Strike force and wrestling basics on her side, Ritu Phogat aims for first-round knockout in her second MMA bout
Come Friday, and a much-improved Ritu will look to knock the daylight out of Chinese-Taipei’s Wu Chiao Chen in ONE Championship's flagship event ONE: King of the Jungle in Singapore
Ritu had to unlearn her basics to learn the ropes of a new contact sport, but she shrugged off the concerns in a manner befitting a heavyweight boxer. “There is no difference,” she declared
Come Friday, and a much-improved (self-confessed) Ritu will look to knock the daylight out of Chinese-Taipei’s Wu Chiao Chen in ONE Championship's flagship event ONE: King of the Jungle in Singapore
Quite like conventional boxing, punches in MMA can be directed at the face as well as the body, and when combined efficiently with leg attacks, can prove quite lethal
The sight was at once beautiful and brutal. Under the dizzying lights of Beijing’s Cadillac Arena last November, feline grace flirted with fatal bravado. Ritu Phogat lay in a crucifix position over Nam Hee Kim inside the high walls of the iron cage. The South Korean squirmed and writhed; her screams muffled under the adrenaline-infested commentary, her feet flailing desperately for a push-out. Nothing worked.
It was the third takedown that Ritu had effected inside three minutes, and the moment seemed ripe to load the big cannon. For 45 seconds straight, Ritu Phogat’s right jab moved in a co-ordinated recoil, firing fist bombs into the contorted face of Kim, leaving her, quite literally, red-faced. Ritu’s Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) debut was done and dusted in 3 minutes and 40 seconds.
For some weird reason, the commentator compared Ritu’s bludgeoning right hand to Virat Kohli’s — a strange analogy considering the diametrically opposite ranges of motion that are needed in the two crafts. The only logic, if one really hunts for it, rests in the fact that the Indian cricket captain boasts of a strong bottom hand too (which is his right hand when he gets in his batting stance).
False equivalences apart, Ritu’s fearlessness stood out in her felicity to charge at the opponent. Each of the three takedowns came at short intervals, giving very little breathing room to the Korean. The third takedown, in fact, was an extension of the second as it came when Kim had barely got in her stance. Then came the ubiquitous 'ground and pound' as the 25-year-old unfurled a furious flurry of punches.
A more experienced fighter would have used her elbow a lot more for compounding the impact, but even with her limited strike range, Ritu had done the job.
Come Friday, and a much-improved (self-confessed) Ritu will look to knock the daylight out of Chinese-Taipei’s Wu Chiao Chen in ONE Championship's flagship event ONE: King of the Jungle in Singapore.
Ritu has a target in mind: Win by knock-out in the first round. That sounds great, but should the bout stretch, it will be interesting to see Ritu’s reserves. A thoroughbred wrestler, Ritu is used to six-minute bouts that require explosive power. MMA requires its practitioners to cover greater distances in the ring, and most crucially, use legs as an attacking option. Safe to say, the test of stamina in MMA is far sterner.
Ritu had to unlearn her basics to learn the ropes of a new contact sport, but she shrugged off the concerns in a manner befitting a heavyweight boxer. “There is no difference,” she declared. “Both disciplines require power and endurance.”
Her father and celebrated patriarch, Mahavir Phogat, had the ultimate advice. “Kheench khaanch k niche gher do or ghusand bajao.” Loosely translated, it means this: Pull down your opponent and rain punches. Translations, however, do little to convey the rustic delight that highlights chaste Haryanvi wisdom.
“There is no difference between freestyle wrestling, Greco Roman or MMA. You have to have guts and power (in all these sports). I think even kabaddi and football players can take up sports like boxing, because they have dum (power).
“There are differences in technique, but fundamentally, all contact sports are the same. Even in MMA, you have to grapple and take down an opponent, much like wrestling. The only difference is you can use kicks and punches. But I’d say, an MMA fighter will take six years to learn wrestling, but a wrestler will be ready to fight in MMA in a year,” he adds.
Mahavir’s assertions are undoubtedly too simplistic, but his observation on the use of grappling in MMA is not beyond reason. Unlike wrestling, MMA bouts start in an upright, boxing-like position, but once matters come to close-quarter dogfight, a sound grappling technique helps not only to pin the opponent but wrestle out of danger.
Leg movements are crucial too. In wrestling, leg motion is both an offensive and defensive tool as it helps to create as well as avoid angles. Then, there’s the small matter of physique. Ritu’s experience as an international athlete means her body is conditioned for the grind.
“If you have a strong base, the transition to MMA becomes easier,” Maria Mazar, Ritu’s training partner, told Firstpost. “She has wrestled all her life, so it is easier for her to learn jujitsu, for example, because her body is conditioned. She also has very good body coordination.”
Ritu agrees. “To unlearn some wrestling skills and learn MMA skills is not really easy, but I could do it smoothly because I have always been very fit. I trained with world champion fighters in Singapore, which helped me improve a lot,” she said.
Another fundamental difference between the contact sports is the concept of striking, which forms the bedrock of MMA and is completely absent in wrestling. Having grown up on a staple of grappling techniques, Ritu had to build her strike range — which stretches to boxing, kickboxing, Muay Thai, and beyond.
“Striking involves opposite movements. On the ground, you pull, but while standing, you push. For a grappler, striking is hard to learn, and vice-versa, because it requires opposite movement,” Mazar, who specialises in Chinese boxing form Sanda, explained.
Ritu claims to have developed her striking skills and has acquired a hang of martial arts forms such as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Muay Thai, among others.
“You don’t have a choice. If you don’t punch, your opponent will punch you. My wrestling background has given me a big advantage. Seven out of top 10 MMA fighters have converted from wrestling, so yes, there’s an obvious benefit,” said Ritu, who watches videos of Russia’s Khabib Nurmagomedov, the 31-year-old lightweight fighter, to learn some takedown tricks – not a bad inspiration, considering Nurmagomedov has a 28-0 win-loss record.
Mahavir has another observation. “Throwing punches is a natural way to respond in a street fight. It’s always there in the muscle memory. You have to have power, that’s all. You should have the power to pin an opponent and then punch her.”
At 36 years and with a grand total MMA experience of three bouts, Wu Chiao Chen may not possibly examine Ritu’s defence, but as the Indian grows into the discipline, her ability to take punches will be put to test. Punching, of course, is unthinkable in wrestling, but forms the core of MMA. As much as prizefighters train to inflict pain, it’s their often understated ability to absorb punishment that sets them apart. (Think rope-a-dope, the ingenious style that Muhammad Ali adopted against George Foreman in their punishing Rumble in the Jungle.)
Quite like conventional boxing, punches in MMA can be directed at the face as well as the body, and when combined efficiently with leg attacks, can prove quite lethal. Mazar believes a good punch can have an effect that goes deeper than physical pain. “When I throw a punch, I want to see fear in my opponent’s eyes. If the fear is missing, it means there’s something wrong.”
“It (ability to take punches) is quite tough to explain… It is a feeling. You have to have quick reflexes. It is better if you learn to block punches. Once a striker sees the opponent is not scared, she knows there’s a problem with her punches. So for a grappler, it is more important to learn to be safe and absorb a punch, more than hurting the opponent,” she added.
Dad Mahavir has the last word. “I am not scared of her getting punched in the face. Bus ghusand maaro ya taang tod do (I want her to punch hard or break her opponent’s leg),” he says.
Star wrestler Vinesh Phogat won the gold medal at the Commonwealth Games 2022 as she won all her three bouts in the women's 53kg category in Birmingham on Friday.
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