Two fighters, battling it out in a cage with broken and bleeding noses, dislocated joints and knock-out punches would be a novice’s introduction to the world of mixed martial arts (MMA). Despite the obvious brutality, MMA fighters are highly skilled, at times in more than two to three forms of martial arts. This could be anything from boxing, Krav Maga to Muay Thai, and even wrestling. An MMA fighter’s training is vigorous and continuous, similar to the journey of the sport itself.
MMA in its modern avatar took shape in 1993, in Japan and USA. The latter is home to Ultimate Fighting League, better known as UFC, which started out as a no-hold-barred spectator sport, but with time more rules and weight categorisations have been put in place. The template is now followed the world over with over 35 MMA leagues.
Making of an MMA fighter
The high intensity and often brutal, sport is not yet officially recognised in India but has been a part of a subculture that is slowly becoming mainstream. Television sports channel have dedicated airtime for international matches and in cities such as Mumbai, early morning match soirees are common.
Now that Ritu Phogat has entered the cage, MMA has garnered more attention than ever before—it further helps her and the sport’s cause as she’s won four straight titles. Unfortunately, she lost her most recent fight in One Dangal against Cambodian Bi Nguyen.
Young Phogat hails from the first family of wrestling in India. Her father, Mahavir Singh Phogat, and elder sisters, Geeta, Babita and cousin Vinesh, are all gold medalists for India in wrestling. The family even has a biopic film to their name--Dangal. Ritu Phogat followed her father and sister’s footsteps into wrestling at the age of eight. Young Phogat proved her mettle by winning two consecutive wrestling titles at the annual National Wrestling Championships in 2016 followed by a gold medal at Commonwealth Wrestling Championship in the same year.
When you hail from one of India’s most renowned sporting families, the pressure to live up to the name and shine brightly is tremendous. It was one of the reasons the 26-year-old gold medalist wrestler Ritu Phogat decided to change tracks and dive into the competitive world of MMA. She even gave up the opportunity to represent India in wrestling at the Tokyo Olympics 2020. She is currently associated with Singapore-based ONE Championship.
The route to MMA
In 2019, the then 25-year-old Phogat moved to Singapore, after she signed on with ONE Championship, to train. ONE Championship hosts fights across all styles of martial arts such as Muay Thai, Kickboxing, Karate, Kung Fu, Silat, Sanda, Lethwei, MMA, Tae Kwon Do, Submission Grappling, and more.
As a sport, MMA requires a fighter to be adept in two or more combat sports and while Ritu Phogat is a master in wrestling she needed to gain competency in other forms. Her choice was Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Muay Thai to help her with striking and submission skills. “I have been working on perfecting a lot of other techniques, but wrestling has formed the bedrock of a lot of my efforts in MMA. Moves like take-down are easy for me. Initially, I had a lot of trouble with striking and jujitsu, but now I have improved,” she explains. She works with experts and other champions in Singapore to help her game. They’ve been like elder sisters, she says, and Phogat is grateful for the guidance.
The life of an athlete is difficult, especially if you’re away from home for a long stretch of time. Phogat’s training starts at 9.30 am every day and goes on till the afternoon. “I also take extra classes during the week because I am new to the sport and I want to learn more,” she adds. Her diet has changed a lot. “Back home in India, I had access to natural homemade foods and proteins, but since my move to Singapore, I have had to include supplements, multivitamins and protein powders in my diet. I follow a strict diet schedule that my coach has provided me,” she continues. Sundays are rest days where she catches up on household chores. She also indulges is some cooking—"I make an Indian dessert such as kheer that reminds me of home.”
“MMA is a new sport and I am also living in a new country all by myself, so it has been a difficult time for me. I don’t have my sisters or my father around to take advice from,” Phogat speaks of the challenges. As training came to halt due to the pandemic, the determined fighter didn’t stop. Her coaches shared training videos for her to able to work on her game. “I have been working on improving my striking technique as I want to show the world that we Indians are ‘all-rounders’. On-field or off the field”.
One of Phogat’s biggest motivations is to make her family and country proud. Her father is the source of her confidence and inspiration— “He always says, ‘You have to sacrifice to win something’, that has stuck with me,” she says. It doesn’t matter what the sport is, the aim should be to bring glory to the country. Ritu Phogat’s singular focus to carve a niche for herself and India in the highly competitive world of MMA is admirable. Mental strength is something that she strongly believes in, especially as an athlete. But stress does not trouble her. She keeps calm with yoga and watching motivational videos. Her family has been a pillar of support and though she misses her sister and niece she chooses to stay strong. “If I am ever stressed or worried, I don’t tell my parents and family because they will get worried unnecessarily,” she adds.
As an athlete, she finds Virat Kohli really inspiring with his diligence during training. She also looks up to MMA legends such as Khabib Nurmagomedov. In the future, if someone were to make a biopic on her, she’s like to star in it herself—"Because no one knows my struggle and journey better than myself”.