In another couple of weeks, Ritu Phogat would have been up for one of the biggest challenges of her career - a bout against Bo Meng - her first fight in an eight fighter Grand Prix for the ONE Atomweight title. That title was to have been the culmination of a long standing goal for Phogat, but it will have to be put on hold now.
On Saturday, Phogat lost by split decision to the unheralded Bi Nguyen in One Dangal. Following the result, Phogat slipped to 4-1 while Nguyen improved to 6-6.
With an unbeaten record going into the fight, Phogat had been the favourite ahead of what was considered a warm up bout with Nguyen but would have known the fight was not without its risks."If Ritu loses, she's out of the (Grand Prix) tournament even before it begins," Chatri Sityodtong, the Chairman of One Championship, had said before her fight.
It didn't look that way for most of the bout. It was expected to be the classic striker (Nguyen) versus grappler (Phogat) matchup and for the bulk of the fight, it was the former U-23 wrestling championship world silver medalist who appeared to have the edge. Phogat took down Nguyen inside the first minute of the fight. Nguyen got up once but was taken down soon after, spending the rest of the round on her back.
It was much the same in the second round as well. This wasn't to say that Ritu was having it easy. In her earlier four fights, Phogat had hardly been touched. Nguyen though was far more successful. With Phogat repeatedly shooting for the takedown, Nguyen timed her strikes well. She landed a hard left hand in the second round and landed a hard knee even as Phogat shot for a takedown in the same round. Phogat, though, took the strikes well and responded with elbows to her downed opponent.
By the third round though, it appeared that the 24-year-old Indian was running out of steam. Her takedowns were blocked and Nguyen started finding her range with her punches. Phogat was clearly fading badly as the round ended, but pulled off another takedown in the final twenty seconds to finish the fight on top.
Under rules elsewhere where rounds are scored individually and then totalled -- it is likely that Phogat would have claimed two of three rounds and won the fight. Under One rules though, fights are scored in totality and it was likely that the referees felt that Nguyen's comeback in the final round cancelled Ritu's work over the previous couple of rounds.
The result clearly came as a shock to the Indian but she was gracious in defeat. "I thought that I won but I respect the referee decisison. I gave it my 110 percent but next time I'll push even more," she said afterwords.
While she is putting on a brave face, one can't help but feel sorry for Phogat. She' had sacrificed a likely spot in the Indian Olympic squad to chase her MMA dream. Coming from a close knit family she had moved alone to a foreign land. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, she chose to stay in Singapore, missing the wedding of her sister in order to push for the possibility of a world title shot. Unable to meet her family for over a year she had told ESPN she had hoped they would be able to be ringside when she competed for the One Title. For now those dreams lie shattered.