Everyone, as the saying goes, has a plan until they get punched in the face. By the same principle, the time for Rahul Raju, to make an honest assessment of his career would have come in his fourth professional mixed martial arts fight. Competing in the Philippines against Reydon Romero, Raju caught a punch in the first round, shattering an orbital bone. Fighting on with a facial fracture, Raju recalls thinking to himself, “Well, this is the path I chose, now I have to deal with it. I finally realized what I was there to do,” he says.
There wasn’t a movie-quality happy ending to Raju’s tale of perseverance on that day in January 2017. He fought through three rounds of agony and still ended up dropping a unanimous decision to the local fighter. But he saw a silver lining through it all. “Despite the injury, I fought one of my best fights ever. It was really painful and I had to have surgery immediately afterwards. Until that moment, there is always a question how badly you want something, and at that moment, I realized I really wanted it,” says Raju.
‘It’, for Raju, was the dream to be a mixed martial arts fighter. Raju is a seasoned competitor now. Next Friday, he’ll be looking to extend a two-fight win streak at ONE Championship and improve on a 7-4 record, when he takes on former title contender Amir Khan in a welterweight contest. When the 29-year-old, who goes by the moniker ‘Kerala Krusher’, thinks about his dream, he admits it was an unlikely one for a Kerala native who’d studied engineering and already had a well paying, white-collar job as a technician in a semiconductor plant in Singapore.
Kerala might be home to the ancient martial art tradition of Kalaripayattu, but there isn’t much of a modern combat sports culture. Certainly not in the town of Pathanamthitta, in central Kerala where Raju grew up. “There were some boxing and wrestling training facilities but compared to North India or the North East, these were really few,” he recalls.
The lack of opportunities didn’t stop him from idolizing martial arts – usually in the form of movies. “I’d watch all the movies I could which had Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan,” he recalls. His parents weren’t too keen about his interest though. “There was a kung fu coaching center near my home and I used to beg my mother and father to let me join but they’d always tell me to focus on my studies or tell me they’d think about it later,” he says.
Raju would get his wish through an unexpectedly fortuitous beating. “I got into a school fight, which ended up with me getting thrashed by a few seniors. I told my father it wouldn’t have happened if I’d only got some martial arts training and the day after that incident, he enrolled me for my first class,” Raju recalls with a laugh.
While he became a devoted practitioner, studies remained his first priority. He studied for a course in mechatronics – an engineering field that combines robotics, electronics, computer, telecommunications, systems, control, and product engineering. His studies would take him to the Temasek Polytechnic institute in Singapore, where he continued his training, albeit now in the Indonesian martial art of selat, which was popular at his institute.
It was in Singapore, in the final semester of his engineering course, that he was first introduced to mixed martial arts (MMA). It came through a poster that was put up in his selat training group, advertising an amateur MMA competition. The only thing he remembers of what it said were the words “no rules”. “I’d never even heard of the sport until then. But I was really intrigued by the “no rules” concept. I’d gone to a lot of selat competitions but I felt there were too many restrictions. But this poster said you could punch, kick, grapple,” he recalls.
Raju entered his name, and although he had never trained a day as a mixed martial artist, ended up winning. “There were rules that made things easier for me. You had to stand the fighters up after twenty seconds on the ground. That worked because I’d only trained as a striker all my life. In the final, I faced an actual MMA guy. I got taken down a couple of times and it was just brute strength with which I threw him off. After that fight I knew that if I had to beat others like that MMA fighter, if that opponent was a little better, I had no chance. I had to develop other skills. I had to learn jujitsu and wrestling,” he says.
Raju walked into an MMA gym soon after. His initiation into the sport coincided with his first job, working in the semiconductor industry. There was little to complain about the latter, which was what his education had prepared him for. “I was an assistant engineer in a chip manufacturing plant, testing the microchips for mobile phones. It was an interesting job,” he admits. But even as his desire to excel in his sport grew, he found himself struggling to find the time to do both.
“I was doing my job but also training. I was also competing in my first amateur bouts then. It was nearly impossible to find a balance. I’d complete my shift and then rush out immediately to get to training. Often times I’d train without sleep because there wasn’t any time. That caused so many injuries,” he recalls. When I got the opportunity to start coaching in the gym, I took it.
Raju struggled to juggle his job and his passion for three years before eventually making the decision to focus entirely on MMA. “I got a job as a trainer at the same club where I trained and I made the decision to quit my job. My bosses and colleagues and friends were not that surprised because they knew how bad I wanted it. They saw I was coming to work without sleep and how I was running to the gym right after work. My parents were not happy. They told me to focus on my regular job. But I had a dream and I had to stay strong,” he says.
Having made his choice, there were tradeoffs to be made. “The first few years were a struggle. As a trainer, I wasn’t making anything like the money I did in my old job. I had to downgrade a lot of my needs and adjust my budget. I also couldn’t socialize with my friends. If I’d made a decision to focus on my sport, I had to give it everything,” he says.
The learning curve was steep. Over the first few months of his career, Raju’s broken his collarbone and had several ligament issues. And that orbital eye fracture in the Philippines. There have been setbacks in the ring too. In his first fight at ONE Championship, a couple of years ago, Raju was caught with a counter right hook and knocked out in the first round.
His passion is undiminished though. “There have been moments of struggle. Losing in the first round was one of the lowest moments of my life. It brought out a lot of bad emotions, but as a fighter you have to put these things aside and remember why you are doing what you do. From my childhood, I wanted to be a fighter. More than just a profession, I wanted to be the alpha male in a group. I had to be the best. First, it was to be the best at the gym, and then it was to be the best in Singapore. Now it’s to be the best at ONE Championship,” he says.
On a two-fight winning streak now, Raju believes his career has turned the corner. His grappling game has improved significantly and he now has a brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. “I’m probably one of only a handful of Indians who have this,” he reckons.
His parents too have come around to their son’s career choice. “It’s taken time but they realized that I wasn’t giving this up. They’ve become very supportive since then,” he says. It wouldn’t have mattered even if they hadn’t, he says. “There are parts of India where a career in combat sports is considered acceptable. It’s not the same in Kerala. It’s a gradual change and while I’m happy when I am supported, I don’t expect much,” he says.
For now he’s just glad to be chasing his own dream. “I don’t regret anything that’s happened to me. I consider myself very blessed to have left my old job. It’s probably the best decision I made in my life,” he says.