Ritu Phogat learns to punch
In a startling career shift, India’s big Olympic hope, Ritu Phogat, gives up wrestling for mixed martial arts
Coming from the first family of Indian wrestling, Ritu Phogat—the third daughter of Mahavir Singh Phogat—has already been part of one revolution, of bringing women to the forefront of India’s wrestling narrative. But rather than continuing on the trail her elder sisters, Geeta and Babita Kumari, blazed, 25-year-old Ritu is seeking her own path.
On 16 November, Ritu will make her mixed martial arts (MMA) debut at the One Championship: Age of Dragons event in Beijing. With less than a year to go for the Tokyo Olympics, Ritu has given up the wrestling mat for an MMA cage.
“I will always be a part of the Phogat clan," says Ritu over the phone from Singapore, where she has been training at the Evolve MMA gym for nine months.
“I will always respect my heritage, my past, and my family. I am lucky because I have their full support, especially my father’s. I can’t do this without them and I am thankful. I am not just carving a new path for myself, but also for my entire country and all the women I aim to inspire with this," she says.
Even though she had an early start in wrestling and spent most of her teenage life looking up to sister Geeta—the first Indian female wrestler to win a gold at the Commonwealth Games—Ritu has been an avid follower of MMA for seven years.
“I used to watch it on YouTube since 2012. I would always think, ‘Why does India not have a world champion in this sport?’" she says. So when she was approached late last year to train in the sport, she was excited about the opportunity rather than fearful of giving up the sport she had grown up with.
“I know the Olympics is next year," says Ritu. “But I didn’t want to miss out on this opportunity. I first spoke to my father and sisters about my interest in MMA and the offer from Evolve (to switch to MMA and train at their gym). They said (the offer) was good, but I needed to be focused and dedicated because I was moving to an entirely new discipline." While she misses wrestling, there was no hesitation in her mind about the switch to MMA. “I have always wanted to do something different, something new."
In February, Ritu left her village of Ballali, Haryana, and headed to an independent life in Singapore—nervous, excited and full of hope. In the beginning, she faced a few humbling sessions inside the cage.
“It’s very hard to step away from a sport where you are so good and start off new," Evolve MMA wrestling coach Troy Worthen says in one of Ritu’s training videos (released by the One Championship). “You are the beginner. You come into a room, you are losing every day in practice. You don’t really know what you are doing. But I think she’s going to impress a lot of people despite training for only nine months."
Wrestling is considered one of the best base disciplines for MMA, which is a combination of combat sports like Muay Thai, jiu-jitsu, boxing, wrestling and karate. While the wrestlers are good at throws and takedowns, they have to learn how to throw a punch, and, more importantly, take one.
“It was difficult in the beginning to learn how to punch and kick," says Ritu. “But I have put a lot of hours in the gym, with some of the best coaches. I am 100% confident in my training. Also, my international experience in wrestling will help me a lot." The Indian may be a newbie in the prize-fighting world of MMA but she is no stranger to full-body combat sport and its bloody-mindedness.
“I want to become the first world champion from India in MMA," Ritu declares nonchalantly. On 16 November, she faces South Korea’s Nam Hee Kim in the 52kg atomweight division at Beijing’s Cadillac Arena, the first battle of many in her new world.
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai