Arguably, there was more intrigue surrounding Ritu Phogat’s third fight on Friday than even the debut last November. That first fight, against a fellow debutante, was by-the-numbers matchmaking from One Championship for an exciting prospect. Friday’s bout was not only against an experienced striker in Cambodian Nou Srey Pov but also came after what has been Ritu’s longest uninterrupted stretch away from home.
After briefly hopping home for Holi after her second win in February, Ritu had spent eight months in Singapore, a test of her patience and progress. Had Ritu made any meaningful improvements during the enforced layoff? Worse yet, had the still-nascent skillset deteriorated?
Ritu answered those questions with a second-round TKO win at the ONE Championship: Inside The Matrix event in Singapore, taking her MMA record to 3-0. Ritu told reporters after the fight, “This win should give me more confidence and take me one step closer towards the target.”
The target, a shot at the atomweight world championship, looked far away earlier this year. For Ritu, majority of the lockdown was spent following basic drills over video conferences at her apartment. “MMA’s new for me. The online training was good, but I couldn’t be sure whether what I’m doing was right or wrong,” Ritu told this paper in August.
We’re LIVE from Singapore with the first two fights of ONE: INSIDE THE MATRIX! #InsideTheMatrix #WeAreONE #ONEChampionship
Fight 1 ➡️ 🇮🇳 Ritu Phogat 🆚 Nou Srey Pov 🇰🇭
Fight 2 ➡️ 🇵🇭 Eduard Folayang 🆚 Antonio Caruso 🇦🇺 https://t.co/5ePqTq0J26
— ONE Championship (@ONEChampionship) October 30, 2020
As regulations relaxed and gyms reopened, Ritu did some bagwork and padwork but the ‘no contact’ diktat meant no live sparring or groundwork drills. Essentially, that meant not being able to train her two weaker suits for a long time.
Despite the extended break, Ritu showed up a better striker. The power had been evident since the first fight, but Ritu moved and threw well on Friday. The 25-year-old’s forward pressure drove Srey Pov against the wall. Her opponent had a few moments when she would circle away and sting Ritu with counter hooks. On her debut, Ritu flinched whenever she was struck. Against Srey Pov, she ate the shots and kept the pressure up. Another improvement from the first two fights is the use of elbows, and Ritu mashed her opponent’s face at every chance.
“I worked hard during the pandemic on my striking, to not just depend on wrestling which is already a strong suit,” Ritu told reporters after the fight.
Wrestling though remained key for the former U-23 World Championships silver medallist. The plan was to use the improved striking to set up the wrestling. And her coach, former UFC fighter Siyar Bahadurzada, added a sweetener to the plan.
“Coach told me to watch my opponent, use powerful punches, take her down and dominate her on the ground. He said he will give me a hundred dollars if I managed that,” Ritu laughed.
That blueprint is not earth-shattering. Ritu’s inspiration, recently-retired Khabib Nurmagomedov made an undisputed 29-0 record out of it. For a wrestler inside an MMA cage, it’s important to flow from one martial art to another. Use striking to pressure and get closer to your opponent, grab a hold or a clinch and complete the takedown, and once on ground, work towards a submission or ground-and-pound. Easy as 1-2-3.
Ritu’s got the first two down. The wrestling has also improved; she pulled off a single-leg takedown on Friday. But it is on the ground that she still lacks the killer instinct as even in optimal, side positions, she struggles to go for submissions. It’s okay as long as she can rain down shots on downed opponents for ground-and-pound stoppages. But against better fighters, after securing takedowns, she would have to resort to grappling.
And the opponents will only get better. Reigning atomweight champion Angela Lee is pregnant and out of action, One Championship is organising a world Grand Prix championship tournament to kick off 2021. Ritu wants to be in the mix and is ready for anyone.
“I am ready for the top five. I respect every opponent, everybody is important. And I am ready to face anyone,” she said.
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