This coming Saturday, 16 November the entire Indian martial arts community will be tuned in to ONE Championship’s live event in Beijing, ONE: AGE OF DRAGONS. One of the biggest stars in the country is set to make her professional mixed martial arts debut.
In her home country, 25-year old Ritu already garnered huge fame and success for her highly-publicized wrestling career. She hopes she can be just as successful in her new chosen sport and be India’s first women’s World Champion mixed martial artist.
Ahead of her debut, Phogat, who comes from a family of prominent athletes, shares how she made her breakthrough in the wrestling world way before she broke out on her own to write a new chapter in ONE Championship.
Phogat grew up in Balali a state in Haryana, India, the third among four daughters of renowned wrestler and Olympic coach, Mahavir Singh Phogat.
All of Mahavir’s daughters and nieces started training from a young age. “The Indian Tigress” first experienced wrestling at the young age of 8.
Through the success of her older sisters- Geeta, Babita, and Priyanka - they were able to tear down the walls of prejudice against women who practice the discipline. By the time Ritu reached a prominent platform, a lot of the barriers and prejudices were cleared out.
“For me, it was clear from the beginning that I have to pursue wrestling,” said Phogat.
“To be honest, everything that people and society said or talked about was before my time. My father and sisters had to bear the brunt of that. Fortunately, I was shielded from having to go through the same.”
During the Commonwealth Games, both of her sisters, Geeta and Babita were hailed as national heroes with their gold and silver medals, respectively. Ritu started dedicating herself to the sport right after she left the 10th grade. Immediately, she knew had big shoes to fill in.
After a couple of years, Phogat finally got the opportunity to relish the same success as her sisters’ in international competition, although she admits that there was a lot of pressure to live up to even if she trained well and hard.
“They had given me a platform to go and perform,” she says.
“The fact that I was their younger sister meant that people expected a lot from me, but I always tried to forget this kind of pressure during a match and give 100 percent.”
She didn’t let the pressure get the best of her, though. She dazzled in competition with that she won her first gold medal from an international tournament in the 2016 Commonwealth Wrestling Championship in Singapore, as well as two national championships.
But for Phogat, her most glorious moment in wrestling was her performance that following year at the World Under 23 Championship in Bydgoszcz, Poland.
“I consider my highest achievement in wrestling to be the Under 23 World Championship,” she says.
“I won a silver medal for the country at the prestigious event. [The final] was a very close fight with the score tied at 4-4, but my opponent got the last point.
“It was a match I could have won. At least, I am glad that there were many girls competing alongside me from India, but only I succeeded in earning a medal for my country.”
A new chapter
Phogat was already a fan of mixed martial arts even during her wrestling career. She thought of trying it out since she has a good foundation and wrestling skills.
“I always wanted to do something different” she explains
“I often wondered why there are no Indian world champions in this sport and that actually motivated me to pursue this.”
Unfortunately, she lived where there weren’t any gyms available that could offer her the best training. That all changed when she was given an offer to train with Evolve in Singapore.
A little hesitant at first because of moving to a different country and leaving her family and friends behind, Phogat dove into the challenge head-on.
Phogat initially doubted whether her family would let her settle in a foreign country but all her fears were diminished quickly when her family supported her move.
“I wouldn’t have been here if not for my family’s continuous support,” she says.
“I actually talked to my sisters before telling my father. They wanted to me to pursue something which I was interested in. ‘If you want to pursue mixed martial arts, you must do it with full determination and focus,’ they said.
“My sisters talked to my father – I didn’t talk to him directly – and he too supported me fully and asked me to make India proud. ‘Whatever the sport, one must pursue it with dedication.’ That was their message.”
“The Indian Tigress” arrived in Singapore in February of this year, and wasted no time in learning the striking and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu skills she would need to master in her new sport.
It wasn’t an easy feat for her to adjust to a new environment and to a completely different training routine but she lives by and follows her father’s wisdom. She was determined to excel in her chosen field.
“My father always says that whatever you do, do it with dedication,” she says.
“His motto has always been, ‘Be foresighted, work hard and with determination,’ which he has passed on to us. I’ve just tried to listen to his advice and make the best use of it.”
Now, after barely a year of intensive training, Phogat is ready to make her mixed martial arts debut, and she will go head-to-head with Korea’s Nam Hee Kim at the Cadillac Arena in Beijing.
She acknowledges the fact that it would take more time for extensive training and hard work but “The Indian Tigress” aims high.
“I would like to win the ONE Championship World Title belt,” she says.
“That is my only aim. I would like to be the first Indian woman to become a World Champion in Mixed Martial Arts.”