Before Super Fight League was launched, there was already one Indian name on people’s minds for another sport in Asia, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. That man was Daniel Isaac, Founder of Tigers Gym. He was the man most credited for bringing and expanding the sport in India. In a few short years Coach Isaac had a team of competitors at the level of winning medals in their respected divisions. When he turned his eyes towards MMA, his ambitions were shot straight to the top via heavy hitters Ruj Kundra and Sanjay Dutt. These men had the capital and impetus to put an international event together before the demand was even there. And thus, SFL was born. Isaac himself remains committed to developing athletics in India. In this Super Fight League interview, he discusses how his father played a huge role in his life and how India missed out on UFC 1.
The Man who started the Indian MMA Revolution – Daniel Isaac Interview by Super Fight League
With the Super Fight League staging over 200 fights over the next six months, MMA is set to explode in India in a way it has only done in a few other countries.
Yet had circumstances been different the MMA revolution could have hit India a long time ago.
In a tale of Bollywood proportions, a passion shared between a father and son has overcome government bureaucracy and a missed opportunity of a lifetime to continue in a shared vision of proving Indians are among the best fighters in the world.
In 1993, Indian navy veteran and martial-arts expert Soloman Isaac was denied the chance to become an MMA legend. Nearly 20 years later, his son Daniel Isaac, Super Fight League Chief of Operations, is starting on the path his late father never got to finish.
“Rorion Gracie, eldest of the famed Gracie brothers and one of the original proprietors of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) wrote a letter to my father which I still have. He had heard about my father being a martial-arts expert that was teaching some of the best fighters in India. He wanted an Indian fighter taught by my father to compete on UFC 1.
“The original concept was to bring fighters from all over the world with different styles to compete against each other. My father selected the fighter to coach and represent India in the first ever UFC. In those days though, it was a real issue getting a US VISA. Like many people in India, the fighter didn’t actually even have a passport, so we had to get him a passport firstly. In the time it took to organise him a passport and a VISA, we ended up missing the opportunity to get an Indian fighter on the first ever UFC. Later things just fizzled out.”
In the end it was only Americans, a Dutchman and a Brazilian to have ended up taking part in that pioneering MMA event. It is no coincidence that Americans and Brazilians are now the two most dominant nationalities in MMA today while the Dutch are renowned for consistently producing some of the best kick-boxers in the world. In the end, Soloman Isaac’s misfortune effectively helped create a stereotype that Indians are somehow physically inferior to other races, despite the man himself doing so much to counter that belief.
“My father was a real tough guy. I would usually wake up to the sound of him smashing bricks with his head in the morning. Alongside his role as a trainer in unarmed combat to the Indian army, my father also did something similar to what the Gracie’s did. He would go to different gyms, dojos and fight academies, challenging the best fighter. When he beat them he would immediately gain 20-30 students every time, eventually building a huge following. Like myself, he was always proud to prove that Indians could be great fighters.”
Soloman Isaac’s setback in entering the world of regulated MMA inadvertently caused India to bypass the sport for more than a decade. However, his son Daniel Isaac is confident that the infrastructure set up by the Super Fight League (SFL) will see Indian fighters on the fast-track to catching up with the superpowers of the MMA world.
“India may be ten years behind the likes of America and Brazil in MMA but with everything the SFL is doing, the opportunity is there now and we have young, hungry guys that will just race forward. We have scouts all over India that are finding the stars within the wrestling communities, the kick-boxing camps, Wushu academies and even the local tough guys – Indian Kimbo Slice’s if you will. We invite these guys, covering all costs including food and accommodation, to train at our centre to give them the opportunity to compete in MMA on a big stage.”
The dedication the SFL is showing towards developing MMA within India is a credit to the genuine passion SFL founders Raj Kundra and Sanjay Dutt have for the sport. And this is no case of blind ambition. Whilst looking to establish a weekly MMA league may seem like an impossible task, the SFL are only responding to the demand shown.
