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Ignored by authorities, Kashmir youth wins in MMA India Nationals watching Khabib and McGregor

KM/Special Arrangement

Srinagar: Elbow strike, ground and pound, back control, arm bar, sprawl: For the last five years, a student in south Kashmir’s Pulwama is living and breathing these and many more techniques of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).

Owais Yaqoob, 22, recently finished writing final semester papers of the B.A. programme at Pulwama college. It is not his degree, however, that has kept him busy over the years.

All his mornings and evenings, Owais practices the moves he has learned from his ‘coaches’: Khabib Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor – the two international MMA Champions and the biggest arch-rivals who may never come together to train anyone.

Khabib throwing a punch at McGregor during the UFC fight in October 2018. Khabib won the event, which set the record for the biggest MMA pay-per-view event, with 2.4 million buys in the United States (Source: Twitter)

Not in Owais’ case though. The youth from Murran has learned the grappling and the ground-and-pound from Khabib, while McGregor has been his go-to for striking and kickboxing.

How? Owais has watched their fights on loop. All of them. Rewinding till he lost the count. Learning and perfecting each move.

Owais’ perseverance finally paid off when last month he made history in MMA India National Championships. He defeated the more experienced and heavier players, winning the competition no one had expected the young man from a Pulwama village to win.

Owais practicing flag-pole hold, one of the toughest strength exercises KM/Special Arrangement

I have seen all the fights of Khabib and McGregor. Slowed them (videos) to learn their techniques. I have practiced them for countless hours. My only focus for the last four to five years has been MMA,” said Owais.

Owais was among the four medallists in the welterweight category in the fourth MMA India National Championships which took place in Lucknow from February 19 to 21.

He finished second losing to Zarmawai, a player from Mizoram.

Owais was ahead in points in the first two rounds. In the final one, Zarmawai cornered him to one end of the cage, something that Owais had not been able to practice given lack of equipment at home.

As many as 223 athletes from 22 states and three union territories participated in the event. Owais beat four of the top athletes in his category.

But nobody knows about it. I think J&K Sports authority too does not know that a certain Kashmiri has competed and won at a national level,” he said.

Owais during one of the matches in Lucknow

Like any professional fighter, Owais’ love for martial arts began early.

During his pre-teens, Owais was used to seeing his uncle, Mohammad Salim, learn gymnastics.

I was also fond of watching action movies, especially ones showing the Chinese martial arts. I always wanted to learn the art,” he said.

Soon after turning 16, Owais started learning Thang-Tha and Karate, skills that helped him greatly as he eventually began his training in MMA.

KM/Special Arrangement

He also started competing in kickboxing competitions, confident of himself, though he soon realised he needed to learn a lot more.

As I started competing against the players of other states, I realised that while I had the power, I lacked in technique and skills to fight on the ground,” he added.

To fix it, Owais attended kickboxing and Jiu Jitsu training camps in Chandigarh and Mohali.

Jiu Jitsu is a Japanese self-defense martial art and combat sport based on grappling and submission holds.

I learned Jiu Jitsu attending camps organised by Guru Karan from Chandigarh. He has trained in Australia for seven years. For me he is the number one Jiu Jitsu trainer in India,” he said.

Owais started working on his ground game as well, and he knew who to consult for it.

As you know, Khabib’s grappling technique is the best in the world. I learned the way he would make even the strongest opponents give up as he controlled the fight,” he said.

His passion for MMA, a sport which is growing in popularity across the globe, finally led him to compete at the National Championships.

Most of the fights that I won in Lucknow were because of my skills on the ground.  One opponent from Maharashtra, who was great in striking, kicked me. I grabbed his leg and then the entire round was played on ground… (I) didn’t let him stand. Next round. I simply stuck to his back like Khabib and made sure I used all the ground and pound techniques I had learned from him. I won the match eventually,” he said.

Last year, Owais started his own academy ‘Lion’s Den’ in his village in Pulwama where he trains 55 students at present.

Our training starts at 7:30 am. I train for four to six hours each day. My primary focus is to keep myself up for the challenge and ensure that I also build my team who too can compete at professional levels,” he said.

Owais, who is the eldest son in the family and has been taking care of his ailing father, says he has not received any support from the J&K Sports authorities.

Once I had approached officials at the J&K Sports Council who outrightly said they did not have any funds,” he said.

Owais had to borrow money to start his academy.

I am still paying it back. I was able to get some basic training equipment. But there is still much more that can be done. As a professional MMA player who trains for six hours a day, nutrition is a key element in his success. I am somehow managing right now but any support would be great,” he said.

While fighting in Lucknow, Owais said his corner was mostly empty.

There was no one supporting me. Other players had their coaches, and their teams with them. But for me, there was hardly anyone.

Owais is now preparing for an amateur contender series that is likely to be held in April.

He says he has heard that observers from Matrix Fight Night (organised by actor Tiger Shroff’s MMA-based fitness centre, MMA Matrix) are going to be present in the series. Owais hopes he can compete at that level.

I have to train more if I need to follow my passion. I have the will, all I need is some encouragement,” he said adding “As Bruce Lee said, ‘I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times’.”