects of MMA i.e. wrestling and jiu-jitsu.

Metha explained that being a coach, he viewed combat as problem-solving at a very fast pace.

‘When person ‘A’ possesses an ABC skill set while person ‘B’ possesses an XYZ skill set, it boils down to who can better solve the problem i.e. the opponent’s skills, using tools that are their own skills’, he shared.

The planning that goes into this is what excites him and tickles his intellectual bone, he said.

TCA a child’s dream fulfilled

Metha decided to open The Combat Academy in Nagaland because as a child, he was always interested in martial arts but could never find a place where he could train to become the ninja he always wanted to be.

TCA Nagaland was just the fulfilment of that child’s dream. However, he also wanted to open a place where anyone who wanted to learn martial arts, be it as a tool for fitness or self-defence, could come and find world-class training.

“Of course, just wanting is never enough,’’ he shared but during his short stints while he was training at home, he observed how athletically gifted Nagas were and would often play football and train with some of the boys in his locality.

In turn, they would show him kene (traditional Naga wrestling) techniques while he would show them Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. What surprised him was how quickly they picked up all the techniques and realised the huge potential of raw athletic talent in Nagaland.

He therefore wanted to try his best to funnel it into something productive, he said. That was his initial goal with TCA — to produce a team of strong competitors from home, he added.

Interestingly, what came about during last year’s lockdown was the consciousness for healthy living, he shared. The team of competitors were also employed by the gym to provide training for clients, helping them earn a healthy livelihood during difficult times, he added.

He expressed happiness that they were now a commercially viable source of employment; while TCA Kohima was also in the works and would be up and running by October.

When queried about the numbers of fighters and schedule at the Combat Academy, the head coach informed that there were currently 12 members in the team. Metha and Imkongsunep Jamir handle the training of the fight team, while Victor Angami is the gym manager and is also in-charge of scheduling classes and clients.

Currently, the boys including Jamir who are training as competitors are Longtsukumba Ao, Mairidin Newmai, Kekhrieneitso Angami, Arsenba Ozukum, Limasunep Imchen, Avizo Lanamai, Angel Debbarma, Mankho T Konyak and Ketholetuo Nagi.

Their day usually begins with a group session in the morning at 7 am, followed by martial arts for members, which starts at 9 am. They also provide one-on-one private sessions with clients either at the gym or at the client’s homes throughout the day. The timing for this is flexible as per the needs of the client, he shared and added that the training is more personalised depending on weight loss, martial arts or strength training. He added that they have exactly 40 clients at the moment.

From a coaching perspective, when queried about the best weight class category to compete in for Nagaland fighters, Metha said that anywhere between flyweight 57kg to lightweight 70kg was about the optimum weight.

“Lower than 57kg makes it difficult to find a circuit internationally and above 70kg they tend to be too short in the international circuit,” he shared.

When fighters from The Combat Academy win medals at the national and international level, he shared that he felt happy with a pinch of pride, adding that it’s a confirmation that they were doing some things right, that they were on the right path and things would only get better. He said that 10-15 minutes inside the ring/cage is only possible because of the countless hours spent training for it.

Meth added that the sacrifices and dedication in the field of combat sports had not yet paid off as there were “miles and miles to go before we sleep”.

On the growth and scenario of MMA in Nagaland, Metha said that MMA was the fastest growing sport in the world and with the increase in popularity of UFC on television and names like Conor Mcgregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov becoming mainstream, it was just a matter of time before the sport garnered interest here in Nagaland.

“When TCA started the only option for martial arts here was taekwondo and it was being trained on empty fields and in school halls on weekends but today a small place like Dimapur has two other full-time martial arts gyms other than TCA. It’s important to note that not only has the popularity gone up, but there are also people that have invested in the sport and are earning their livelihood out of it,” he shared.

Lack of support system

While sharing about the support system of MMA fighters in Nagaland and the fighter’s expenses while participating in international events, Metha explained that it is the support system that lies the biggest difference between not just Nagaland but India and other countries.

Metha added that in countries like the USA and even other lesser developed nations like Brazil, athletes had a very strong support system.

