Mahaveer Phogat, the patriarch of the Phogat wrestling family, isn’t known to be particularly soft-hearted. He is after all, the inspiration behind ‘hanikarak bapu‘ in the movie Dangal. But over the last few months, his daughter Ritu Phogat got to know a decidedly less gruff version of him.
“He would call me up every night. He’d just ask how I was doing. He wouldn’t tell me but when I spoke to other members of my family, they said he was very concerned about me,” she says.
Mahaveer’s worry was intensified because of the completely unfamiliar situation Ritu was dealing with. He had been entirely supportive of Ritu’s decision to step away from a promising wrestling career and into the world of mixed martial arts with the One Championship franchise. That career step had seen the 26-year-old shift base to the Evolve gym in Singapore in February last year. Although Ritu had won the first couple fights of her MMA career, she’s still quite early in her MMA education. Although she’s an accomplished grappler, she’s still very much a beginner at the striking aspects of the sport.
As such, the last four months have seemingly been a major hiccup in her career.
“After my last fight in February, I had gone home to India. But after a couple of weeks, my coaches at Evolve suggested I come back to Singapore, because at that time there were a lot of travel restrictions happening across the world and there were concerns that I might be stuck in India. While I wanted to stay with my family, I also knew that my MMA career would be seriously affected if I wasn’t able to train.”
But while Ritu did return to Singapore on March 15, just a few days before India entered a strict lockdown, her gamble did not pay off. With Singapore issuing strict regulations to manage the spread of coronavirus, the Evolve gym, like every other facility of its kind, was shut as well.
Stuck alone at her flat, Ritu admits being frustrated.
“Whenever I came to Singapore in the past, I would get very homesick. But I wouldn’t miss them that much if I was training. If I was competing, I’d be completely focussed on that. But now I was just sitting by myself,” she says.
“I really felt lonely. My birthday was on May 2 and of course I was alone at my flat. At times I would stay up past 1 or 2 am just so I could play online ludo with my sisters in India,” says Ritu, who keeps a picture of her nephew who was born earlier this year, as her phone profile picture.
Her training, too, had come to a near standstill. But after a period of being in limbo, Ritu found a workaround.
“I made a schedule for myself. I focussed on what I could do even while I was at home. I could still work on my fitness and conditioning – I didn’t need a gym for that,” she says. But while she could maintain some skills in her repertoire, there was a chance that her freshly formed striking abilities would deteriorate rapidly. A solution was found for that too.
“I have a heavy punching bag at my flat and I’d look at boxing videos online and try to follow what was going on.”
This wasn’t a perfect solution. “There’s always a fear in your mind that because I don’t have a background in the sport, I might be doing something wrong and won’t even be aware of it. Finally, I asked my coach (former WBA champion Drian Francisco) to come on video call and watch me while I did my drills. He’d tell me whether what I was doing was right or wrong.”
But Ritu has slowly come to terms with her new situation.
“These last few months have taught me a lot. I’m very attached to my family but they obviously couldn’t help me since MMA isn’t a sport they know much about and because they are so far away. I’ve had to depend on myself a lot more. I’ve learned to cook really well. I’m reading a lot of motivational books and now I’m doing a lot more meditation, that has helped me avoid negative thoughts.”
After a difficult few months, she has been locating the positives more frequently now. While her gym finally opened in the first week of June, Ritu hasn’t resumed grappling since physical contact training has still not been permitted. She’s managing to look at the positive side of this as well.
“Wrestling is something that comes easily to me. It’s something that is in my blood. When I get the permission to start training once again, It won’t be too hard for me.”
The fact that she has been concentrating solely on striking, she feels will pay off.
“When I started my career, a lot of people started to think I was just one dimensional as a wrestler. They felt that my striking was always going to be a weakness. But my coach told me I’ve improved a lot. I think,I’m going to surprise everyone with my punching,” she says.
The opportunity to do that might come relatively soon. While One Championship had halted all competition since February 28 owing to the coronavirus pandemic, they are expected to resume competition in Bangkok on July 31. Ritu isn’t competing there, nor has she been given a date for her next fight but she expects to be competing within the next couple of months.
“I was supposed to compete in May, but that didn’t happen. I should have competed at least two times in the last four months but because of the coronavirus those plans had to wait. Now I’m just counting down the days to my next fight,” she says.
While the last few months haven’t been easy, Ritu is ready to compete. “I’ve learned a lot over the last few months. It’s made me tougher mentally. It isn’t as if I’ve not been training. I’m ready and waiting for my match.”