One of the hottest prospects in the world is set to make her ONE Championship debut this Saturday, 16 November, and the entire Indian mixed martial arts community will be watching.
The 25-year-old is already a huge star in her homeland because of her wrestling pedigree, and she hopes she can repeat her success in her new sport to become her nation’s first women‘s World Champion on the global stage.
Ahead of her entry into the ring in Beijing, China, Phogat reveals how she made waves in the grappling world as part of a family of athletes, before she broke out on her own to write a new chapter in The Home Of Martial Arts.
Phogat comes from Balali in the state of Haryana, and is the third daughter of Mahavir Singh Phogat, a wrestler and Olympic coach.
All six of his girls were trained from a young age to achieve success in the family business, and “The Indian Tigress” got her first taste of grappling at the age of 8.
At that time, women who practiced the discipline were met with prejudice, but she explains that the success of her older siblings – Geeta, Babita, and Priyanka – meant that by the time she reached a prominent platform, many of the barriers they had faced were broken down.
“For me, it was clear from the beginning that I have to pursue wrestling,” she says.
“To be honest, everything that people and society said or talked about was before my time. My father and sisters had to bear the brunt of that. Fortunately, I was shielded from having to go through the same.”
Geeta and Babita had become national heroes with their gold and silver medals, respectively, at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, so when Ritu left school after the tenth grade to dedicate herself to the sport, she had a lot to live up to.
It would be some years before Phogat got the chance to emulate her sisters in international competition, but even as she trained to take the leap onto the mats, she admits there was a lot of pressure to live up to their standards.
“They had given me a platform to go and perform,” she says.
“The fact that I was their younger sister meant that people expected a lot from me, but I always tried to forget this kind of pressure during a match and give 100 percent.”
Despite the weight of expectation on her shoulders, she excelled in competition. She won two national championships, and then won her first medal form international competition when she took home the gold from the 2016 Commonwealth Wrestling Championship in Singapore.
However, she is most proud of her performance the following year at the World Under 23 Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland.
“I consider my highest achievement in wrestling to be the Under 23 World Championship,” she says.
“I won a silver medal for the country at the prestigious event. [The final] was a very close fight with the score tied at 4-4, but my opponent got the last point.
“It was a match I could have won. At least, I am glad that there were many girls competing alongside me from India, but only I succeeded in earning a medal for my country.”
A New Chapter
During her wrestling career, Phogat became a fan of mixed martial arts, and harbored ambitions to give it a try because her grappling skills were the ideal foundation to build a complete skill set.
“I always wanted to do something different,” she explains.
“I often wondered why there are no Indian world champions in this sport and that actually motivated me to pursue this.”
However, without any gyms that offered world-class training where she lived, her dreams of tackling a new sport lay dormant until she received an offer to train with Evolve in Singapore.
It was the perfect opportunity, but it meant moving 2,500 miles away and leaving everything she knew behind. “The Indian Tigress” was not sure what her family might say, but when she revealed her plans, they backed her completely.
“I wouldn’t have been here if not for my family’s continuous support,” she says.
“I actually talked to my sisters before telling my father. They wanted to me to pursue something which I was interested in. ‘If you want to pursue mixed martial arts, you must do it with full determination and focus,’ they said.
“My sisters talked to my father – I didn’t talk to him directly – and he too supported me fully and asked me to make India proud. ‘Whatever the sport, one must pursue it with dedication.’ That was their message.”
Phogat announced her arrival in “The Lion City” in February, and immediately set to work learning the striking and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu skills she would need to compete in her new sport.
Adjusting to an all-new environment and a completely different training routine was tough, but inspired by her father’s wisdom, she was determined to be successful in her new endeavor.
“My father always says that whatever you do, do it with dedication,” she says.
“His motto has always been, ‘Be foresighted, work hard and with determination,’ which he has passed on to us. I’ve just tried to listen to his advice and make the best use of it.”
Now, after eight months of intense preparation, she is ready to make her mixed martial arts debut, and she will do it in the world’s martial arts organization at the Cadillac Arena in Beijing.
Although Phogat recognizes it will take a long time, and potentially years more hard work, she is aiming high.
“I would like to win the ONE Championship World Title belt,” she says.
“That is my only aim. I would like to be the first Indian woman to become a World Champion in Mixed Martial Arts.”
Beijing | 16 November | AGE OF DRAGONS | TV: Check local listings for global broadcast