Ritu Phogat’s dream lives on

  • The ‘Indian Tigress’ is two wins away from being an MMA world champion.
Indian mixed martial arts fighter Ritu Phogat(Getty) PREMIUM
Indian mixed martial arts fighter Ritu Phogat(Getty)
Updated on Nov 01, 2021 05:21 PM IST
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By, New Delhi

Back in 2019, in a world removed from masks, virus, and vaccines, a shy Ritu Phogat, flanked by her father Mahavir and a phalanx of hangers-on, had sheepishly proclaimed her desire to rule the MMA universe. “I want to be a world champion,” she would repeat, quietly but firmly, confident of her skills as a more-than-decent international wrestler. 

In a far corner, Droanacharya awardee Mahavir endeared a group of journalists with rustic wisdom – “There’s no difference between MMA and wrestling. It is all about power. Just get on top and rain blows,” he said to murmurs and muffled guffaws. 

On Friday, as Ritu ‘crucifixed’ Jenelyn Olsim, her semi-final opponent in ONE: NEXTGEN semi-final, Phogat Senior’s madcap advice appeared prudent than ever. In the end, the result was a unanimous decision, but the classic striker versus grappler contest was scrappier than many had predicted. 

A last-minute shoo-in after the late withdrawal of Itsuki Hirata, Olsim was an underdog coming into the bout, but impressed with her daring defence and unflinching will to resist. 

“It was a tough match. But now, Olsim and the world know that beating me is no child’s play,” a victorious Phogat would say after the bout.

Often, the pre-bout pontification in prizefighting universe is all fluff and faff, but Friday night attested that the chatter from Phogat’s corner was not hollow. 

Under the glittering arclights at the Singapore Indoor Stadium, Phogat, who goes by the moniker ‘Indian Tigress’, prowled, roared, and triumphed. Takedowns arrived in a glut, the first showed up within the first 20 seconds. Olsim tested a few Muay Thai kicks and combinations early, but once Phogat saw an opening, she didn’t miss out. 

This contest couldn’t have been starker. Olsim, a striker with a more-than-decent wrestling game and a five-centimetre height advantage over Phogat, started as a strawweight (52.3-56.7kgs) this year and caused a mini stir after beating fifth-ranked contender of the division, Maira Mazar, also Phogat’s sparring partner. Next, she marked her atomweight (47.7 – 52.2kgs) debut with a win over veteran Bi ‘Killer Bee’ Nguyen, the only fighter to hand Phogat a loss in her young career. 

The stat had not gone unnoticed by Phogat. “Yes, I am aware of that. Beating her will be extra sweet precisely because she had beaten Bi Nguyen who had beaten me,” she had said before the bout. 

Olsim responded with a verbal volley. “I do not know if Ritu has improved her game since losing to Bi Nguyen, but I do know that I beat Nguyen rather easily. It’ll be a tough match for the both of us.” 

Born and bred in wrestling pedigree, Phogat’s instincts and muscle memory are naturally attuned to ground grappling. Her classic gameplan is to spear in, effect a takedown using brute upper body strength or ankle trips, and proceed to her favoured ground and pound. What she lacks in surprise, she makes up with her power — remember her impossible wriggle-out from the constrictor-like armbar lock against Meng Bo in quarters? 

“Of course, when you come off a win against such a tough opponent, it gives you a lot of confidence. The bout against Meng Bo was a great exhibition of our skills and I am happy I ended up on the right side of the result,” she had said before her semi-final. 

Bo was world No 2 in atomweight category — the loss has pushed her to No 5 — and came into the quarter-final against Phogat on a seven-match winning streak. She almost sealed the deal in the first round itself, when her combination punches nearly knocked out Phogat. 

As the bout progressed, Bo displayed her full repertoire, punishing Phogat with a mean armbar hold, and later handing her a bloody chin. However, when the whistle blew, Phogat, bruised, battered and slightly dazed, stood tall. Splattered on the canvas was a fair sprinkling of her blood, while Bo’s knees and back had battle scars she could proudly reflect on. 

In that respect, the slugfest against Olsim was fairly innocuous, although it had its tricky moments for the Indian. “I want to show the world that I am not just an alternate,” Olsim, a political science student at the University of Baguio, had said. She walked the talk. 

While Phogat did floor Olsim a number of times, most memorably in Round 2 where she swept the 24-year-old off her feet and banged her on the canvas with a painful thud, the Filipino’s stout ground defence continued to drain the Indian. 

Olsim’s pushback 

The punishment that Phogat meted out on Friday night would have perhaps landed her a win via knockout or submission against any other opponent, but Olsim was not ready to go down without a fight. Takedown after takedown, punch after punch, the more Phogat pummelled Olsim’s body, the steelier her resolve became.

She survived a hail of punches on the abdomen, endured the sharp blows Phogat’s elbows inflicted on her ribs, and took a crushing pounding from Phogat’s fearsome right on her face. 

Then came a final rearguard. With seconds running out and Phogat on top, Olsim found space to hold her neck in a mean triangular clinch that almost outwitted Phogat. Eventually, she wrestled out of the choke, but Olsim had given a giant glimpse of the talent she possesses. 

Phogat’s sixth win from seven bouts takes her a step closer to her ambition of becoming India’s first MMA world champion. It must, however, be remembered that her dream almost ended in May this year with a controversial loss to Bi ‘Killer Bee’ Nguyen in a contest that Phogat presumably dominated. 

A disappointed Phogat refused to blame the refereeing, but dropped a couple of early caveats — “I will continue to give my 110 per cent” and “I will try to finish the bout early, either by submission or knock out.” 

Notably, none of Phogat’s five wins before the Olsim bout had come via submission, and three of her victories were decided by the judges. That shouldn’t be viewed as some sort of indictment of Phogat’s perceived gaps in her striking game, although her lack of combination punches and absence of a real striking weapon apart from a hard overhead right may test her sooner than later. 

“I am aware of the chatter,” Phogat had said before the bout. “I have worked on my standing game and striking shots, but as long as opponents are finding it difficult to deal with my grappling, I don’t see a reason to make any drastic changes.” 

Days later, she stood vindicated. 

“It is a special win. I think Olsim fought really well. In those last minutes when she held me in the choke, all I was thinking was to stay focussed and positive. With this win, I don’t think anyone will take Ritu Phogat lightly.” 

She will next face Thailand’s Stamp Fairtex on December 3, who beat Brazil’s Julie Mezabarba in the other semi-final. The winner of the tournament will earn the right to challenge reigning ONE Women’s Atomweight World Champion Angela Lee for the world title. 

The opportunity has come at a price. Phogat has been living in Singapore by herself for two years now, and her plans for a short trip home have been thwarted in past due to Covid-19 restrictions. 

“My father always says, ‘life is a struggle.’ I have not been home in a long time, I have missed the wedding of my sister. One of my sisters is a mother now; I miss being with family. Festivals have come and gone, and I have been away from my people. It does test your resolve, but my dad always reminds me why I am here – to be the world champion.” Two bouts are all that stand between her and that dream.

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    Shantanu Srivastava is an experienced sports journalist who has worked across print and digital media. He covers cricket and Olympic sports.

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