From wrestling to mixed-martial arts: The Ritu Phogat journey
Joining Asia’s best MMA academy Evolve, and then signing with Asia’s biggest MMA production, One Championship, Ritu chose a career much different from her sisters Babita, Geeta and Vinesh.Updated: Feb 12, 2020 18:03 IST
Ritu Phogat had been following mixed-martial arts since she was young. Born into one of the most popular wrestling family in India, the Phogats, Ritu was bound for success in the sport. In 2016, she won the gold medal at Commonwealth Wrestling Championships and then followed it up with Bronze in Asian Championships in 2017, and a silver in the U-23 World Championships in the same year. In 2019 February came the news that Ritu is leaving the mat to switch to mixed-martial arts.
Joining Asia’s best MMA academy Evolve, and then signing with Asia’s biggest MMA production, One Championship, Ritu chose a career much different from her sisters Babita, Geeta and Vinesh. “Everyone questioned why you are leaving wrestling. I thought if you want to do something different, you have to take risks. I always wondered why there has never been a MMA Champion from India,” she told reporters at an event in New Delhi.
The decision to switch to MMA was not an easy one. But the grappler received full support from her family in making the transition. “Father always wanted his daughters to take India to the top. So it doesn’t matter whatever sport I am playing, he wants us to make the country proud. He constantly supported me,” she said in front of her father Mahavir Phogat, who was also present at the event.
The first part of the transition to MMA was to leave her life in India behind and settle down in Singapore. Ritu admits she faced troubles in adjusting to a new city. “It was the first time I was living alone without my sisters, and that too in a new city. Adjusting there was difficult for me. It took a few months to get myself sorted. But now I am all settled,” she says.
Learning the new techniques of MMA was the next challenge. While wrestling involves grappling, MMA also involves a fair amount of punching, kick-boxing, Muay Thai, Jiu Jitsu and other forms of martial arts. Ritu explained the difference: “There is not much differences in training, but there is difference in the skill set you have to learn. You need more speed, strength and endurance. We need to learn striking, jiu jitsu, muay thai etc.”
Ritu’s sparring partner at Evolve, Maira Mazar from Brazil, who herself is a MMA fighter for One Championship promotion in the 57kg category, further gave a glimpse of the Indian grappler’s early days in MMA. “When you are in a fight, you use your best skills. But at the gym, you have to learn everything. When Ritu came to MMA, she was good in wrestling and was excellent in takedowns. But she didn’t know jiu jitsu, and how to use the ground,” Maria said.
Ritu believes her wrestling career helped her in making the transition to MMA at a quicker pace. “Even though it was difficult for me, my wrestling background proved to be a huge benefit for me to learn these new skill sets,” she said.
Maria further explained: “If you have a strong base, like Ritu, who trained all her life for this, it is easier to her learn Jiu Jitsu. Her body answers faster to the movements. She had a good body conditioning and coordination, and it was easier for her to learn how to use the ground.”
Another mental block which Ritu had to overcome was punching her opponents. In wrestling, punching is not allowed. But in a MMA fight, it is an essential asset. Maria, who was herself a Sanda (chinese boxing) fighter before switching to MMA, says, “Punching can be a mental block. You have to develop reflexes for that. You have to learn how to absorb punch. If I am striker, I punch someone, and my opponent doesn’t get scared, I know I have a problem,” she said.
Ritu added: “If I don’t think about punching my opponent, I will get knocked out as the opponent will punch me. We respect our opponents. In the ring, we are fighting. Outside it, we are friends.”
In her first MMA bout, Ritu Phogat relied on her wrestling strengths - takedowns and pins - to beat her South Korean opponent Nam Hee Kim in under three minutes. Now, she will face Wu Chiao Chen of China in Singapore on February 28, and Ritu wants to knock out her 36-year-old opponent.
“When I enter the ring, I don’t worry about my opponent’s age or experience. I focus on my strengths. Winning the first MMA fight was a confidence booster - yes, I can do this. In my second match, I want to knock out my opponent,” she signed off.