The day before she made her Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) debut, Ritu Phogat was restless, constantly watching videos of her opponent - South Korea's Nam Hee Kim. "I finally had to confiscate her phone. I told her, 'don't overthink it. Just enjoy it. Don't stress out'," says her coach Drian Francisco.
He was right, for Ritu got her career off to a near-perfect start, stopping her opponent with 1 minute and 23 seconds left in the first round of the contest at the One: Age of Dragons event in Beijing's Wukesong Arena.
Just a few seconds had elapsed when Ritu shot for a takedown and pulled her opponent down to the mat. While Kim managed to get on to her feet the first time, she was taken down again. This time, Ritu secured the mount and proceeded to strike her opponent out with punches and elbows until the referee was forced to intervene.
"When I knew I had trapped her, I felt so good because I had been working for this for so long," Ritu said after her bout.
It has been nine months since Ritu decided to take the plunge into the untested waters of MMA. The 25-year-old gave up a career as a wrestler, a sport that made her family famous, and one in which she had tremendous success herself with medals at the Asian, Commonwealth and World levels. She had to leave her family and start from scratch in her new profession, training in boxing, muay thai kickboxing, and brazilian jiu jitsu at the Evolve MMA facility in Singapore.
The learning curve was steep but Ritu never seemed to lose sight of her goal to compete. "Right from from the start, I would keep asking when I would fight and each time my coaches would say 'soon'. So I was excited when I got to know I was going to be making my debut," she says.
🇮🇳 DOMINANT DEBUT 🇮🇳
Indian phenom Ritu Phogat scores a Round 1 TKO against Nam Hee Kim to pick up her first victory in mixed martial arts! @PhogatRitu#WeAreONE #ONEChampionship #AgeOfDragons pic.twitter.com/J2WCjwAhBT
- ONE Championship (@ONEChampionship) November 16, 2019
Her obsessive tracking of her opponent's past performances, she says, was only due to her anticipation about the day she had been working toward.
"Today morning, ekdum josh me thi (I was pumped up). I was waiting for the other bouts to get over before I could get into the ring," she says. Once in, she was surprised at how routine her experience was. "It didn't feel any different than all the wrestling bouts I had competed in. I was just thinking about doing what I had been taught. And my wrestling set up my match perfectly," she says.
Francisco returned her phone after her bout and the first call Ritu made was to her family. Mahavir Phogat - the patriarch of the Phogat wrestling clan - had to sign off on Ritu's MMA ambitions before she could head to Singapore, and so his assessment of her bout was important to her. "He was very happy and proud of me. But he also told me that this was only the start for me," she says.
That's what she believes too. "I'm not going to take a break after this win. I'm going to go right back to Singapore and start training once again. There is so much for me to learn. I have to keep getting better," she says.
She will have to be if she is to realise her ultimate goal and the reason she decided to shift to MMA -- become world champion. The One FC women's atomweight belt is currently held by Angela Lee, who has a 10-2 record in One, and Ritu's coaches believe she still needs to improve to fight at that level.
"Ritu was very good today. But to win a title you can't be good, you have to be perfect," says Francisco. "She has improved so much from where she started out but we need to see Ritu fight another four or five bouts and then we can see whether she is ready to fight for a title," he says.