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Wrestling aiding my MMA skills in One Championship, says Ritu Phogat

Sayan Mukherjee

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Ritu Phogat
Ritu Phogat (left) in New Delhi on Wednesday.

New Delhi: Leaving wrestling at the prime of one’s powers to jump into the unknown world of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) isn’t an obvious step for any Indian athlete, particularly if you belong to Indian wrestling’s first family.

But the allure of “doing something new” drove Ritu Phogat towards it.

On the eve of her second fight in ONE Championship, Ritu says instead of regretting the decision she took last year, her target now is to become India’s first MMA champion, becoming a reference point for full-contact combat sport in the country.

Sure the opportunity comes at a cost, of relinquishing opportunity to represent India at 2020 Olympics. But flanked by her father and childhood coach Mahavir Singh Phogat, Ritu insists to be at peace with it.

“At first I discussed it (the offer to join MMA) with my sisters (Geeta and Babita). They encouraged me, saying if you are interested then give it a go.

“My sisters then spoke to our dad, who said it isn’t important on which platform you fight what matters is that you fight sincerely and with integrity,” Ritu told Sports Lounge, on the sidelines of an event announcing her second fight on February 28 against China’s Pro fighter Wu Chiao Chen.

So much consumed is she at the prospect of excelling in MMA that the 25-year-old claims not to miss her first love wrestling and winning medals for India. Win under three minutes on her MMA debut in Atomweight (52 kg) division on November 16 last year (against South Korean opponent Nam Hee Kim) has only bolstered her belief.

“It was a tough decision to leave wrestling, a risky one too. Many people asked me why I am leaving wrestling in the midst of a successful career (gold at 2016 Commonwealth Wrestling Championship in 48kg, silver in World U-23 Wrestling Championships). But now I don’t miss wrestling or the prospect of representing India at major events as I am representing the country in MMA.”

She admits it took a bit out of her to adjust to life away from family in Singapore, where she is now based and trains. Meditation and yoga helped to strengthen her mental fortitude. But on the ring not much changed, as she believes her wrestling skills have helped in her MMA journey.

“My training is not much different in MMA than wrestling. But I have to focus on adding new weapons – like the use of legs. In wrestling there is no option of using them to hurt opponents but now I am learning kickboxing and muay thai. My debut match was of much help in this regard. I am now more aware what opponents can do and I am preparing accordingly,” she said.

ONE Championship’s willingness to tap into the vast content-hungry sub-continental market coupled with wrestling’s long history in the country made India an obvious pit stop for Asia’s largest sports media property.

“India is a big burgeoning market for us and its sporting spectrum is not only about cricket. Our goal is to be the largest sports property in the world. We plan to bring a match later to India, announcement will be done later,” ONE Championship’s chief commercial officer Harry Vijayarajan said.

“We want to build a steady pipeline of MMA fighters from India. For that we plan to tap into the country’s remote centres to unearth local talent. We have been successful with this model in China, Philippines and parts of South-east Asia. Now we plan to follow it in the Indian subcontinent.”

Signing Ritu and organising an open workout session in New Delhi is a step in that direction for ONE Championship.

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Sayan Mukherjee is the Content Head at Sports Lounge. He has over 10 years of experience in sports journalism (print and digital) having worked for some of the leading media organisations in the country including The Statesman, The Asian Age, IANS and Sports Illustrated.