Competing in ‘The Apprentice ONE Championship’, which combines business and martial arts, Pune-based Niraj Puran Rao talks about representing India and why ‘biz talk’ in sports should be highlighted

Suited to the nines as he talks about being India’s only contestant on The Apprentice ONE Championship, Niraj Puran Rao clutches a string of prayer beads, as if to keep himself centred. Point it out and he breaks into a smile, saying he is into philosophy and spirituality.

Whenever we think of The Apprentice, it is natural to picture Donald Trump (pre-presidency years) saying, ‘You’re fired’ at the end of each episode. However, Niraj assures us that “this is not your grandfather’s The Apprentice,” because it combines martial arts and business.

“The nature of how we perceive business is ‘logic, logic, logic.’ The ethos of ONE Championship is based on ancient Asian values of honour, integrity, hard work and compassion. Everything — from the candidate selection to the competition structure — has a spiritual component.”

It still is a high-stakes setting comprising 11 savvy contestants from all over the world, including Germany, Japan, New Zealand and the United States. The winner of the competition walks away with US $2,50,000 prize money as well as the chance to work for a year directly under Singapore billionaire and One Championship CEO, Chatri Sityodtong.

Niraj Puran Rao (third from right) in a group shot in Episode 1 of ‘The Apprentice ONE Championship’
| Photo Credit:
ONE Championship

Business acumen within the sports world has not been highlighted as much as it should be, agrees Niraj. In fact, it has often been dismissed. The 26-year-old, who holds an MBA in Sports Management from Symbiosis International University, Pune, is also the CEO of online fitness company, JoatFit.

“Business and sports fundamentals remain the same in the elements of teamwork, team management, work ethic and strategy. The competition has successfully brought these two seemingly-unrelated fields together.” He agrees that the visual medium of a reality show helps educate audiences about how well linked the two are.

What would The Apprentice be without its celebrity guest advisors? Niraj is still on cloud nine as he recalls combat sports pioneer Renzo Gracie and multiple-division Mixed Martial Arts World Champion Georges ‘Rush’ St-Pierre aka GSP appearing on an episode. “It was such a surreal and emotional experience. I was not sure if I was dreaming or if it was actually real. These are MMA icons whom I’ve only seen on TV,” he gushes, “I was wondering what to say to them, if I would make a fool of myself, and whether or not to say I was honoured to meet them. They have seen so much in life, having had humble beginnings and having seen so much.”

‘Discipline and routine’

From the couple of episodes that have already aired, there have been comments on social media as to how adaptable Niraj is. He owes this to his parents’ Navy background. When his father was recruited for the United Nations, the family moved to Israel where Niraj was born. They lived there for two years, and then shifted to Pune.

The family moved around, visiting different places and experiencing the myriad cultures of Egypt, Jordan, Greece and Macedonia. “Though we had a solid structure of discipline and routine, I was given freedom in whatever sporting endeavour I pursued. I was not just encouraged, but it was insisted upon and I loved it all, from football to swimming. “Because of this, I had a comparatively smooth journey on the show,” he recalls. “I believe every child should work really hard in sports in the early years; the fundamentals of teamwork, dealing with ups and downs, the value of fitness, and more.”

Niraj Puran Rao, of ‘The Apprentice ONE Championship’

Niraj Puran Rao, of ‘The Apprentice ONE Championship’
| Photo Credit:
ONE Championship

Niraj is a familiar face to reality television, having won the Suniel Shetty-hosted India’s Asli Champion in 2017, and he has leveraged this on The Apprentice.

This show was filmed during the pandemic under strict protocols. There was not much room for networking or exploring Singapore, says Niraj. “The sessions and prep were so intense and consuming [rightfully so] that time flew by for the series production and there was not much down time. The priority was safety for everyone.”

Value of vulnerability

What about his wind-down time from the mentally and physically-draining sessions? He trained himself like a soldier to take on these tasks to the point that his ultimate recoup was sleep.

Niraj admits that The Apprentice ONE Championship was also left him vulnerable given how one’s failure and success are exposed to the world.

“I have had so many humbling moments. It looks glamorous on the surface but, at 26, I have had around four years of experience, and there are people who have had six or 25 years. The competition, though, is deliberately structured to expose everyone’s weaknesses while exhausting them in every way. And then it urges you, ‘now, think!’ There is also the added stress of post-COVID real world because of so much uncertainty and not a lot of control.”

The Apprentice ONE Championship airs every Saturday at 10.30 pm on Republic TV.

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