“They have multiple sponsors to look after their various needs from dietary supplements to also cash sponsorships. It’s nothing to be surprised about; MMA has been present in these countries for 30 odd years.

“However MMA is fairly new here in India but things are slowly changing, for starters supplement companies in India have now begun sponsoring protein and other dietary supplements for MMA athletes. It will take a little while longer for even this to happen for Naga athletes,” he shared.

Metha mentioned that athletes from Nagaland feel the real pinch while participating in international tournaments. He said that his athletes had competed internationally thrice and every time, there had been people ready to sponsor them and help make it happen.

‘None of them were mainstream celebrities but it’s so endearing and always so grateful that a few people are noticing what they are doing and are wishing the best for us,’ he shared.

‘It will be ignorant to not give it importance’ said Metha when asked about the importance of financial condition or sponsorship for an athlete in the lead up to becoming a professional fighter. ‘Food must be put on the table, families of young athletes will stop supporting them if they can’t financially start looking after themselves.

‘On that note, it’s difficult but definitely not impossible and even athletes from around the world that are just beginning their careers work other jobs to finance their passion,’ he added.

Metha shared that one of the most expensive needs of an athlete is dietary supplements, which is a recurring expenditure every month. He informed that for the athletes on the team, TCA sponsors them by providing free training and the gym also helps in travel expenses when needed. The athletes also take up clients for private training and are able to earn their livelihood, he informed.

‘Athletes need world-class coaching and mentorship’

While sharing his perspective on the sports scenario in Nagaland, Metha said that there was a lot of ‘will’ and many people were putting in great efforts. However most of these efforts were from individuals or groups of people working independently by themselves.

“There needs to be not only a cohesive effort but also planning and mapping out long term goals and too often they get enamoured by trying to achieve short term goals that unfortunately the larger picture is forgotten,” he shared.

When queried about the best way forward for Nagaland to catch up with other states in the field of sports, Metha said that the word infrastructure was thrown around a lot, ‘that Nagaland lacks infrastructure’.

Capital heavy investments like stadiums and gymnasiums were important, he said but the ‘biggest infrastructure Nagaland lacks is strong coaching’.

“Athletes don’t only need world-class facilities, they also require world-class coaching and mentorship. There need to be incentives in place where top coaches from around the country choose to come to Nagaland and work with the athletes here and it would further breed home-grown Naga athletes that can eventually take up the mantle of coaching for the state.

“Furthermore, these coaches need to be managed effectively, just being employed and earning a salary is not enough. They need to show up to work every day and mentor young athletes,” he shared.

Future of MMA in Nagaland

Yoddha fighting Championship (Yoddha FC) and X1International Championship have been a ray of hope for amateur fighters of the country especially in Nagaland, he opined.

Both companies had been started by him with partners with the sole goal to provide a platform for athletes.

He added that his strongest takeaway from doing these events in Nagaland, as compared to doing events elsewhere in India, is that in Nagaland ‘there is a viable market for combat sports where the company can make profits through tickets.’

The money can then be further funnelled into paying the athletes and other necessary personnel such as referees, volunteers, lights and sounds etc. The event can be a complete commercial ecosystem that will benefit not only the athletes but all ancillary industries, he shared.

In India, MMA has recently come into focus due to several Indian fighters making a mark at One Championship like Ritu Phogat and Bharat Kandare in UFC.

When queried if one day, even fighters from Nagaland can compete with the elite MMA athletes of the world, Metha said, ‘That was the dream behind TCA — a dream of a bunch of starry-eyed young adults in Nagaland believed it was possible and that they are good enough to make it on a world stage’.

He added that he does not have a black belt with 30 years of experience behind him, but they were living and learning from each other’s mistakes by trial and error, and that dream is now a vision.

‘With careful planning, using lessons learnt from past mistakes and mistakes we will make in the future, the vision is to turn that dream into a reality.

‘In the future when someone has to fight a TCA athlete, they will know that it’s not going to be easy. Win or lose, they are showing up to fight,’ Metha added.

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By Purnungba Longkumer Updated: Sep 12, 2021 9:26:58 pm