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The movie had only been out three months, but Ritu Phogat’s world had already been changed by ‘Dangal’.
“It’s not easy to get used to all this attention,” said Ritu, jostling with the outstretched phones and the ‘Phogat, Phogat’ chants, alongside younger sister Sangeeta. This was the 2017 Bharat Kesari Dangal in Ambala. And while it was not the pair of Phogat sisters the crowd assembled had hoped for, the euphoria surrounding the Aamir Khan-starring film was palpable and engulfed the two twenty-somethings.
“Thoda adjust karna padta hai,” Ritu had said sheepishly. “People know of (elder sisters) Geeta and Babita, and they realise that we are Phogat sisters too. It is their love, but it definitely adds to the pressure.”
That weekend, when Ritu ran through the 48kg field, was more than two years ago. She has since traded the mat for the mixed martial arts cage. After eight months of training with Evolve MMA in Singapore, the 25-year-old will make her debut for the ONE Championship on November 16. She takes on Korean Na Hee Kim at the One: Age of Dragons event in Beijing.
That a Phogat is prizefighting in China is not fortuitous (as things in combat sports seldom are). Dangal, the film chronicling the life of wrestlers Geeta and Babita, starring Khan as father Mahavir Phogat, was a cultural revolution in China, minting `1,400cr, almost three times the haul in India. The film, dubbed Shuai Jiao Baba (Let’s wrestle, dad), made ‘Aamir uncle’ and ‘Phogat’ household names.
“It’s when you’re abroad that you realise how big the film was,” Ritu told The Indian Express during the training camp in Singapore. “There are many people here who have seen Dangal. My coaches, some other fighters training at the gym. It makes me happy that they identify me as a Phogat sister.”
Ritu thus is mentally prepared for a Ambala redux in Beijing.
“I know that there will be some pressure because of it. Many people would go, ‘look, that is the Phogat sister.’ But when I enter the cage for the match, I would have to keep such things in the back. It’s good to have that recognition, but this is all about charting my own path.”
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First Indian to get a silver at the U-23 World Championship (to add to a bronze earned earlier), and an Asian Championships bronze-medallist, Ritu fell one win short of a medal at last year’s Senior Worlds. With cousin Vinesh moving up and booking the 2020 Olympics 53kg berth, the path seemed clear for Ritu to punch her own ticket in the 50kg.
Her decision to switch streams earlier this year thus left the wrestling federation feeling wronged, with assistant secretary Vinod Tomar saying: “We have invested so much in Ritu. I hope she knows the consequences as she won’t be able to represent India.”
Funnily enough, that is precisely why Ritu says she took the MMA route.
“I used to watch all these interesting fights on YouTube, and I would look at all the names and thought, ‘why isn’t anybody from India competing?’” says Ritu. “So when Evolve approached me with an offer, I said yes.”
“Well, I had to ask papa first,” laughs Ritu, acknowledging the taskmaster-father Mahavir Phogat. “I wouldn’t have taken this step without him saying yes. All he said was, no matter what the game, you have to give it all. Full dedication.”
Sister Babita says: “For our father, the fact that Ritu is playing a competitive sport mattered and not that she is leaving wrestling. Competing in MMA was a big step and we were happy that she has decided about her future and was certain what suits her. As a child too, Ritu was very fond of mixed martial arts and also liked sports such as judo and karate.”
Blessings secured, off Ritu went to Singapore, a country where she won the 48kg gold at the 2016 Commonwealth Championships. Learning to live full-time in foreign land however took a while.
“Initially, it was very tough. First time living away from family, that too this far. What to eat, what to do,” says Ritu. “Par kuch paane ke liye kuch khona padta hai. I came here to accomplish something.”
Babita says Ritu’s sojourn acted like a ‘Dangal’ sequel, bringing the band back together.
“Papaji had no idea what MMA is but when Ritu showed her some videos, he said this is the same as wrestling but looks like it also needs more stamina and physical fitness,” says Babita. “Since Ritu was on her own in Singapore, she would call us everyday and tell us about her training. So like wrestling, the whole family once again got together to help Ritu. We also watched MMA and shared inputs once we understood some of the moves.”
