The Mat Man: Meet Indian Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Champion Siddharth Singh
All was well in the life of Siddharth Singh. After the Doon School, the University of Delhi and the University of St Andrews in Scotland, he got a well-paying job as Regional Sales Manager for Europe, Middle East and Africa with the brand of Italian Ellesse clothing. It was a job that came with a lot of travel and a home on Hampstead Heath in London.
Still, Singh was restless. He loved his job, but what he really lived for happened after hours, when he took off his suit and put on shorts; stepped out of formal shoes and onto the carpet barefoot.
Singh was introduced to combat sports at age 12, at boarding school, where he chose boxing. While studying in Scotland, he switched to Muay Thai (Thai kickboxing). Now all day he was looking forward to hitting his gym and getting lost in the workout.
Singh finally quit the cushy career at 26, became a mixed martial arts (MMA) specialist and started a chain of training centers. And now, at 35, he is India’s only elite-level international medalist in Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ). It all started in London, when a slim, lithe woman knocked him out.
“I walked into my Muay Thai gym one day to find a seminar on how to BJJ,” Singh recalled. That was in 2010. BJJ was not yet a global phenomenon; that would come later, as it became the tool used to dominate 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 wasn’t impressed with all that rolling on the mat.
“There was a 48 kg woman who had no partner. She was more or less a beginner. My trainer suggested I try and train with her,” says Singh, sweating in his fight 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 until I passed out. I thought okay, I had to go harder,” he says. “I gave myself 120%. Ten seconds later, I passed out again.
Singh was surprised. He had 15 years of boxing and kickboxing training and about 25 kg mass on the woman. “I had to learn how to do that,” he says.
BJJ got its start when a famous traveling Japanese judoka, Mitsuyo Maeda, introduced judo to Brazil, specifically to four brothers of the Gracie family in Rio de Janeiro, in 1917. Over the next few years, the Gracie brothers and their students added hundreds of moves, mostly ground grappling and submission techniques designed to defeat a bigger, stronger opponent. In the early 1920s, they called it Brazilian jiu-jitsu (after the ancient Japanese martial arts system from which judo originated).
After his humiliating day at the gym, Singh was convinced that his calling lay in the sport. “All other martial arts end once an opponent is pinned down. In BJJ, that’s where you start. That’s what fascinated me,” he says. , he realized that there were no fighting gyms that taught BJJ. It became a turning point. “I thought, why not create such a space?”
In September 2012, Singh quit his job and moved from London to Delhi. In December, it had its first operational center. “I put all my savings into it,” he says. Eight months later, encouraged by the early response, he opened a second center. This turned out to be a mistake. “Within a year, I was completely broke. I had to close a center. It was a big lesson,” Singh says.
For the next three years, it collapsed. He did it all on his own: run the center with its 50 students, submit to training programs to become a master, pass on his knowledge to his most promising students so that they become instructors.
In 2016, Reebok joined us as an academy sponsor. People’s interest in BJJ and MMA started growing when UFC, the elite MMA Ultimate Fighting Championship, spread to India. “It was finally working,” Singh says.
Cautiously, he considered another extension. Singh now runs four academies, two in Delhi and one in Noida and Chandigarh. Two of his students are undefeated fighters from India’s young MMA league, Matrix Fight Night.
In 2020 came another twist on the road. Singh contracted Covid-19 and was hospitalized with severe respiratory symptoms. Lying on his hospital bed, he wondered: if I get out of here, what do I really want? “It occurred 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 discharged and resumed training. “I knew I was good, but I wanted to prove myself against fighters all over the world.” Another motivation was the lack of Indian fighters in international martial arts tournaments. “Very often when people find out that I’m from India, they’re very surprised,” Singh says.
In April 2021, he participated in the Abu Dhabi Professional Jiu-Jitsu World Championship, one of the sport’s most prestigious international tournaments. Singh made the final and won silver. But there was to be no party. He learned his mother was in hospital with a serious case of Covid-19 and rushed to her side. The second murderous wave was raging across India. It would take a month before she healed.
This year Singh competed in the World Pro, made the final and again won silver. “On the floor, on the mat, trying to outsmart another person…that’s where I’m most comfortable. There’s nothing else that gives me that feeling of satisfaction” , he said.
With his heart set on gold, Singh is now planning a trip to Brazil, where the best of the best will train. “My goal is not achieved, but I’m working on it. I won’t stop,” he said.