A Phogat learns to kick and punch
In wrestling, there is such a thing as a ‘safe return’. It refers to the sport’s unwritten code of ethics, where, if a wrestler has lifted an opponent off the ground, then it is his or her responsibility that the opponent lands back on ground safely.
In Mixed Martial Arts, or MMA, there is such a thing as ‘ground & pound’. It is when one fighter sits astride a trapped opponent and unleashes a barrage of punches and elbow hits aimed at the opponent’s head.
To go from wrestling to MMA then, is bloody business. The two combat sports are poles apart, and they have one defining difference—in wrestling no form of hitting is allowed; in MMA, you can hit pretty much any which way you want.
It must be doubly hard then to come from the first family of wrestlers in India, to be a Phogat sister, and make that transition. But that’s exactly what Ritu Phogat is in the process of doing.
“All combat sports have their share of aggression. But it’s truly about the beauty of martial arts and the respect you have for your opponent,” Ritu says over the phone from Singapore, where she has been training since March after signing with One Championship, which is Asia’s biggest MMA property. Her first fight is expected to be in October.
Why did Ritu, famously taught wrestling (along with her sisters) by their father and strict disciplinarian Mahavir Phogat—the haanikaarak bapu of Dangal fame—decide to delve into MMA?
“I am the more adventurous one in the family. I always use to wonder who is better if a boxer takes on a wrestler or karate fighter takes on a taekwondo fighter,” Ritu says. “That’s how I started watching MMA. I think it was around 2012. Later on, I came to know a lot about the MMA athletes, who come from different martial arts backgrounds like wrestling, boxing, kick-boxing, or taekwondo.
Mixed Martial Arts, as the name suggests, is a combat sport where any style of fighting is allowed, with the aim of a knock-out or a submission. When it first took off as an organised sport in the early 90s, it was widely believed that punching or kicking skills will dominate the sport. Instead, as it evolved, wrestling skills have taken centrestage, especially the submission-based, ground-grappling system known as Brazilian Jiu Jitsu or BJJ.
Ritu’s elder sister Geeta, the first Indian woman wrestler to win a Commonwealth Games gold medal and the first from India to qualify for the Olympics, thinks that MMA suits Ritu’s inherent nature.
“She is very aggressive,” Geeta says. “You can’t beat up a person in wrestling, you can only pin them on the mat. But Ritu would often punch others during practice. She has that streak.”
Ritu thought convincing her father would be a nerve-wracking prospect, but she was surprised.
“When my sisters saw videos of MMA fights, they told me, ‘Ritu, you can pull this off’”, she says. “Then my father told me, ‘if you are confident about this, then please give it your all’.”
Ritu’s move from wrestling to MMA was not surprise for her family, but for the larger wrestling fraternity it was unexpected. Her wrestling career was going well, and she smoothly fit the Phogat mould. If older sister Babita, 29 (Ritu is 25), is a multiple gold medallist at the Commonwealth Games and a medallist at the World Championships, cousin-sister Vinesh, 24, is the only Indian woman to win gold at the Asian Games (2018).
In 2017, Ritu became the first Indian woman wrestler to win a silver medal at the Under-23 World Championships. She won a bronze at the senior Asian Championships too the same year. In November 2018, she was included in the TOPS (Target Olympic Podium Scheme) for the 2020 Tokyo Games, where selected athletes with potential to win a medal are given special monetary assistance.
Not surprisingly, The Wrestling Federation of India was not happy with her decision to fight in MMA. Wrestling is one of the five sports earmarked by the sports ministry in the ‘priority’ category for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
But Geeta says Ritu has not given up on her Olympic dreams.
“She is expected to compete in the National Wrestling Championships at the end of the year,” Geeta says. “Balancing both can be tricky but it all depends on the fitness of the athlete.”
Ritu adds that the elements of wrestling in MMA have helped her in not losing touch with the Olympic sport.
“I am doing wrestling in MMA so I don’t miss it as such,” she says. “But I will miss wrestling for India in international competitions. One thing will always remain common for me whether in wrestling or MMA, I will always play for the country. In MMA my aspiration is to become India’s first world champion.”
Loving a sport and excelling in it are two different things.
Canadian athlete Arjan Bhullar, who also moved to MMA from wrestling—he competed at the 2012 London Olympics and now fights at the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), MMA’s most successful show—will soon join ONE Championship and move to Asia.
“For wrestlers or BJJ practitioners, the easy part is that you are still grappling,” Bhullar says. “You take someone down and when he gets to the ground you continue wrestling. Generally if you can learn to punch and kick, you are a good fighter. If you can’t, then it’s very difficult. It depends on coaching, training and whether the person can do it. It takes many different things, but that’s the basic ingredient for a successful wrestler to become a MMA fighter—learn to kick-box.”
Ritu knows she has a lot of new skills to pick up but still hedges her bet on her wrestling skills to take her through.
“Wrestling is very important in MMA,” she says. “You can win by taking the opponent to the ground. A lot of the world champions in MMA were wrestlers before. Of course there are other forms of martial arts you need to learn to support your core form. You have to learn the combinations of different martial arts and apply in the match.”
To add to her wrestling abilities, Ritu trains four days a week.
“Mostly it is two sessions per day, but sometimes I go for the third session too, for learning something extra. Every day is reserved for a separate martial art,” she says. “Muay Thai is a form of kick-boxing, from Thailand. I am learning that.”
Gaining popularity in India is crucial to the ONE Championship’s rise. Formed in 2011, the Asia-based promoters are hoping to do in Asia, with homegrown talent, what the UFC has done across the world for MMA.
ONE has a sizeable presence in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Japan, but has ambitious plans of doubling its events next year (from 45 events planned in 2019 to 80 in 2020) and is aiming to tap into the Indian market as well, where the UFC has already made inroads.
“Around 100 million viewers watched UFC on Indian television in 2018,” Rajesh Kaul, head of sports business for Sony Pictures Networks India, which broadcasts UFC events, says.
Ritu’s introduction is part of ONE’s strategy of developing and showcasing Asian fighters for an Asian market. Though there are several MMA fighters from India on ONE’s roster, Ritu is the first relatively well-known name on that list.
Ritu’s ambition is to one day fight for the championship but the journey is long. On an average a fighter gets about three matches a year in which he or she has to make an impact, like in boxing.
“It’s not that this is the first time I am living away from my family, but yes this is the first time I am living away from everyone, including my sisters,” she says. “It’s a decision that I made, I have to cope with it.”
To bring a bit of home to her training in Singapore, she sometimes plays Haryanvi music at the gym.
“Man accha ho jata hai,” she says.