Ritu was back in India late September for promotional commitments, but had to fly back for her first Diwali away from home.
“I was training on Diwali. It’s okay, it wasn’t like I didn’t celebrate at all,” said Ritu, alluding to the photos on her Instagram of rangolis and sprinklers. “There are many Indians here, in fact there are people from my own village. So I had fun with them, but the training remains the priority. Nothing else matters.”
Food’s no more a problem either. Cooking, Ritu says, is therapeutic after hours spent grinding away. And the desi delicacies served have made her apartment a hotspot for teammates.
“I can cook everything at home now. The routine and food I eat is exactly the same as India. I often have people at home on weekends, and they’ve started liking what I make… Kheer, halwa, choorma.”
Jargon and gimmicks stripped aside, MMA essentially comprises two aspects: Striking and grappling. Striking could be as basic as boxing or kickboxing, or as layered as adding knees and elbows of Muay Thai — ‘the art of eight limbs’ — to the mix.
Grappling too comes in various forms. Ronda Rousey, 2008 Olympic bronze medallist in judo and women’s MMA trailblazer, used lightning-quick hip-tosses to bring opponents down. There’s also the Russian variant Sambo, but the most effective way of taking somebody to the ground remains good ol’ wrestling.
The Evolve gym is the biggest chain of academies in Asia, and high-profile visitors include MMA greats such as Rich Franklin, Georges St-Pierre, Ben Askren and the Gracies.
At the Singapore facility, Ritu trains under WBA world champion boxer Drian Francisco and two-time Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu world champion Teco Shinzato. Wrestling, obviously, is not a primary concern. And between the new skills of ground grappling and striking, Ritu is more comfortable with the former.
“It’s correct when they say BJJ is like chess. The training is so different, there are so many techniques,” says Ritu of the art of maneuvering and manipulating limbs and joints to submit the opponent. “A person can be naturally quick to escape holds, some take some time.”
Shinzato says Ritu’s wrestling background helps lay in the groundwork. “She has made significant improvement in her ground game. Compared to when she first joined us, she better understands the concepts and techniques,” says Shinzato. “She’s really good at takedowns because she’s a wrestler. I try to capitalise on that.”
Like any pure wrestler, Ritu will find it tough to battle it out from the bottom. With an opponent on top jockeying for position, flustered wrestlers give up their backs since laying on the mat conflicts with their inherent training. The opponent can then sink in underhooks for control and can go for chokes.
“This is the problem all wrestlers face but she’s learning and has made tremendous improvements,” says Shinzato. “Conversely, she has also quickly learnt how to submit people in Jiu-Jitsu.”
Learning to strike was tougher. Wrestlers are tough but a well-placed kick/punch to the head/body can leave them shell-shocked/breathless.
“It was tough in the beginning, and I got nervous. Didn’t know what I’ll do. In the sparring too, getting hit was tough,” says Ritu. “But that’s when you need to think ‘you can’t give up. Kuch kar dikhaana hai.”
What works for Ritu is that she has stamina for days and her wrestling is gritty. That she will compete at atomweight (52kg) can affect the gas tank, but could also amplify her natural strength. Add to that the ability to get into scraps unafraid, and Ritu can hold her own standing up till she eventually takes the fight to the mat.
“She is strong, delivers hard punches and wants to learn,” says Francisco. “When she first moved to Singapore, she didn’t have any knowledge about striking. Now she’s learnt the basics of how to strike, punch, kick and grapple.”
The consensus among coaches is that Ritu “keeps a low profile, is humble and works hard. Those are some of the most important traits for any athlete to possess.”
“Other guys sometimes just flow and go through the motion but she takes it upon herself to be a better fighter every chance she gets,” says Shinzato. “As a coach, it’s a great feeling because I can see how badly she wants this.”
Ritu admits the family-like atmosphere in the camp and the revolving door of guest coaches keep the spirits up. The biggest motivator is however teaching people about the sport.
“This was the thing that got me from wrestling to MMA. People have this image that it’s a new game, it’s very violent. But I am here to show that it’s a sport, like any other sport. And if you put in the work, you will succeed.
