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Breaking the mould: Ritu Phogat steps from the dangal to the cage

Ritu Phogat is all set to make her MMA debut on the 16th of November in the Age of Dragons event in Beijing, China ONE Championship

Ritu Phogat has thought a great deal about what her ring walk music should be. That's the song that will play as she steps into Beijing's Wukesong Arena come Saturday, November 16, when she makes her debut as a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter, having traded the wrestling mat for the prizefighting cage.

Her fight, with Korea's Nam Hee Kim in the atomweight (52kg) division, is only on the undercard at the One Championships Age of Dragons event - but it's likely that the Chinese audience would at least be a little familiar with her name. That's entirely due to the unlikely cultural phenomenon that 'Dangal', turned out to be in the country just a couple of years ago. The film, of course, chronicled the life of her elder sisters -- the wrestlers Geeta and Babita - and starred Aamir Khan as father Mahavir Phogat.

Shuai Jiao Baba (Let's Wrestle, Dad), as the film was dubbed, made a little over 206 million dollars (~INR 14.50 billion) -- till date the most by a foreign non-Hollywood release in China, and saw nearly 45 million individual ticket sales. It made the Phogat household, well... household names.

Ritu didn't feature in the film herself but is well aware of its overseas popularity. The 25-year-old has been prepping for her MMA debut for the last eight months at Singapore's Evolve Mixed Martial Arts and tells ESPN that many of her teammates and coaches have seen the movie.

So, at least for her ring walk music -- the first impression she has on the Beijing crowd-- the easy, rather obvious choice might have been to go with the instant recognition of one of the Dangal chart busters. Ritu, however, has picked AR Rahman's 'Vande Mataram'.

"I'm very proud of my family. It's good to be recognised as part of it, but I am walking on my own path. Wrestling is in my blood, but now I am doing something different. I want to make my mark," she says.

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For most of her life, it seemed that Ritu, the third of Mahavir's four daughters , would follow in the footsteps of her elder sisters on the wrestling mat. She had the accomplishments to match. While Geeta and Babita won golds at the Commonwealth Games and bronzes at the World Championships, Ritu was the first Indian to win a silver at the U-23 World Championships. There was a bronze at the 2017 Asian Championships and a narrow miss of a podium finish (she lost in the bronze medal playoffs) at the 2018 Worlds.

Geeta, perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, says there were hints that Ritu would be different. "She was the most adventurous sister," says Geeta. Ritu, she adds, was also the most aggressive. "You know that scene in Dangal where the two boys get beaten up? It wasn't me or Babita who did that. It was actually Ritu," she laughs.

That aggression carried over onto the mat as well. "She'd often slap you on the head during bouts. Sometimes papaji would get really angry if she was rough but that aggression was in her blood," she says.

Though Ritu was undoubtedly successful, she eventually found her prospects hemmed in by the simultaneous progress of her cousin Vinesh. They both wrestled in the lightest of women's divisions (48kg and then 50kg) but it was Vinesh who was seen as the better wrestler. "They were both competing for the same spot in the Indian team but when they fought against each other, it was Vinesh who would win. In fact when they were younger, papaji was very seriously thinking about training Ritu as a boxer. But he gave that idea up because he didn't know how to go about it," recalls Geeta.

Ritu might not have boxed, but she was interested in other combat sports. "It was unusual," says Jitesh Birbal, who worked with Ritu when she was a part of the Mumbai Garuda's wrestling franchise in the 2015 edition of the Pro Wrestling League. "She would have these long discussions over who would win in a fight - a boxer or a wrestler," he recalls.

In making that argument, Ritu had stumbled upon the essential question the sport of MMA looks to answer. Where competitors within most combat sports are limited by specific rules of engagement -- striking (boxing, taekwondo, kickboxing or muay thai) or grappling (wrestling, judo, jiu jitsu), full contact MMA allows striking and grappling, both standing and on the ground.

MMA excited her. "I used to watch the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championships) back then. I really enjoyed watching (UFC champion) Ronda Rousey. I also wondered why there was no Indian fighter," she says. That's why Ritu wasn't immediately dismissive when she received an Instagram message from a representative of Evolve MMA about the prospect of training at their Singapore facility.

