Ritu Phogat hit an unexpected hurdle ahead of her mixed martial arts debut when her scheduled opponent pulled out a couple of weeks before the contest.

Instead of fellow zero fight rookie Cindy Tiong, Ritu will now take on South Korea’s Na Hee Kim (1-0-0), who has already competed in and won an MMA bout. It’s a change of plans for Phogat, but she’s taking it in her stride.

“I’m not nervous. I’m more anxious,” she says of her debut bout in the women’s atomweight (52.2kg) class which will be held as part of the One: Age of Dragons event in Beijing later this month.

It’s a high-stakes contest for the 25-year-old, who is easily the highest profile Indian to compete as a professional in the world of mixed martial arts. She is one of the Phogat sisters – elder siblings Babita and Geeta were coached by father Mahavir to gold medals at the Commonwealth Games – a story that was depicted in the hit Bollywood film Dangal.

Her cousin Vinesh is perhaps India’s best woman wrestler currently, having qualified for the 2020 Olympics with a medal at the World Championships.

Ritu has had her own share of successes, though. She won the gold medal at the 2016 Commonwealth Wrestling Championships in the 48kg category held in Singapore. She also won the bronze medal in the 48kg category at the 2017 Asian Championships in New Delhi and then became the first Indian to win silver at the World U-23 Wrestling Championships in 2017.

While the switch from wrestling to MMA isn’t an uncommon one internationally, it’s still a leap no high-class Indian athlete has made until Ritu. As an MMA fighter, wrestling is just one of the many martial skills she has to master.

“I have had to learn boxing, Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ), Muay thai (Thai kickboxing) as well,” she says.

The transition hasn’t been the easiest. It was only late last year that Ritu was approached by the Evolve MMA, a martial arts training facility founded by Chatri Sityodtong, who is also the founder of One Championships – the promotion in which Ritu will be making her debut. And it’s only in February this year that she started training full time at the Evolve MMA academy in Singapore.

“I’m still at the start of my career in MMA. There are so many things I have to improve in. My wrestling is very strong but I still have to work a lot on my Muay Thai and BJJ. I still have a long way to go.”

Considering her past success as a wrestler, Ritu admits she does miss the sport. But there isn’t any doubt that her current choice of sport is one she plans on excelling in.

“It’s in my blood. So I do miss wrestling but we have to train in wrestling here as well. At the moment, all my focus is on mixed martial arts. I am not thinking too far ahead. I’ve got complete support from my family about the choice of my career.

“When I was a wrestler, my goal was to win a medal for India. In MMA my goal is to become the first Indian World champion.”

While the rest of her skills come up to par, Ritu says she is confident her wrestling will carry the day for her.

“The excitement I am feeling is similar to just before a wrestling tournament. I’m in the same zone mentally.”

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