Everything was going well in Siddharth Singh’s life. After Doon School, Delhi University and University of St Andrews in Scotland, he got a well-paid job as regional business manager for Europe, the Middle-East and Africa with the Italian apparel brand Ellesse. It was a job that came with plenty of travel and a house at Hampstead Heath in London.
Yet Singh was restless. He liked his work, but what he really lived for happened after office hours, when he changed out of his suit and into shorts; stepped out of formal shoes and onto the mat barefoot.
Singh was introduced to combat sports at age 12, in boarding school, where he picked boxing. While studying in Scotland, he switched to Muay Thai (Thai kickboxing). Now, all day, he itched to get to his gym and lose himself in training.
Singh eventually quit the cushy career at 26, became a mixed-martial-arts (MMA) specialist, started a chain of training centres. And now, at 35, is India’s only elite-level international medallist in Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ). It all began in London, when a slim, lithe woman knocked him out.
“I entered my Muay Thai gym one day to find a seminar on BJJ unfolding,” Singh remembers. This was in 2010. BJJ was not yet a worldwide phenomenon; that would come later, as it became the tool used to dominate at elite MMA championships.
In 2010, even pop-culture references were rare. Edward Norton’s Bruce Banner used BJJ breathing techniques to control his anger in The Incredible Hulk (2008), but that was about it. Singh had no idea what it was. He was not impressed by all the rolling around on the mat.
“There was a 48-kg woman who didn’t have a partner. She was more or less a beginner. My coach suggested I give it a try and spar with her,” says Singh, sweating in his combat clothes at Crosstrain Fight Club, his 10-year-old MMA academy in New Delhi. “I was hesitant. I said okay, I’ll go really light.”
Forty seconds later, he woke up “seeing stars”. “She had choked me unconscious. I thought okay, I need to go harder,” he says. “I gave it 120%. Ten seconds later, I had blacked out again.”
Singh was astonished. He had 15 years of boxing and kickboxing training and about 25 kg of mass over the woman. “I had to learn how to do that,” he says.
BJJ got its start when a famed travelling Japanese judoka, Mitsuyo Maeda, introduced judo to Brazil, specifically to four brothers from the Gracie family in Rio de Janeiro, in 1917. Over the next few years, the Gracie brothers and their students added hundreds of moves, mainly ground-grappling and submission techniques designed to defeat a larger, stronger opponent. By the early 1920s, they were calling it Brazilian jiu-jitsu (after the older Japanese martial art system from which judo originated).
After his humbling day in the gym, Singh was convinced his calling lay in this sport. “All the other martial arts end once an opponent is pinned to the floor. In BJJ, that’s where you start. That’s what fascinated me,” he says. On trips to India, he realised there were no combat gyms that taught BJJ. That became a turning point. “I thought, why don’t I start such a space?”
In September 2012, Singh quit his job and moved from London to Delhi. By December he had his first centre up and running. “I put in all my savings,” he says. Eight months on, encouraged by the early response, he opened a second centre. That proved to be a mistake. “Within a year, I was flat broke. I had to close one centre. It was a great lesson,” Singh says.
For the next three years, he hunkered down. He did everything on his own: running the centre with its 50 students, putting himself through training programmes to become a master, imparting his knowledge to his most promising students so they could become instructors.
In 2016, Reebok came on board as a sponsor for his academy. People’s interest in BJJ and MMA began to grow as UFC, the elite MMA Ultimate Fighting Championship, caught on in India. “It was finally working,” Singh says.
Cautiously, he planned another expansion. Singh now runs four academies, two in Delhi and one each in Noida and Chandigarh. Two of his students are undefeated fighters in India’s fledgling MMA league, Matrix Fight Night.
In 2020 came another twist in the road. Singh contracted Covid-19 and was hospitalised with severe respiratory symptoms. Lying in his hospital bed, he asked himself: If I get out of here, what do I really want? “It came to me that I wanted to be the first Indian in BJJ to win a world championship,” he says.
After 10 days in hospital, he was released and started training again. “I knew I was good, but I wanted to prove myself against fighters from around the world.” Another motivation was the lack of Indian fighters in international martial arts tournaments. “So often, when people find out I’m from India, they’re very surprised,” Singh says.
In April 2021, he entered the Abu Dhabi World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Championship, one of the most prestigious international tournaments for the sport. Singh made the final and won silver. But there was to be no celebration. He got word that his mother was in hospital with a severe case of Covid-19, and rushed to her side. The deadly second wave was raging across India. It would be a month before she recovered.
This year, Singh competed at the World Pro, made the final and won silver again. “On the ground, on the mat, trying to outwit another person… that’s where I am most at home. There’s nothing else that gives me that sense of satisfaction,” he says.
His heart set on gold, Singh is now planning a trip to Brazil, where the best of the best go to train. “My aim is unfulfilled, but I am working towards it. I won’t stop,” he says.