When MMA naysayers parrot the infamous pejorative by John McCain, they forget that the 2008 US Presidential candidate softened his stance over the years, going as far as to wishing the sport was around when he was a youngling in the Navy.
In essence, MMA has been around since Ancient Greece as pankration. Twentieth century was littered by various one-off exhibition bouts, but the sport came into its own in the 90s, with the formation of promotions such as Pancrase, Pride and UFC. In its early years, it was a petri dish for ‘what if’ freak-show match-ups between sumo and savate, boxing and jiu-jitsu. The rules were rudimentary and some styles mixed like water and oil, with grappling specialists ruling the roost.
Two decades later, the sport is more evolved and sanitised. Specialists still exist, but elite fighters are aces of all trades. Wrestlers however tend to dominate inside the cage. Five of the seven current male UFC champions were originally wrestlers. (Women division is dominated by kickboxers).
Takedowns score big, but wrestling’s utility isn’t just limited to points. The nature of the Olympic sport is such that every wrestler has years of full-body sparring and competition under their belt, and know how to alternate between explosiveness and conserving stamina.
Indo-Canadian Arjan Bhullar, who won in his ONE debut last month after four fights in the UFC, believes wrestlers are naturally tough and have a malleable skillset.
“All fights start standing up, but wrestlers are used to adjusting,” says Bhullar, who won the freestyle wrestling heavyweight gold at the 2010 Commonwealth Games. “Wrestlers are very tough, and adapt to challenges after years and years of high-level training.”
Bhullar signed with ONE earlier this year due to the promotion’s focus on Asia.
“Not only did the UFC not have any plans for India, they don’t have a single Indian on stack. Doesn’t look like it’s an immediate concern,” says Bhullar. “ONE announced these regional plans, we discussed it before I signed and I’m excited to be leading that push. There’s a story to be told in India. There’s a long history of wrestling in the country, great boxing at an Olympic level. And the market’s wide open, with over a billion people.”
The 33-year-old believes Ritu’s pedigree will help her make a mark.
“I’m excited for Ritu, I wished her luck,” says Bhullar. “I have given her a few words of wisdom. ‘Remember that you’ve been a top wrestler for so many years. Don’t forget that. That will always be your strongest suit’. I hope she is very successful, hope we can team up to bring the sport to India soon after.”
Bhullar’s career has circled that of the Phogats. At the Delhi CWG, he saw Geeta and Babita win gold and silver respectively.
“I remember watching the sisters there. Wrestling is a tight community, and everybody knows everybody when you are on the top. Even back then, we realised the barriers Geeta and Babita were breaking for women wrestlers in India with their medals,” says Bhullar of the bouts which formed the climax of Dangal.
“You can say that I have seen the movie a couple of times,” he laughs. “Aamir Khan did a great job. They used real wrestlers as parts in that movie, which was great as I could see see several familiar faces. From what I have seen around, I personally can say that the story has gone beyond the sport, it has transcended culture. The interest in women’s wrestling has skyrocketed. Now, because of Bollywood, because of that movie, the world over knows about the Phogat family.”
Which brings us back to Ritu’s Dangal in China.
“We talked about her bout happening in China,” says Babita. “Dangal was very successful in China, it got a very good reception from the people. People loved the story of our father and his struggles to train Geeta and me. In a way, it is historic for us that Ritu is fighting in China and we are sure that Chinese people will support and cheer for her during the bout.”
Pitched the idea of a ‘Dangal’ spin-off, centered on her MMA travails and this time based in China, Ritu titters: “I don’t know about that. I need to achieve something first. Like being the first Indian MMA world champion.”
What about the ‘other’ World Championships? Ritu made it a point to stream all the bouts from September’s wrestling worlds (and celebrated cousin Vinesh’s medal) but there’s no itch to go back, as yet.
“I follow it all. All the events. But I am not thinking of going back to wrestling. Right now, MMA requires my compete focus. I want to achieve this goal first. Uske baad dekhti hun kya hota hai.”
(With inputs from Nitin Sharma)