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Mixed bag: Ritu Phogat earns chance to make world title fight, delaying homecoming

Ritu Phogat last visited home in India just before Holi (March 9-10) in 2020. ONE Championship

Ritu Phogat found herself split between emotions when she first found out on Thursday, February 25, that she had been named as one of the eight competitors in the ONE Atomweight World Grand Prix. On the one hand, just being named as one of the participants in the grand prix -- the winner of which will earn the right to fight for the world title in November -- was a major step to her dream of becoming a world champion in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). However, it also meant the 26-year-old would have to cancel her plans to return home to India in April -- a homecoming she'd been eagerly anticipating for nearly a year.

Phogat knew she'd have to make sacrifices when she switched from wrestling to MMA two years ago. The challenge of having to live away from her family was greater than the risk of having to give up a discipline in which she was an U-23 world silver medallist.

Speaking to ESPN from Singapore, where she's currently training, Phogat teared up when speaking about the emotional tradeoff she's had to make. Phogat last visited India just before the festival of Holi (March 9-10) last year. Visa restrictions owing to the coronavirus pandemic meant that once she returned to Singapore, she could either stay and train in the city state, or endure lengthy quarantines every time she went home. Those long breaks would have jeopardised her MMA career.

After opting to stay in Singapore and fight, Phogat even ended up missing her sister Sangeeta's wedding. "That time was very hard for me. I had a match (against Nou Srey Pov on October 30, 2020) just before the wedding and initially my plans were to return home. But I knew if I did that, it would set my career back by many months. I had cried a lot after the match because I missed the wedding," she says.

Her father and sister comforted her as much as they could. Mahaveer Phogat, who'd trained four of his daughters and two of his nieces into elite wrestlers, told her to forget about home comforts if she wanted to pursue her dream. "My father said, 'Mehnat pe dhyan kar. Baki sab bhul jao (Focus on giving your best effort, forget about everything else),'" she says.

Phogat has done just that. She says she has learned to manage her emotions better, too. "When I first came to Singapore to train, it was very hard. Sometimes, I'd be so emotional that I wouldn't even tell my parents how I was feeling or I'd start crying on the call. I didn't want to share that burden with them. But I've grown a lot stronger mentally since then," she says.

"When I show up for my first fight in the grand prix, I want my opponents to be shocked by what they see. Right now, I'm still known for my wrestling but I want them to take notice of my striking and grappling too." Ritu Phogat

What has aided Phogat over the past few months was the fact that she had a goal she was working towards. "The best way to avoid negative thoughts is if you can focus on training. But it's hard to stay focused and positive if you don't have any target in front of you. Last year was particularly hard because although my goal in MMA was to become a world champion, I wasn't seeing any clear path to it," she says.

That's no longer a problem. "When I learned I was going to be part of the grand prix, I wasn't nervous but excited. This is the first step towards my dream. That day I was so motivated, I even did an extra workout just because I had so much energy. That's what having a goal in front of you does," Phogat says.

Phogat will need to be particularly driven right now. Although she's made it to the eight-fighter grand prix, finishing on top will be no easy task. In that group -- also featuring Denice Zamboanga (8-0), Meng Bo (17-5), Stamp Fairtex (5-1), Alyse Anderson (5-1), Itsuki Hirata (7-0), Alyona Rassohyna (13-4) and Seo Hee Ham (23-8) -- the Indian is the least experienced, with just four fights to her name.

Phogat doesn't think she's at a serious disadvantage, though. "I'm not very nervous about my lack of fights. I've improved with each of my four fights. I could have taken up a few more fights after my previous one but I'd already fought twice in the space of two months. I knew the next series of fights will be at a higher level, so there were areas I'd felt I wanted to work on.

"In the time I've had, I've worked on all areas of my game and just to test that out I'm planning to take up another fight in April so that I enter the grand prix (the first fight is scheduled for May 28) with some match practise. In the ring, I'm confident about the level I'm at," she says.

Phogat insists her future opponents as well as spectators will be surprised at her improvement. "After I knew I was selected for the grand prix, I'd spoken to my sister Geeta. At that time, she told me never to look back and put in double the training I've done till now. When I show up for my first fight in the grand prix, I want my opponents to be shocked by what they see. Right now, I'm still known for my wrestling but I want them to take notice of my striking and grappling too," she says.

Although these efforts mean she likely won't be coming home any time soon, Phogat is hoping for the alternative. "I know I can't go home but I think it will be great if they could come to see me. Hopefully if I am able to be ready for a world title fight in November, then my family could come and watch me in Singapore," she says.