What also encouraged her to say 'yes' was her belief that she wasn't likely to get a chance to compete in the Olympics ahead of Vinesh. "At that time we thought that Vinesh was going to wrestle in the 50kg division because she had just won an Asian Games gold. We didn't know that Vinesh would move to 53kg. She only made that choice this year. Otherwise we would have tried harder to convince Ritu to at least wrestle until the Olympics," says Geeta.

Ritu's family was only supportive of her decision. "I wouldn't have done MMA if my father was not in favour. He said as long as I was playing some sport at a high level and working hard, he would support me," says Ritu.

As she headed to Singapore from Haryana's Ballali village, her goal was clear. "I wanted to be the first Indian to win a world title in mixed martial arts," she says.

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It's unlikely Ritu is familiar with the wisdom of former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson but one quote he made ahead of his bout with Tyrell Biggs in 1987 would certainly make sense to her. "Everyone has a plan until they are punched in the mouth," Tyson had said. This would, literally, be the case for Ritu.

Her determination and well-laid plans of becoming the first Indian champion got their first serious test about three months after she joined Evolve in February, when she took part in her first sparring session.

While it might have started as a way to pit combat sports against each other, combat sports specialists are rare in MMA. Modern MMA techniques are a melting pot of various fight disciplines, and nearly every fighter comes into the sport from a single combat sports background; and then layer other skills on that. Wrestling is considered one of the best bases to build on (five of the seven current men's World Champions in the UFC have a wrestling background), enabling fighters to take down opponents and either force a submission -- through joint locks or chokes -- or rain punches on prone competitors - known as 'ground and pound'.

But there are tradeoffs. Grapplers have to learn how to throw and -- more importantly -- learn to take a punch for the first time in their career.

One Championship vice president Miesha Tate, a former UFC women's bantamweight champion, and one of the earliest women fighters with a wrestling background, knew exactly what Ritu was in for. "The biggest adjustment you have to make is accepting you are going to get hit in the face," she says. The results aren't always pretty. Tate fought her first MMA bout with three weeks of striking training. She promptly got her nose broken and lost.

Ritu, of course, is preparing a lot better. Evolve MMA is one of the largest training facilities in Asia. They have multiple former world champion coaches while MMA stars including the Gracie family, Ben Askren and Georges St-Pierre have trained here.

Facilites can't get in the ring though. "I was really nervous [ahead of her first sparring session]," Ritu recalls. She did about as badly as could be expected. But she proved that she had the mental fortitude to fight.

"The natural reaction when someone punches you is to turn away and push your chin up. Ritu didn't do any of that. She wasn't saying 'ouch'. She was mostly defending but she adapted. And she learned she can take a punch," is the approving assessment of boxing coach and former WBA boxing world champion Drian Francisco.

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No one has, of course, won a fight solely by being hit and Ritu has started picking up skills to add to her wrestling base. Most critical for her was to learn striking. "In Olympic wrestling you won't take punches when you shoot a takedown. If you get stuck below your opponent while trying that in MMA, you are going to get punched or kneed to the head. You throw punches so that your opponent covers up and that's when you close the distance. Your striking is what allows you to set up takedowns," explains former Olympian Heath Sims, head of the wrestling program at Evolve.

Ritu trains for eleven sessions over six days a week at Evolve, working just on her boxing on three of those days, dividing the rest of the week for wrestling, Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. She also takes extra classes over the weekend. It's been a steep learning curve. "In the first month, I just made her stretch, to get her body used to throw a punch," says Francisco. "Then I taught her the mechanics of punching. Anyone can swing wildly. Throwing a hard punch is about your balance and hip movement. She's got a decent right cross now," he says.

What makes training particularly challenging is that much of what Ritu learns in boxing is counterintuitive to a wrestler.

"Everything changes. Boxers stand upright and must be quick on their feet. As a wrestler, you are taught to stay crouched over and flat footed. As a right-handed wrestler, you lead with the right foot. But as a striker, you lead with your left," says Tate.

