Ritu Phogat eyes hat-trick of wins with brute strength and an Afghan trailblazer in her corner
Ritu Phogat’s MMA coach Siyar Bahadurzada believes that the erstwhile wrestler is blessed with “tremendous strength” and will put her best foot (and punch) forward.
New Delhi: Ending days of nervous anticipation and hoping to display her professed striking ability, India’s Ritu Phogat will fight Cambodia’s Nou Srey Pov at One: Inside the Matrix in Singapore today. This will be the third professional MMA bout for Phogat as well as her opponent, and the 26-year-old Indian would like to keep her unbeaten record intact.
Phogat’s last bout was against Chinese Taipei's Wu Chiao Chen in February, which she won by a unanimous decision. Her debut fight saw her canter to a win via Technical Knock Out over Nam Hee Kim inside four minutes. Nou Srey Pov, though, promises to offer a different challenge.
To start with, ‘NSP’ is a punching phenom. She likes to stand upright and rain combination blows, goes on the offence early, and uses her tremendous hand speed to outwit her opponents. An exponent of the traditional Kun Khmer discipline, she is also a trained boxer, which explains her stance and punching proclivity.
Phogat, on the other hand, is a diametrically different fighter. She loves to spear into her opposite number and effect takedowns before letting her hands do the talking. Going by her first two bouts, elbows (an integral part of Kun Khmer) and kicks do not come naturally to her, yet.
Phogat’s coach at Evolve Gym, Siyar Bahadurzada, is unfazed. The former UFC fighter believes he has trained the erstwhile wrestler well, and that his protégé with “tremendous strength” will put her best foot (and punch) forward.
“I have seen Nou Srey Pov’s footage and she is a fine striker and a very explosive fighter. But, I know what Ritu can do and I know what NSP can do. I think it will be a very interesting fight; a classic grappler versus striker showdown.
“Not many people know that Ritu is a very powerful puncher. Speed in MMA is something that you can learn and work on at training, but power is God's gift, and Ritu has it. She has good punching power and heavy hands, and such fighters go a long way in MMA,” he says.
Wrestling continues to be the foundation on which Phogat has based her MMA skills. Her neuro-muscular memory, reflexes, movements, approach, and stance have their genesis in years of training for mat wrestling. It is a genuinely solid launchpad to have, but runs the risk of reducing her to a unidimensional fighter. On her part, Phogat has gone on record with her ever-improving striking prowess and has promised to “shock” her opponent.
Bahadurzada agrees. “Ritu is developing her striking so much that she will appear a completely different fighter from what you all have seen so far. Her being a trained wrestler is an obvious advantage. Wrestling is in her DNA. In MMA you have to be great at either striking or wrestling, and then you can pick other skills along the way.”
Phogat’s 18 months in Singapore have seen her learn some of those skills, such as Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and the coach rates her as a quick learner.
“Ritu has shown a lot of maturity in training. There is a tremendous improvement in her MMA wrestling and grappling, which is very different from traditional wrestling. MMA wrestling involves a lot of strikes from elbows, knees, kicks, and ground and pound. We have incorporated some of her wrestling moves and added some MMA tricks. You will see a much developed Ritu.”
The seven-month COVID-enforced break meant not only Phogat’s regular training saw necessary tweaking, but she remained stranded in Singapore, barring a short trip to her village during Holi in March. Fair to say, the bout will also be a test of her mental fortitude as much as an examination of her skills inside the cage.
“Ritu is called tigress for a reason,” the coach counters. “She is a very tough girl, mentally and physically. She has been training twice, sometimes thrice a day. This has been a tough time for everyone in the world, but she has responded very well. I’d say her father has done a great job with her, in terms of mental toughness as well.”
Singapore’s COVID guidelines ensured that grappling was off-menu while training, although fighters could spar and kickbox. This necessitated innovation, and Bahadurzada was up to the task. Lessons over video calls became the norm, and dummies came out of the Dutchman’s closet. Wrestlers are not unknown to use dummies for a grappling partner to hone their on-ground techniques, and though they do not offer the best conditioning, they had little choice.
“As a coach, I have to be creative, especially in times like these. I made sure I was available to my trainees all the time. They could call me anytime if they wish to talk. More than a coach, I am their friend or an elder brother.
“Training-wise, I have to find ways to create a simulated environment and give them as much conditioning as I can. We have used dummies a lot. All the submission and heavy work have been done on dummies. That's the best we could have done,” says the 36-year-old.
Making the most of meagre resources comes easy to Bahadurzada. Born to a family of businessmen in war-torn Afghanistan, he witnessed the worst of the Soviet invasion in his growing up years. His childhood involved traversing streets of mutilated human remains and witnessing death on a daily basis. He made peace with the sound of rockets exploding in the neighbourhood and the possibility of losing the dear ones without warning or reason. Living in socially-distanced times is, no wonder, a cakewalk.
“I have seen a lot. I have seen human heads and arms and legs lying on bloodied streets. As a kid, I have seen things that soldiers need psychological training to see. It was a tough childhood,” he recalls.
When he was 15, Bahadurzada’s family migrated to the Netherlands. MMA followed soon after, as did the expertise in Shooto, a Japanese martial arts form. Soon, he became the middleweight world champion, thus earning the honour of becoming the first Afghan-born world beater.
“Through my little achievements, I want to tell the world that my country is a peace-loving nation. It is really unfortunate that people associate us with terrorism when we are its worst victims.”
Eleven years of inhabiting a world far removed from the menacing primitiveness that consumed his early life and gave him scars impossible to forget have given Bahadurzada a life-altering perspective on life itself. He thanks God profusely, and wants to use sport’s transformative powers to heal an increasingly fragmented world. A national hero in Afghanistan, he is accorded exemplary hospitality whenever he returns to his roots.
"I am recognised on the streets in Afghanistan. The people love me, which gives me the greatest joy. The shopkeepers and restaurants do not charge me. The President met me when I was there in 2017. It is a country that has lost a lot. I want to use MMA to talk about peace and brotherhood. The world has seen enough wars,” he says, thoughtfully.
For a thoroughbred fighter whose travails went far beyond the iron cages and blaring bluster, a violent sport has come as meditative succour. “At times, I do think of where I came from. All those childhood memories, all that violence…it is too hard to forget, but sport has given me hope. To see wards like Ritu develop and learn motivates me as a coach. Yes, it is challenging at times to build a new fighter from scratch and teach them a new discipline, but it is a beautiful process.” And so, the process, and Bahadurzada's fight for peace, go on.
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