Martial arts is a universal language, and it has helped to form a bond between two of ONE Championship’s most popular female stars.
Ritu “The Indian Tigress” Phogat and “The Panda” Xiong Jing Nan — who are both scheduled for action at the historic ONE: EMPOWER this Friday, 3 September — met as training partners at Evolve MMA and have since become best friends.
India’s Phogat and China’s Xiong moved to the Singapore gym in pursuit of ONE success and found a much-needed friendship while away from their loved ones.
“When I moved to Singapore, it was difficult for me [to adjust]. But I was prepared for this to achieve my goal,” Phogat explains.
“I am living away from my family in a foreign country. I have never lived away from my family before this, especially my sisters. They have always been there for me.
“When I started at Evolve, Xiong Jing Nan treated me like a sister. I feel that I have someone here who I can call my own.”
Phogat’s famous wrestling family was the first icebreaker between the pair. Xiong had seen the blockbuster film “Dangal” — based on the lives of Phogat’s older sisters — and already felt familiar with her new teammate’s story.
“Xiong used to follow me and had watched ‘Dangal.’ That movie inspired her, too,” the 27-year-old Indian adds.
“This helped in strengthening our bond because she knew about my family beforehand. It was easy for me to form a connection with her.”
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Their relationship began in the training room. And although “The Indian Tigress” had a wealth of experience on the wrestling mats, she was a relative newcomer to mixed martial arts, and Xiong was there to help her.
As the ONE Women’s Strawweight World Champion, “The Panda” is an inspirational figure to Phogat, but she is not just there as a source of motivation. The Chinese star is also hands-on in helping the burgeoning Indian — even giving her some tough love when she needs it.
“When we spend time with a champion and train together, you get the feeling of a champion. Her words motivate me a lot. I get inspired by her dedication and devotion, and I try to follow that,” Phogat says.
“Xiong’s striking is great, she is a world champion, and she knows almost everything. She has a lot of experience. I learn something new from her every day. She has helped me in my MMA career. [As well as] my coach, she works with me on minor details to improve my game, too.
“If I make a mistake, she would tell me about it a couple of times, but if I make the same mistakes again, she would scold me so that I don’t forget.”
After striking up their friendship inside the walls of Evolve, the pair then spent more time socializing away from the rigors of training.
Phogat has cooked for her friend and introduced her to some of her Indian heritage. “The Panda” has even met the atomweight’s parents, and they are planning a trip to her homeland when that is possible.
“Xiong likes to wear Indian attire and put mehendi (henna) on her hands. She enjoys Indian food, too. I have cooked palak paneer, roti, and choorma for her, which she liked a lot,” Phogat says.
“When my parents were here, she met them, too. She addresses my father as papa. She wants to meet my sisters, Geeta and Babita. We are like a family. She is inspired by my father and sisters.
“She is really excited to visit India. When things are back to normal, I really wish to take her to my country and my village there.”
However, all of those plans are on hold until they complete their respective assignments at the promotion’s first all-women’s card on Friday.
Xiong will defend her belt against 13-time Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu World Champion Michelle Nicolini, while Phogat looks to defeat Chinese knockout artist Meng Bo and advance in the ONE Women’s Atomweight World Grand Prix.
The Indian has felt the benefit of preparing for this battle alongside her friend, and she can’t wait to share the same historic platform on 3 September.
“I’m really excited. When we are training together, it motivates me a lot,” she says.
“We will be traveling and staying together. Spending time with her before the match will teach me a lot and boost my confidence.
“[Xiong vs. Nicolini] is going to be interesting and the fans will enjoy it a lot. I am sure that Xiong will win, but I am excited for the match.”