Ritu will have to mould all these diverse techniques into one complete package, which doesn't always go well. "Sometimes she gets frustrated. She's quite hard on herself," says Sims. But that drive is also what makes her stand out. "It is humbling for elite-level wrestlers like Ritu to find out they know nothing about striking. But she's just really hungry to learn," he says.

Coaches praise not just her humility but also her physical abilities. "She's got so much stamina. I think it comes from her wrestling background. When she is in a sparring session, she will just keep on pushing," says Francisco.

There's no doubt Ritu has improved. Tate saw Ritu's first sparring session as well as one a couple of weeks ago. "The rate at which she's improved is shocking. At the start, she was just in survival mode. Now, she's allowing her natural aggression to show. She's not just defending but making attacking submissions too," she says.

Yet her coaches insist that for all her improvement, with just eight months since she took her first session at Evolve, she is an unpolished fighter.

Tate believes that Ritu will get better with experience, but warns that it is going to take time. She believes that Ritu is still finding out what style would suit her best. "She's unlikely to be a really good striker starting out. She won't go for too many submissions because she's just started out learning Jiu Jitsu. She'll start with simple things. She'll try not to get hurt on her feet and then go for takedowns. As a wrestler, she will have naturally very strong back control (when the opponent's belly faces the ground) and from there she will finish with a rear naked chokehold. When she gets even more comfortable in the ring, I'm expecting her to have a really vicious ground and pound style," says Tate.

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While she's gotten more comfortable in the ring, Ritu has slowly adapted to life in a foreign city. This Diwali was the first she'd spent away from her immediate family, although she did celebrate with couple of her relatives based here. "Being away from my family is harder than the training. Even if I was in the national camp. I'd always be in my sisters' room," she says. Equally challenging is the fact that for the first time, she can't really approach her sisters or father for technical advice. "I went home a couple of months ago and I showed videos of my sparring on my phone but papaji didn't really understand. He only checked my hands and said that there's more power in them," she says.

Geeta admits that she can't help her younger sister they way she used to. "I can explain wrestling moves but not what she's doing now. Ritu will show me her sparring videos and say where she scored points, but I don't really get it. I'll just want to know if she's won or not," she says.

While she's on her own for the most part, it's helped that Ritu has found a warm atmosphere in Singapore. "Everyone looks out for each other here. A lot of the other fighters come by my apartment over the weekend and I'll cook for them," she says. "When I first came here, only English songs would be playing in training. I got them to play some Haryanvi and Punjabi songs jise sunke pair hilne lagte hain (that make you tap your feet). I've also convinced them to say Ram Ram and shukriyo," she says.

As such, she has more than a few well wishers. "She's the kindest person," says Tate. "She absolutely adores my daughter Amaia. On her birthday in June, she even bought her a present which was really sweet," says Tate.

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All that goodwill aside, Ritu hasn't lost focus on the purpose of uprooting herself from her family and a sport she excelled in.

Her stated ambition is to be a champion and, quite simply, that's exactly what ONE Championship wants from her. They have announced they want to be in India in the coming years and that's hard to do for a sport with little recognition and no local performers of promoteable ability.

Ritu isn't the first Indian fighter in MMA, or even in the elite promotions like the UFC or ONE Championship. Bharat Kandhare fought in UFC Shanghai last year while three Indians - Rahul Raju, Pooja Tomar and Himanshu Kaushik - are currently competing in One Championships. None are anywhere close to being elite.

Ritu, it is hoped, can be that homegrown breakout star that ONE desperately needs. "Ritu has the most potential to put mixed martial arts in the map in India. She really is that good," says Tate. As is the nature of combat sport, there's no guarantee of success idown the path that starts from Beijing. Should she fail, there will be no shortage of critics questioning the wisdom of choosing risk over familiarity. She's not backing down, though. Daring to be different is what made her family famous after all.

"I've always wanted to do something distinctive," she says. "That's what brought me to compete in martial arts. That's how my family is also. We also started wrestling when no other women were, didn't we?"