It has been over nine months since Ritu Phogat stepped inside the ONE Championship cage. On that December evening in Singapore, one step shy of the title bout, Phogat’s dream of becoming India’s first-ever MMA world champion fizzled out under the mean armbar choke of the experienced Stamp Fairtex. The 28-year-old Indian, a former Commonwealth Championships medalist in wrestling, has a commendable 7-2 win-loss record after her first full MMA season. She will next face 32-year-old Singaporean Tiffany Teo on Sept 29.
Phogat has had a busy build-up to her season opener, officially called ONE Championship 161. For the first time in two years, she managed some quality time at home in Balali where the wrestling family had a grand reunion. Sisters Geeta, Sangeeta, and Babita dropped in, and it was “just like old times” for Ritu. The break not only broke her monotony but also gave her battered right shoulder enough time to heal. Ritu had injured her rotator cuff years ago, but the injury never healed completely.
“It’s an old injury that keeps flaring up. Last year, during practice, I felt the pain again. Doctors suggested surgery, but I didn’t want to go under the knife. This break gave me enough time to address the injury through physiotherapy ” she said.
Unlike last year, Phogat won’t have the advantage of novelty. While her wrestling basics have made her a potent threat with takedowns, the past season had shown glimpses of Phogat’s limitations against attritional opponents. Her fairly unidimensional style was exposed by Fairtex, who put on a defensive masterclass to thwart Phogat’s grappling. Even in the close win against Meng Bo, Phogat’s striking limitations were put to a stern test.
In the absence of a trusted standing game, her overreliance on takedowns is quite stark. Her next opponent, Teo, has earned her straps in boxing and Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) and racked up an impressive 10-2 record. Teo usually fights in the heavier Strawweight division but will cut a few kilos to make it to the atom weight class.
“She is a very experienced fighter. She was a top contender for the Strawweight title, which means she is clearly good. But I am working hard and confident of beating her,” Phogat, who is also learning Brazilian jiu-jitsu, said. “Striking is one area that I am focusing on a lot. I am much better at BJJ now. You will notice the change in the next bout and I would want to finish with a knockout,” she added.
“The bigger goal still remains that world champion title, but I know it’s a step-by-step process and I am ready for the tough fight.”
Phogat has also changed her coach for this season. Her previous coach, Afghanistan’s Siyar Bahadurzada, has quit for personal reasons, and she is now trained by Malaysia’s Adam Shahir Kayoom. The 44-year-old is a former two-time world Muay Thai world champion and has had coaching stints in Australia, Brazil, Guam, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, and the USA.
While Bahadurzada was a “friend, elder brother, and father figure rolled into one,” for Phogat, her relationship with Kayoom is still at a very nascent stage.
“What impresses me most about Ritu is her hard work and never-say-die attitude. She never gives up, which is the fundamental requirement in this sport,” said the coach.
“Technically, there are obviously a few areas to work on, but I feel she has made a lot of progress over the last year. As far as our tuning goes, we have started on a good note and we want to build a bond based on mutual trust,” he added.