For Indian MMA sensation Ritu Phogat, the journey has not been easy. Hailing from the most popular wrestling family in the country led by Mahavir Phogat, she has, however, let nothing derail her dream of pursuing MMA and establishing her mark at the ONE Championship. Having emphatically defeated Jenelyn Olsim and riding on a 7-1 record, the
27-year-old ‘Indian Tigress’ has advanced to the final of the ONE Women’s Atomweight World Grand Prix, and hopes to bring the prestigious world title to India for the first time. In a recent freewheeling conversation, Ritu talks about her roots, her family and what has made her take up MMA.
On her roots and the Phogat family....
On being asked about her formative years, Ritu talks extensively about her childhood and life back in India. Ritu’s role models have always been her sisters (Geeta Phogat and Babita Kumari) and growing up with them motivated her to push herself at every juncture. Talking about her relationship with her father, Mahavir Phogat, she says, “My father has always been very supportive of all my decisions and has prepared me to face these challenges in life. It has not been easy, away from my traditional roots. He obviously helped me take up wrestling, just like my sisters and cousins, when I was eight.” Growing up in a joint family, she says, conversations were mostly around wrestling. Reminiscing her formative years, outside the tradition of practice and discipline, she talks about the usual shenanigans of switching off their father’s alarm and draining the inverter. “There used be a lot of childish squabbles and even when it came to taking control of the TV remote, it used to be the strongest of us would eventually prevail,” she smiles.
Is there a pressure of being a Phogat? “There is no pressure but there are expectations. With the success of my sisters and the name which my family holds, there are always expectations when it comes to me, but my sisters paved the path for me. It had been more challenging for them,” she says.
Choosing MMA over traditional wrestling….
“Choosing MMA wasn’t a very easy decision for me but considering my deep interest and love for the sport through my early years, it was the right choice for me…,” says Ritu. Her traditional wrestling career was scaling new heights, having won India’s first silver in the 48kg category at the World U-23 Championship in 2017 and following that, she decided to shift to MMA a couple of years later. “I was going through an incredible phase of my wrestling career before joining MMA, but my love for MMA pushed me to pursue this path. Everybody wanted to see me represent India at the Tokyo Olympics, but my father and my sisters completely supported me in this decision,” she adds. She feels having a strong background in wrestling lets her fashion her approaches on the mat in different ways to her advantage. Initially having no idea of where preparations took place for MMA, it was this immense drive to choose a road less taken, be an Indian woman to pursue the sport and carve out a place for herself, which made her chase her dreams.
Her routine, regimen and life in Singapore….
It has not been the easiest two years for Ritu, away from her family, but her sheer dedication and unyielding attitude has not let that get the better of her. Talking of missing her family back home and also having had to miss her sister’s wedding owing to her schedule and travel restrictions, she says, “I have always been tough, but the pandemic has made me tougher. It has been difficult, away from my sisters and my parents, but I know the time I’m dedicating to this will be worth it.” Talking of life in Singapore, she mentions tasting local delicacies and Japanese cuisine, and making friends.
When it comes to her regimen, Ritu trains twice a day, six days a week. Maintaining a definite schedule has always been of paramount importance in this business and for Ritu, an occasional third workout session for the day is just an exercise in bettering herself and honing her skill set. “I have the best management and the best team here, and I am here to prove to everyone who thought I couldn’t do it, wrong, and get the title to India,” the ‘Indian Tigress’ roared.
On being asked about how she deals with a loss, she steadfastly replies, “Being out of the Grand Prix at one point was disheartening for me, but I kept working and training hard. And I won the following bouts, proving to everyone out there that the Indian Tigress never gave up and deserved to be here.”
On a candid note....
When asked about who would be the best person to play her in her biopic, she takes no time to mention herself. “There are few things that people know about me but I want people to know about the unknown shades and struggles, and what contributed to the sheer grit and dedication that has gone behind my career. Thus, I think I would be the perfect person to act in my biopic, as nobody would know it better than me,” she said. Confident in her skin, comfort has always defined her statement as a sportsperson. “I feel the most comfortable in my training gear,” she adds. Talking of things she could pursue after MMA, and if there is a possibility of her venturing into acting or modelling, she smiles and mentions how numerous talents have shaped her and she’d certainly like to keep these options open.
“If you believe, you will have done it already. It won’t always be easy but it will make you strong. If you are determined to achieve, you will always get there. You can be Gita, Babita or Ritu as well. Opening up opportunities for each other to grow, encourage and empower, will always show the way,” is Ritu’s message to the young women athletes.
Talking about India’s performance at the Tokyo Olympics, she says, “It was a great performance but I had expected more. We had athletes who could have won but fell short. I wish India will be more successful in the years to come….”