In November 2018, Roshan Mainam was on the verge of giving up on his MMA dream. The 22-year-old was in Singapore, doing his third sprint up a series of steps carved into the side of a 100m-tall hill. Heart exploding, legs turning to jelly, he made his way up the hill and then had to jog back down. He had another seven sprints to go through, and it was only the first part of the day's schedule. There was more gruelling training ahead -- weighted explosive push-ups for time, sprints while carrying someone over his shoulders -- all on just the first day of a seven-day tryout to be selected to train at Singapore's Evolve Gym, one of Asia's finest MMA facilities. Mainam was up against a dozen other competitors, all hungry and all waiting for him to slip up so they could make a better impression.
At the other end of the week, Mainam would have his name called out as the last of five competitors selected. He'd sign a US$48,000-a-year contract for three years -- a financial windfall -- in which he'd get to train full-time as a mixed martial artist, and compete in the One Championship. He's currently 6-4, having won his debut fight in One Championship last year and expected to improve on that record when he competes in his second, at 'One Championship: Reign of Dynasties' next Friday.
On that day in 2018, on the third climb up that steep hill, Mainam didn't know that.
"The first thing I wondered was where did Singapore even get a 100m-tall hill from. I wasn't worried about the rest of the week because those were workouts I'd done before, but I knew the stair sprints were going to challenge me since I'd last done them a couple of years before. After the third sprint, I was exhausted. I was really struggling inside but I didn't show that weakness to anyone. I somehow pushed myself to complete those ten sprints. I was about ready to surrender. But I knew I couldn't, not after coming so far. I had to fight," he says.
Mainam isn't the highest-profile Indian fighter in the One Championship. That would undoubtedly have to be Ritu Phogat, the younger sister of wrestlers Geeta and Babita.
Like the Phogat sisters, Mainam's story would make for a good film script too. He grew up in a poor family, the fourth child of a chronically-sick father and a mother who worked at a rice mill, scrambling for existence in Thoubal, Manipur. It's hard to imagine when you look at the thick necked, heavily muscled bantamweight today, but Mainam was a sickly child himself, always small for his age growing up. "The other parents wouldn't even let their children play with me because they thought I had polio or something," he recalls.
Despite the shortcomings, Mainam swears he never backed away from a confrontation. "I'd never back down. Because my father was unwell, there were always people trying to take advantage of our family. And I'd always be right in front, ready to fight for our right," he says.
That instinct encouraged him to try martial arts, too. "I was a fan of Mary Kom and Sarita Devi and I wanted to be like them. But I was too small. So the only game I had a chance to play was table tennis," he says. Mainam accepts he was terrible, not winning a single game over the course of the one year he played the sport. But he found his direction when a couple of young men, who had competed nationally as wrestlers, returned to his village. "I was in awe of them. They were so muscular and strong. I was afraid of training with them, so I only entered the hall where they trained at night," he recalls.
His surreptitious training, though, was soon found out. However, rather than being chastened as he expected, Mainam was encouraged. For all the poor health of his early childhood, the regular calisthenics seemed to work for him. As he got stronger, Mainam, who'd always scrap with other children in his village, found himself on the winning side for once.
"I looked different. I was picked on. And so I had to fight. There was no other way." Roshan Mainam
Mainam wanted to get stronger still and for that, he knew he'd have to go to Delhi. He made his way to the prestigious Guru Hanuman Akhara -- one of the oldest wrestling training grounds in the country, one that's produced wrestlers of the calibre of Dara Singh, Asian Games gold medallist Satpal Singh and Arjuna Award winner Rajiv Tomar.
A 14-year-old Manipuri kid in a wrestling akhara was a novelty then. Mahavir Rao, coach at the Guru Hanuman Akhara, had seen them before but most lasted scarcely a few days. "The change of culture is too much for them," he says. Mainam stuck it out, though. "It was hard. The level of wrestling in Delhi was far higher than anything I'd done before. I was away from my family. I was obviously very different from the other boys. I looked different. I was picked on. And so I had to fight. There was no other way," he says.
Mainam earned respect on the mat. Within a year of coming to Delhi, he won the Delhi sub-junior championships in the 50kg category. Over the next three years, although he wouldn't medal at the national level, he was tipped for future success.
