When Ritu Phogat made the switch from wrestling to Mixer Martial Arts (MMA), she knew she would have to make sacrifices. Aside from giving up a discipline in which she was an U-23 world silver medallist to start out as a rookie in another, she also had to learn to live by herself, away from her family, in a foreign land for extended periods of time. The latest emotional tradeoff might be her biggest yet – she might miss her sister’s wedding next month.
Ritu’s younger sister Sangeeta is getting married (to champion wrestler Bajrang Punia) in November and as things stand, Ritu says it’s unlikely to attend. “I’ve always loved weddings. Throughout my wrestling career, I’ve never ever missed a family wedding. And this is my own sister’s wedding. I’ve always planned for how I’d be part of it. I’d told Sangeeta how I’d dance in it. But I don’t think I will be able to attend,” she says from Singapore, where she trains at the Evolve MMA gym while building her career in the ONE Championship.
Ritu will fight for the third time in the One Championship, against Cambodia’s Nou Srey Pov on October 30 and then possibly could return home. But the restrictions on travel and health quarantines in place makes things harder than usual.
“When the wedding date was decided, I was asked whether I had any fight at this time. I thought I didn’t and I also didn’t think the coronavirus pandemic would create so much difficulty in planning things,” she says.
It’s a choice Ritu is likely to make keeping her eyes firmly set on a target – to become the first Indian MMA champion in the sport.
The pandemic has already cost her several months of training. In February, Ritu took her MMA record to 2-0 with a second consecutive finish. She managed one brief trip back home for Holi before returning to Singapore just before the borders were sealed. The following eight months have been her longest uninterrupted stretch in Singapore since she first signed the contract with ONE Championship in 2019.
She hasn’t even been able to spend all of that time in Singapore while training. Because of the country’s social distancing health codes, Ritu was only permitted to train by herself – limiting her to shadow boxing and conditioning until July. While she’s resumed practicing without restrictions now, an opportunity has opened up.
It comes in the form of the One Championship women’s atomweight (52.2 kg) belt that will be up for grabs following reigning title holder Angela Lee’s announcement of her pregnancy earlier this month. The belt will now be decided by way of an eight-person Grand Prix. While Ritu is still extremely early in her career, she’s hopeful of being considered to compete for the title too. Considering how fundamental she is to ONE Championship’s India expansion plans, this isn’t a long shot. “This title is the reason I became a MMA fighter. It would be great if I got the opportunity of being chosen as one of those eight fighters in this Grand Prix as well,” she says.
For that to be a possibility, there can be no further breaks in her career. “If I go to India, it’s going to have a big impact on my career. I’ll have to spend fourteen days in quarantine and even after that I won’t know whether I’ll be permitted to return to Singapore. It’s a hard decision, but I don’t want to miss the opportunity. If I take another break from my training, it will make it harder for me to improve,” she says.
For now, that’s what Ritu is focused on doing. “When I first came to Singapore, the only thing I knew how to do was wrestle. When I first started training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, I was beaten within the first minute each time. It was the same thing when I was learning striking too. In fact in my first fight, after I took down my opponent, my corner had to remind me to throw punches as well,” she says.
Her jiu jitsu has gotten better now, to the point that it is one of her favourite disciplines of MMA. Ritu now hopes she’ll be able to demonstrate some of that improvement in her fight against Srey Pov. “I want everyone in my weight division to see me as more than just a wrestler. I want them to be shocked when I get a knockout or a submission,” she says.
As she looks to make a name for herself, Ritu knows that she will have to make choices and that’s something her family understands as well. “I spoke to my father recently. He told me to come if it’s possible. But he also said I should focus on my career and do what I needed to do to keep improving,” she says. It’s a decision she’s leaning towards as well. “When I made the decision to go to Singapore and start my MMA career, I knew there would be difficult decisions to make. I’ve been working hard for nearly two years now. I have to ensure that that hard work pays off,” she says.