Fighting her way out of sisters' shadow

PHOTO: AFP

Ssssssssshh, Ssssssssshh.

As Ritu Phogat's arm snakes out, she exhales a hiss of effort. Her glove collides with her coach's protective mitt and you can hear the slap of violence.

"Heavy hands," explains her coach Siyar Bahadurzada. Ritu is only 156cm and 52kg but her fists carry a more telling weight and Bahadurzada, once a UFC fighter, knows the value of heavy hands.

"Oh man. You hit people, they go to sleep. It's what excites me the most about her."

Ritu advances on him and then slams him, but not ferociously, into the netting. He's 24cm taller and 30kg heavier and the steel mesh crackles in complaint. On Friday, the Indian has her second One Championship fight, against Chinese Taipei's Wu Chiao-chen, but this is more than just human versus human in a cage of no escape.

This is about a girl with a famous name making her own name. This is about writing sweaty stories. This is about becoming somebody. And Phogat knows all about that.

Her older, wrestling sisters, Geeta and Babita, both of them Commonwealth Games gold medallists, are widely known because Bollywood star, Aamir Khan, made a film, Dangal, loosely based on their lives. He played the patriarch, Mahavir Singh Phogat, and the film made over US$300 million (S$420.9 million) at the box office.

Ritu has seen the film twice, met Khan, is bursting proud of her sisters, is tied to them by love and combat, but let's put this very delicately:

From mud to mat to cage, fighting has been in her DNA, ambition in her bloodline. To grow up in a house where the walls are covered with medals and your sisters draped in celebratory garlands is to be inspired to achieve.

She wants her own story.

"Since the time that I started they have been very famous... So it was very inspiring for me and I also wanted to do something like my sisters did. I also wanted to be famous like them, but in my own right."

And in her own sport.

An accomplished wrestler - gold in the 2016 Commonwealth Wrestling Championships - Ritu exchanged circular mat for octagonal cage. Her dreams have been redirected and fittingly, on her hand, part of the tattoo of the Olympic rings is fading. India has had an Olympic silver medallist in wrestling but never an MMA (mixed martial arts) champion. Imagine if she becomes the first to that destination?

Imagine another movie? She grins. "I would really like it if Dangal 2 gets made some day."

At the door to the Evolve Gym at Far East Square there's a man with a thermometer. He measures temperature, but inside fighters burn with an incalculable competitive heat. Ritu sways like a predator, concentration clear in her narrowed eyes. In tennis, if your focus drifts, you lose a point; here, you could lose consciousness.

If living alone, far from her land, is a test, then she's always armed with a taste of home. In the history and mythology of Indian wrestling, nothing happens without ghee (clarified butter) and Ritu, a cook herself, brings back four homemade kilos of it every time she travels.


Ritu Phogat is hoping to create a blockbuster of her own by becoming her country's first world champion in the high-octane sport of mixed martial arts. PHOTO: AFP

In the cage she takes two steps, strikes twice and then repeats the movement. "Beautiful, beautiful," murmurs Bahadurzada, trying to coax a disciplined violence out of her. The ghee might make her strong, but it's her appetite for work which will decide her future.

From the age of seven she's been rising at 4am and running and doing chin-ups, a scurrying talent in her sisters' hefty shadows.

"I used to get them beaten up by Papa," she laughs. "When Papa wasn't there, he used to entrust me to keep an eye on them, to count how many push-ups and chin-ups they were doing. So I used to tell them that unless they do it properly, I'll tell Papa."

If naughtiness once ran in her veins, then grit is part of her heritage. Making a name in a new sport demands not only toughness but also humility, for the athlete is agreeing to start again. To restock an armoury and recalibrate footwork.

Rising from her chair, she demonstrates change. "In wrestling, I need to stay crouched," but in MMA, she can't. "If I stand (crouched) like this, they'll attack me with their knee."

As a wrestler, she knows about takedowns, yet she's learning sequences which are foreign to her. Like taking punches and throwing them. Hitting is an art, says Bahadurzada, requiring footwork, timing and those heavy hands.


From the age of seven Ritu Phogat has been rising at 4am and running and doing chin-ups, a scurrying talent in her sisters' hefty shadows. PHOTO: AFP

In wrestling, she might fight a few times in a single day while in MMA, her single rival is identified months in advance. Every change needs to be gradually absorbed but, one fight old, there's already one part of her new MMA world she relishes: The entrance.

"When you make an entry, there is your song that plays, so you enter the ring with passion." The crowds, the music, it makes the adrenaline pump, and she likes that.

It's 30 minutes or so into practice and Ritu is doing the fighter's walk. Walking in tight, tired circles and inhaling oxygen. Someone enters the cage and she tilts her head and allows a little water to be poured into her mouth. Restored, she resumes.

She's fighting many things on Friday - a rival, the moment and also the pressure of being a Phogat. The name, she knows, carries its own weight. "Geeta and Babita took wrestling to a new level. And (people) know that I am their sister. So people's expectations go up - Oh, she will also do something.

 
 
 

"But when I get into the ring, I avoid those things and just give my 100 per cent."

From mud to mat to cage, fighting has been in her DNA, ambition in her bloodline. To grow up in a house where the walls are covered with medals and your sisters draped in celebratory garlands is to be inspired to achieve.

"I used to think," said Ritu, "that some day people will also garland me."

Not with flowers, but with a belt.