Mixed martial arts is earning legit status as a sport in Chilliwack, with Sabah Fadai’s Rise Fighting Championship staging several successful events at the Landing Sports Centre.
An outcast sport for years, MMA has cleaned up its wild west image and established a strong foothold in the Fraser Valley.
Today, the first of two pieces examining MMA and what drives a man to fight another man.
“What word did you use a couple minutes ago,” Satjit Uppal asks the reporter as they discuss mixed martial arts at a local coffee shop.
“Ministry,” the writer replies.
“Ministry,” Uppal says, thinking about the word for a few seconds. “Yes! I like that. This is kind of like my ministry.”
This being MMA, and yes, the 22-year-old Chilliwack man speaks of the sport he loves like a holy man speaks of the Bible.
One imagines Uppal spreading the gospel of arm bars, clinches and takedowns to unbelievers raised on pucks and sticks, trying to convert the masses.
The Cardinal of Clobber? The Padre of Pugilism. The Bishop of, well, nothing really works with bishop.
“If my purpose in life is bringing martial arts to the people, I can live a great life doing that, and I realized that from a very young age,” he says with an ear-to-ear grin. “If martial arts was as widespread as religion, I think we’d have a better planet.”
Uppal is no later-comer to the sport.
He’s been all in from the moment he entered this world, born and raised in the church of MMA.
He grew up in Toronto, one of three brothers. From the moment any of them could walk and talk, they fought. And as soon as he possibly could, their father enrolled all of them in karate.
“I was too young to do the classes when I was three years old, so I just sat on the sidelines and mimicked what my older brother was doing,” Uppal says. “It was daycare. My parents dropped us off at 3:30 p.m. and picked us up at nine.”
Uppal’s father is a brown-belt in karate who came to Canada from India in his early 20s.
“He faced a lot of hard times and prejudice and racial pressures in the 1970s and 1980s,” Uppal says. “He equipped himself (with karate) as a way to cope with that, and when his sons came along, he wanted to equip us as well.”
Karate did a lot of good for Uppal.
He described himself as “a big, soft fat kid – a nerdy guy” who was self conscious about his weight and wasn’t outgoing.
Karate was the platform to find many of the things he was lacking, mostly confidence, but young Uppal also found karate to be too strict and buttoned down.
When he moved to Chilliwack and made his way into Revolution Martial Arts for the first time 13 years ago, Uppal says it was love at first sight.
He felt a certain freedom he didn’t get in the karate dojo and he was in awe of the older athletes, guys who had an aura of confidence and seemed larger than life.
“We got done with these brutal training sessions and there’s this endorphin release and then I was privy to these amazing conversations,” Uppal recalls. “We were sitting there cross-legged and I got to be a fly on the wall while top level dudes like Sabah (Fadai), Jamie (Siraj), Kajan (Rajin’) Johnson and Jose ‘Pele’ Landi talked.
“I just remember thinking, ‘This is the coolest shit that there is.’”
The things that those men said resonated with the teenager. He absorbed every word like a sponge.
“Mixed martial arts has certain indisputable truths,” he says. “When a choke’s under your neck, if you don’t tap, you’re going to sleep. If an arm bar gets thrown on you and you have the ego to not tap (out), there goes your arm. If you don’t move your feet, you get hit. If you don’t put your hands up, you get hit.
“Certain things are the way they are, and if you don’t understand them then you have to learn the hard way. I was able to take those things in at a very young age and they went deep into my core.”
It seems a truth that mixed martial artists can articulate their love of their sport better than just about any other athlete.
Ask a hockey player why they like hockey, and you’re likely to get, “I don’t know, I just do.”
“Fighting has no borders and speaks to the human DNA,” he says. “If a fight breaks out in a parking lot in Japan, you might not speak the language, but you’re going to watch that fight. Hockey doesn’t do that. Go to South Africa and ask if they watch hockey. Boxing translates to the planet. Why are Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson two of the biggest names on the planet? Because it translates. There’s a certain part of our DNA that just ‘gets it.’
“The other part of it is the self awareness that’s required to do this. You can’t bullshit yourself. You have to have a ‘why’ for why you’re stepping into a cage in your underwear to fight a grown man.”
The first time Uppal was hit – really hit – he was 12 years old.
Harley Chappell (now the owner of Chilliwack’s Pacific Top Team Jiu-Jitsu), had Uppal doing MMA sparring for the first time. He had tiny six-ounce gloves on.
“We’re going and Harley takes me down. He stacks my guard and he’s pressuring me down,” Uppal says. “I remember he looks at my face and says, ‘Move Sat, move’ but I can’t move.
“He throws one right hand right to my mouth, and I felt every piece of it. The bone on his hand and my head hitting the matt, it all sticks in my head very clearly.”
The first time Uppal hit someone – really hit them – he was 16 years old, competing in his first kick-boxing tournament.
He was 210 pounds, way bigger than anyone else in his age group, but one of his fights was against a 19 year old.
“Before the fight starts, Darwin (Douglas) tells me, ‘Sat, don’t throw a high kick until the second or third round. We’re going to chop him down low and then go high. So of course the first thing I do is throw a high kick because that’s all I’ve known. That’s my strength. As I settle into the first round, the first straight right hand that I threw that connected broke my thumb. But I also knocked him down, and that’s the first time I ever felt my hand hitting someone clean.”
The funny thing is, it’s not in Uppal’s nature to want to hit another man.
“I don’t like to hurt people and I don’t like violence, which is crazy to say because I’ve done this for half my life,” he muses. “It’s bizarre that I don’t like a lot of what is involved in fighting, but a big part of my soul is called to it.
“Fighting is when I feel like I’m most myself, most alive.”
The Chilliwack secondary grad has heard elite athletes talk about the idea of an ‘alter ego,’ to help them reconcile inner conflicts.
The late, great basketball star Kobe Bryant famously adopted the ‘Black Mamba’ persona whenever he stepped on the court. Where Kobe might have been reluctant to crush a foe’s spirit and rip out his heart, the Black Mamba had no reservations.
“You have to step into someone else,” Uppal explains. “You have to be willing to hurt the person who’s standing across from you.”
While Uppal continues to fight, nowadays he spends just as much time coaching as he does competing. His new challenge is explain the ‘raw truths’ he learned to a new generation of athletes, even as he continues to grapple with them.
“I would choose coaching over competing if I could only do one for the rest of my life, because so much growth comes from teaching other people,” he says. “That might say something about my competitive spirit, but I’ve realized I can do more for this planet as a teacher than I ever could as a competitor. That, to me, is amazing.”
Reach out to Uppal on Instagram at @Jit747 or look up Jit-Fit Personal Training on Facebook to see what he does.
– The next Rise Fighting Championship (6) event is April 4 at the Landing Sport Centre Chilliwack. For tickets call 778-549-2522.