Rajinder Singh Meena, who is famous among his fans as ‘Knockout’, is one of India’s finest wushu and MMA fighter in the lightweight category. Seven-time national wushu champion, twice silver medalist in wushu at SAF Games, two-time national kickboxing champion, a regional boxing champion, and a former victor of the lightweight title in the Super Fight League, the thirty-nine-year-old has traversed and conquered in a wide array of combat sports in his long career. Being the first Indian man to win a fight in the ONE Championship, Meena has been a trailblazer-like figure whose feats have played a considerable role in lighting the MMA spark in the nation.
Sportz O’Clock sat down with the man himself to chat about his journey and listen to the MMA-related wisdom he disseminated:
When and how did your journey begin?
“I started boxing in 1999 when I was 17 years old and studying in school. My brother, who is in Delhi Police now, was a judo player. Seeing him train and work so hard, I got inspired to formally initiate my journey of sports. Over years, I won multiple medals in boxing at the state and national levels.”
You say you started with boxing, then how did wushu come into the picture?
“A friend of mine, who trained with us, was preparing to compete in the wushu National Games. Very casually, he told me that there was a spot open for my weight category in their squad, and asked if I would like to give it a shot. During that time, I didn’t have any boxing tournament forthcoming so I went for the wushu trials. I finished with winning gold in my first Junior Nationals in 2013. After that, my interest in wushu increased substantially although I did continue with boxing as well.”
How and when did you start playing MMA?
“In 2009, scouts from the Full Contact Championship were present at a kickboxing event in Chandigarh which I won. They saw me perform and offered to come to Mumbai and fight in their MMA competition.
“Frankly, I wasn’t fully aware of what MMA was, but there was the lure of visiting Mumbai, and, moreover, MMA was a sport where you got paid despite losing made me think that what was the harm in going for it. However, once I played there and witnessed the crowds that were coming out and cheering the fighters on, I was captivated by the sport. From thereafter, I have continued to play Wushu and MMA together, simultaneously.”
How has the MMA chapter of your life transpired?
“From 2009 till 2012, I fought and won three bouts in FCC. Then in 2012, Daniel Isaac called me and offered to join the Super Fight League. From there, my SFL journey started where I became the champion in the lightweight category. My record after my run in the SFL was 8-1.
“After defeating Sumeet Khade to regain my lightweight title in the SFL, ONE Championship emailed me to become a part of their MMA league.”
Competing in the ONE Championship against the big boys of international MMA, what were your takeaways from these fights?
“At the start, I felt the weight of differences in MMA at the national and the international level.
“Although MMA has grown markedly in India now, but at that time, since there were no specialist MMA players, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) – that is, the ground game – wasn’t prevalent among Indians. Because we came from different martial arts like boxing, kickboxing, wrestling, and the others, we focused much more on our stand-up game.
“Adding on to that, the facilities, the clubs, the coaches of MMA have improved over time here but back then the situation was quite bleak. We had to visit different clubs to practice different aspects of our games. There wasn’t a holistic MMA club where we could get everything that we needed.
“However, when I got the taste of the game in ONE Championship, the entire atmosphere was different. First of all, the crowd in the stadium was enormous. There were 1000s of people watching us, while in the nationals hardly 300-400 witnessed the fights. Outside the ring, the facilities provided to us were also much advanced.”
At the international stage, you went through a tough patch. How did you cope during that time? And how did it feel when you finally won your fight against the Chinese, Zhang Ze Hao?
“I had continuously lost four fights in ONE Championship and, in between that, in the SFL League in Delhi, I lost both my fights there as well, against international fighters. Following that, I received severe criticism from everyone around me, including my MMA associates. They said I was ruining Indian’s MMA reputation globally or that I was too old to fight now. But I felt that quitting at such a time would mean that the mark of always losing in the ONE Championship would never leave me. I didn’t want that, and I trained hard to change the situation.
“After winning that fight, everything changed. Many people phoned to congratulate me and various sponsors and brands approached me. That filled me with great confidence.”
Being the first Indian man to win a fight in ONE Championship, do you reckon that particular win made a larger impact?
“Before me as well, there were a couple of players who played in the ONE Championship, but none of them had won an international fight. When I became the first Indian male to win such a match in 2018, then many things changed for the good in the local MMA scene.
“I’ll give you another similar example. Before Sushil Kumar, the maximum that our wrestlers aimed for was Olympic qualification, but once he brought home that first medal, he ignited the fire amongst other wrestlers. After that, things have looked up in wrestling. I would say my win in the ONE Championship had a similar impact.
Your fans call you ‘Knockout’. The reason behind that nickname might be easy to guess but what’s the story behind it?
“When I went to play in the FCC in Mumbai, although, I didn’t even know the fundamentals of MMA, I knocked out experienced, established fighters in my first two fights. People in the audience began chanting, ‘Knockout! Knockout!’. Ever since that name has stuck with me.”
Can you throw some light on how your training sessions function?
“My stand-up training gets covered in my wushu practice. For groundwork, I practice with wrestlers twice or thrice a week.
“Normally, we work out twice a day. In the morning session, we focus on endurance level and cross-fit training. In the evening, we tune up our various fighting skills.
“From the beginning, stand-up was my forte because I come from a background of wushu and boxing. Most of my losses have come because of my groundwork since naturally, that is the weaker part of my game. So I try hard to improve that part of my game.”
Why isn’t wushu played in the Olympics? Can you see that changing?
“In 2008, when Beijing was the host of the Olympics, they introduced Wushu for demonstration purposes. But being a highly injury-prone game, the IOC wasn’t impressed.
“Another thing is that China holds hegemony over this game. The Russians and Iranians win some medals at the World Championships, but mostly it’s China. However, the hold of the USA and some European countries is significant in the Olympics, so they wouldn’t want a game like Wushu in the Olympics.
“Nevertheless, I think in the coming future Wushu might have a chance in the Olympics because its discontinuation in the 2012 London edition ensured that some rules and weight categories were tinkered with in order to prevent the injury scare. You can see that Wushu was introduced in the Youth Olympics. I hope it also becomes a part of the main Olympics soon.”
How do you imagine your career henceforth?
“This is my last year of playing wushu because, according to the international rules, one can play this sport only till the age of 40. Although, I’ll continue to be a wushu and MMA coach.
“As regards MMA, if I get an attractive proposal, then I’ll prepare thoroughly before contesting. I aim to give my best, whatever may be the result of the fight.
“I also dream of opening a specialist club for MMA players, where I’ll hire a proper BJJ coach while teaching stand-up myself. I don’t want young players to suffer from the shortcomings that I did. I don’t want to open a club for money, rather I wish to create international fighters who make the nation proud.”