Indian mixed martial arts athlete Ritu Phogat, the third Phogat sister and 2016 Commonwealth wrestling gold medalist, is as ferocious as they get. Called an Indian Tigress in the mixed martial arts (MMA) fraternity, Phogat harbours the dream to become India’s first woman MMA champion. Coming from a strong legacy, one that is captured in the Bollywood hit ‘Dangal’, and training alone in Singapore since March last year, the 27-year-old says that the Covid-19 pandemic has made her stronger.
The spirit to always give a tough fight, however, isn’t new for Ritu, who comes from a small village in Haryana, had to battle the odds to finally make an inspiring career on the wrestling mat. The most expensive female wrestler at the Pro Wrestling League auction in 2016, Ritu was expected by many to represent India at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, but she shocked the wrestling world when she announced that she was switching her focus to mixed martial arts instead, and moving to Singapore to train at Evolve MMA.
Speaking about her shift from wrestling to mixed martial arts, and how it helped her as a sportsperson, in an exclusive interview from Singapore, she tells IANSlife: “My journey from wrestling to MMA has been quite different. I had been watching MMA fights for a long time, and I found myself interested in this sport. I used to wonder why there isn’t a champion in MMA from India. My desire to do something different made me join Evolve MMA when it was offered to me. I didn’t want to miss the opportunity. I want to become India’s first woman world champion in mixed martial arts.”
Away from her close-knit family, and in a different reality altogether, Covid knocked on Phogat’s door as a big challenge. She also shared that the last time she went home was in March 2020. How did the pandemic impact her life and schedule?
“It was a big challenge because I’m in a different country, away from my family. If it was wrestling, I could have trained at home, and sought guidance from my sisters. I have wrestled for a long time. But, this was a difficult time for me. In Singapore, gyms closed due to Covid, which was an added challenge. I had to keep myself mentally strong, busy and had to improve myself even during Covid times. Covid has made me stronger.”
Is life getting back on track?
“Certainly it’s getting better now. Singapore is under a lockdown again but it’s not as strict as before, when we couldn’t even step outside our homes. We can train and run outdoors. Singapore also has a fast vaccination response, so hopefully things will return to normalcy now.”
Phogat shares that she will get her first dose of the Covid vaccine after the upcoming match on July 30.
Asked how she is preparing for the fight, she says: “Me, my coach, my teammates, and colleagues have worked hard to prepare for the fight. I learnt a lot from the previous match, and my confidence and training is higher than the last one. I learn from my mistakes and would try to not repeat them in this one. I am ready for the fight. I am excited to step into the ring and fight the match with my opponent.”
Daughter to the rather popular Mahavir Phogat, Ritu is a sister to Geeta and Babita Phogat, Sangeeta Phogat, and cousin to Vinesh Phogat — all wrestling champions. Sharing more on her family and if there a cultural shift about girls taking up sports back home, she reveals: “When I started wrestling, my father and elder sisters had already paved the way. The road was clear. After our success and also the movie ‘Dangal’, many things changed, but there is still a long way to go and many mindsets to change. I am doing my best to change that and do something for women and girls. For a child to succeed, parents’ support is the most important. I want parents to realise that their daughters can achieve something too. When we started, we had to face much resistance from within the village. But our father wanted to see us achieve, and here we are, because of him.”
Ritu is slated for a decisive July 30 fight at the ONE Championship. Ritu recently joined Under Armour’s exclusive list of athletes that include Stephen Curry, Tom Brady, Anthony Joshua, Jordan Spieth, Michael Phelps and Dwayne Johnson, and says she feels “like a champion wearing their clothes, and to have (her) name among the best of the best”.