That success didn't come on the wrestling mat, though. "There's no money in wrestling and I felt it was unfair of me to ask my mother for the Rs. 2000 (Approx. US$ 27) a month I needed. So I'd gone back home looking to get a job," he recalls. Mainam had been carrying all his certificates and medals from his career as a wrestler with him. In a moment of absent-mindedness, the bag in which he had kept them was stolen. It was an episode that sent the 18-year-old into a spiral of dangerous behaviour. "I was just doing the wrong things. I'd smoke and drink, and hang out with the wrong sort of people. I'd fight with everyone. In my village, the people who respected me once as a wrestler now saw me as a bad character," he says.
A particularly violent episode in which Mainam fought with a co-worker while working a construction job forced him to straighten himself. "He made fun of me that I had all this training as a wrestler and I was working as a construction labourer. I was mad but I also knew he was right," recalls Mainam.
That was the moment Mainam decided he would direct his aggression to the MMA ring. The sport was already something he knew thanks to the exploits of Isaac Karyo, one of the pioneers of the sport in the state of Manipur. Mainam returned to Delhi and, based on a Google search, went to an MMA gym. His journey nearly ended on the first day, when he mistook the Rs. 500 (Approx. US$ 7) fee for a trial class as the monthly charges, which was actually Rs. 5000 (Approx. US$ 68). One of the coaches at the gym, Vishal Seigell, took pity on the nearly inconsolable Mainam.
"On the basis of the trial class, we knew this guy had incredible talent. We also knew he had no money and that he was sleeping on the floor of his friend's house," says Seigell.
A compromise was worked out, where Seigell would train Mainam, and the latter would work as a trainer. Mainam would make this break pay off. "Within six months, he had become a bantamweight and flyweight champion in amateur division. He destroyed his competition," recalls Seigell.
Mainam would later get hired as a trainer in Bangalore but while this job paid better, it took a toll on his MMA career. "I was under a lot of pressure. I was working in Bangalore but because of the sport, I had to take a lot of leaves if I had to train or compete. My company wasn't happy and they told me I had to choose," recalls Mainam.
Seigell would once again help Mainam out. "When the tryout opportunity with Evolve came up, I helped him with the paperwork. We created a profile and some fight videos. We also trained for three sessions each day to prepare for the opportunity," recalls Seigell.
When Mainam made the shortlist, from nearly a thousand contenders worldwide, to travel for the tryouts, it was finally up to him. "Once I had the opportunity, I knew I wouldn't quit. They'd have to take me back to India on a stretcher," he says.
Seigell reckons it was Mainam's performance on the stair climb that first helped him stand out among his competitors. "From what I know, some of his other competitors had much better records in MMA. Others were champions in boxing and Brazilian jujitsu. But they were in terrible shape on that climb. Some couldn't complete it, others collapsed at the end of it. When Evolve was making its selections, they weren't just looking for complete players but also fighters who could push themselves beyond their limit and not back down. In Roshan, they had someone who doesn't know when to give up. He doesn't have the word quit in him," says Seigell.
In Singapore, Mainam is making the best of the chance he has been given. His coaches at Evolve are optimistic about his prospects. While Ritu Phogat might be the biggest star, Mainam is considered closer to the finished product at this stage. Former UFC fighter Siyar Bahadurzada, the current chief coach at Evolve Gym, is one of his biggest backers. "He has what it takes to be an excellent MMA fighter. His background is wrestling and he's obviously really strong in that area, but he's improved tremendously in his striking and jujitsu as well. He's very keen to learn and most importantly, he has a fighter's mentality in the cage. I think he could be a world champion one day," says Bahadurzada.
That's the goal Mainam has in mind for himself as well, but he knows it won't come easily. He doesn't expect it any other way, either. "When I was in Manipur, I came to Delhi because I wanted to (get) better. And I found I had to improve to another level. The same way, when I was competing in India, I was quite strong but now that I am competing at the One Championship level, I feel like I have to learn everything again. I needed to improve on conditioning, strength and technique. I had nothing but confidence when I came from India," he says.
While the path ahead is steep, Mainam will give it all he has. "All my life, I've learned to struggle and learned from it. I've always had to fight for everything. That's the only way I've won," he says.