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At a crossroads, Ritu Phogat a win away from creating MMA legacy

The former wrestler is a win away from earning a first title shot on the MMA circuit.

Written by Gaurav Bhatt | New Delhi |
Updated: December 3, 2021 9:53:42 am
Ritu Phogat, MMA, Ritu Phogat mma, mma Ritu Phogat, Stamp Fairtex, Ritu Phogat vs Stamp Fairtex, sports news, indian expressRitu Phogat will take on Thai striker Stamp Fairtex in the final of the ONE Atomweight Grand Prix tournament. (File)

On Friday, Ritu Phogat has a fight on her hands. The wrestler-turned-MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) fighter will take on Thai striker Stamp Fairtex in the final of the ONE Atomweight Grand Prix tournament. The winner of the contest at the Singapore Indoor Stadium gets a title shot.

Those are the immediate stakes, but there’s a lot more on the line. A defeat here — Ritu’s second in five fights — takes the sheen off One Championship’s great Indian project. A win, however, not only books a clash against the dominant, popular champion Angela Lee, but does so at the best possible time.

Ritu Phogat. (Source: One Championship)

In early 2019, the two-time junior world silver medallist in wrestling Ritu traded the mat for the cage and shifted to Singapore. “I want to be the first Indian world champion in MMA,” she had declared. The pandemic, and a loss earlier this year at an event titled ‘ONE Championship: Dangal’, hindered the campaign. But the 27-year-old has bounced back with three gutsy wins, and the MMA world is taking notice.

In November, megastar Conor McGregor — out with a broken leg — seemingly discovered India and the 1.3 billion-strong potential consumer base for his whiskey brand. Sandwiched between references to yoga, chess, the Golden Temple and India’s ‘national drink whiskey’, the Irishman retweeted news of Ritu’s latest victory with the caption: “Rooting for the Indians to make a stamp in this game soon.”

“You can’t talk about MMA without a mention of Conor McGregor,” Ritu says when asked about the shoutout. “He has lost a couple of fights, but you have to wear your defeats with pride in MMA. He will definitely make a successful comeback.”

But Ritu remains a fan of McGregor’s nemesis Khabib Nurmagomedov: the wrestling virtuoso from Dagestan, Russia, who smothered and pulverised opponents into submissions and dominant wins. Ritu’s style is similar. She has managed to translate her wrestling pedigree into MMA, draining and hurting opponents with multiple takedowns.

Key to win

Her match-up on Friday is a throwback to the early days of the sport, where practitioners of various martial arts engaged in ‘what if’ contests. Fairtex, 24, is a striker supreme, with nearly 100 kickboxing, muay thai, and MMA fights under her belt.

The records are identical at 7-1. Five of Fairtex’s seven wins have come via stoppages i.e. knockouts and submissions. Ritu has three ground-and-pound stoppages to her name. For Fairtex, it’s about keeping the distance and striking Ritu from the outside. The Indian meanwhile has to move inside and take the fighter down.

“If the fight goes to the ground, I will have to find a way to get back into my own game,” Fairtex said during a recent interview with ONE commentator Michael Schiavello. “I will not play her game. I think that if she would try to stand and fight with me, she would get knocked out.”

Ritu hasn’t gone scot-free. A feisty, rough competitor since her wrestling days, Ritu has often tried standing her ground and trading blows, and has been punched in the face for her efforts. On the ground, she has been put into perilous positions, with opponents looking to contort her limbs into submission or choke her out. But what she lacks in finesse, she makes up for with her heart.

“Ritu is a warrior and has many strengths,” Siyar Bahadurzada, Ritu’s coach at Evolve, told The Indian Express. “Her wrestling, work ethic, and one that exceeds them all is her mental toughness.”

“Every fight has been tough, but that is the big challenge I love,” says Ritu. “Last 2-3 fights have been especially tough, against very experienced opponents. But when somebody punches me, it gets me even more riled up, more aggressive. I have learned many things. During these difficult moments in a fight is the time to not give up.”

Ritu earns dominant win in MMA debut Ritu Phogat beat South Korea’s Nam Hee Kim. (Source: One Championship)

She spent her lockdown binge-watching and getting inspired by the ‘Never Back Down’ MMA movie franchise. But the mantra was instilled under father Mahavir Phogat’s tutelage.

“He has been learning a lot about this sport. Even now, he keeps saying, ‘I hope you’re giving your 100 per cent’. He doesn’t know that this close to the match, the fighters don’t overexert themselves, to avoid injuries,” she laughs. “He’s in India but still keeps track of my training and how much work I’m putting in. It gives me a lot of motivation.”

During her pre-fight pressers, Ritu has been talking about the need for government recognition and awards for MMA fighters, and the roadmap for future competitors from India and the path she is paving for them.

A win on Friday will lend serious weight to those calls.

Live: Ritu Phogat vs Stamp Fairtex on Hotstar from 5pm IST

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