“Every week we get hundreds of applications for people wanting to fight in the SFL. We are a nation of over a billion people and there is a strong fighting tradition within this country. Finding enough people to compete every week is not an issue. ”
“What we are trying to do though is bring these fighters up to a good standard before they enter the SFL O-Zone cage. In Nasik we have the SFL headquarters. It incorporates a 5000 square foot training centre which is the biggest of its kind in India. It is set up with all the latest training facilities and a full size MMA cage. The fighters on our roster come from a huge range of backgrounds and a huge difference in experience. So we are bringing in lots of specialist MMA coaches from all over the world to get our less experienced fighters up to the standard we require.”
Despite all of the big name coaches coming in from all over the world, it is Daniel Isaac himself who has the most influence in the MMA gyms of India. With his father considered an Indian martial-arts legend, even having formed his own style called Ishudo which is still practiced today, Isaac is perhaps the foremost authority of martial-arts within India. His expertise was on display to the entire nation in his role as coach on the hit reality TV show SFL Challengers. Even as he now enjoys his role in developing Indian fighters, it is clear that had MMA become a recognised sport ten years earlier it would have been very probably Isaac junior himself competing.
“Because of my father I was practicing martial-arts from the time I could walk. From a young age I was taking part in kick-boxing and karate competitions all over the country. I was the national kick-boxing champion from 1990-1993. I then won invites to compete internationally and I ended up winning a Gold medal in the world WAKO kick-boxing Olympics in 1994 in Russia.
“From there I was invited to train the Indian army in unarmed combat. Around the late 90’s I started hearing a lot about MMA and my father told me that MMA was the real challenge and what I should be aiming towards. I went to England in 2000 to train with Muay Thai legend Master Sken and eventually the idea of sharing all my knowledge to my countrymen was given to me.
“So I went back to India and opened the Tigers Gym. I started teaching and coaching, with my fighters competing in lots of competitions both nationally and internationally for nearly 10 years. We won a lot but I knew that whenever we turned up to these events Indians were considered the underdogs, something that my father and I had always wanted to change.
“I ended up meeting Raj and we discussed the possibility of starting the SFL, looking to increase the interest in MMA within India. We felt the time was right so when we got the SFL started it was really a dream coming true for myself.”
Soloman Isaac sadly passed away last December but his legacy remains and will continue for as long as his son is around. Having coached the eight male fighters on the SFL Challengers reality TV show and hundreds of others in gyms all over India, the Isaac family tradition is perhaps the biggest influence on the direction Indian MMA is heading in. Even before any combat takes place in the ring, there is no better example of the Indian fighting spirit then the determination shown by the Daniel Isaac to bring his father’s dream to reality.
Already the SFL has shown huge potential. The first ever SFL event hosted a crowd of approximately 4000 people while SFL 3 was closer to 12,000, proving there is a definite market for MMA within India. The new SFL Friday Night Fight Night format will allow fights involving Indians to be viewed by millions all across the globe every week, competing alongside some of the very best fighters from across the globe. Embracing the 21st century spirit to the fullest, the SFL are even actively encouraging Indian women to compete. With the SFL’s new found partnership with Invicta FC, eventually Indian women will get to fight against some of the best female fighters in the world.
The fasting growing sport in the world has met with the fastest growing nation in the world and now the relationship between them will be there for all to see, every single week. Stars will be created and stereotypes will be broken, which is exactly what the SFL was created to do.
“There has always been this thing internationally that Indians can’t fight and I don’t understand it because we have a warrior tradition throughout the country. So through the SFL we are going to educate the world and show that Indian boys – and girls – can really fight.”
Come October 12th, the eyes of the MMA world will be on India. Should MMA take off like it can in India, the country will not for the first time owe thanks to the Isaac family. If the SFL fighters can show the same kind of fighting passion shown by their C.O.O, then Indian MMA will really be something special.