As India turns 70, we celebrate Eight For Eighty - the eight sportspersons who we feel will carry the torch for the next decade.
The story so far
Within India's fledgling MMA community, few fighters elicit as much hope as Asha Roka. Only 18 years old, Roka has had a perfect start to her career. Although she has only competed four times -- fighting all her bouts in the Super Fight League (SFL) in February this year -- she has a 4-0 record, with all wins coming inside the first round. Her guillotine-choke finish against American Hannah Kampf logged in millions of views on YouTube, and many heads were turned by her nine-second knockout of Bellator veteran Anjela Pink.
Roka's transformation into a mixed martial artist is surprisingly quick considering she only switched from boxing a year back. She began boxing in Bhopal in 2011 and quickly proved to be one of the brightest prospects in the country, winning the national sub-junior title in 2013. Roka would go on to win a bronze at the Junior World Championships in Bulgaria the following year. But just as her career was beginning to take off, the country's boxing federation was banned, initiating Roka's exit from the sport. "After the ban, there were no nationals or any competition," she says. "I had to do something else."
Having watched Ronda Rousey beat Bethe Correa in 2015, and realizing there was a market for women's fighting, Roka did a basic web search and after a year's hesitation decided to join the SFL gym in New Delhi. "I didn't know anyone in Delhi but I knew I wanted to fight," she says. "So I got on a train and came to Delhi." She doesn't recall the first time she sparred on an MMA mat with a lot of fondness. Her gym opponent began the bout by planting a kick square on her thigh. "It was so hard I immediately sat down," Roka says. "MMA is a completely different sport from boxing. The stance, style is very different from boxing. It was difficult to shift. Just because you are a boxer, doesn't mean your opponent is going to box as well."
Yet with practice, Roka's ground game has improved tremendously. Picked up for the league-based SFL, Roka has proved just that by winning two of her fights by submission. "Ahead of my first fight I was worried because I had only practised my ground game for two months," she says. "But now I feel my ground game is better because I am stronger than my opponents."
Roka, who was declared best fighter in the SFL, plans to use the Rs 20 lakh award to improve her game still further. "Whatever money I make I am planning to invest in training abroad," she says. "There will be better competition, better coaches and trainers. I want to practise for some time in Thailand. Muay Thai training will help improve my kicks." Roka's lightning start to her career has begun to invite interest from international fighters too. One prospective fight in Thailand has been lined up with Bellator's Anastasia Yankova. And Roka is looking forward to another season of the SFL, which she believes will be held later this year. "No matter what path I take, I will have to plan my career out carefully," she says. "I am still learning but I want to be the best in this sport."
"Asha is an amazing talent and will dominate the ladies division in the years to come. She is very good at striking and strong on the ground as well. She was a joy to coach. I truly believe she will rock the world in the years to come."
--Kashmir Gill, former Birmingham-based fighter who won the world kickboxing title four times. He also coached Roka before the start of the SFL