The Takedown: Ritu Phogat, India’s “Dangal” Darling

Ritu Phogat before a fight. Credit: ONE Championship Ritu Phogat before a fight. Credit: ONE Championship

This series focuses on MMA prospects who come from wrestling backgrounds. Many mixed martial artists have incredible wrestling pedigrees, so let’s see which ones are making waves in MMA. 

Ritu Phogat’s story starts with her parents. “The Indian Tigress” was born the youngest of three daughters to a mother who wanted boys. Her father was a good wrestler, but a lack of resources made it difficult for him to reach the upper echelons of the sport. He turned to coaching, hoping to give his daughters every opportunity to succeed in the sport he loved. 

While Phogat was still young, her older sisters were becoming pioneers for female wrestling in India. Her oldest sister, Geeta, captured gold in the 2010 Commonwealth Games while her other sister, Babita, reached the top of the podium in the 2014 Commonwealth Games. In 2016, the hit Bollywood movie “Dangal” highlighted their journey to becoming wrestling icons and further propelled the Phogat family into stardom.

Six years younger than her oldest sister, Ritu was trying her best to match the lofty achievements of her family.

Wrestling Career

As a teenager, Phogat’s father would take her to local mud wrestling competitions, where she frequently beat boys who were older and heavier. It wasn’t until later that she grew accustomed to wrestling on a mat. Once she mastered freestyle wrestling, it was only a matter of time before her career took off. 

Phogat had a tremendous wrestling career, with her greatest achievements being a silver medal in the 2017 U23 World Championships and a bronze medal in the 2017 Asian Games. Despite her many successes, her larger and stronger cousin was in the same weight class. Phogat was a skilled wrestler, but her cousin’s physical advantages made beating her a challenge. 

As the Phogat name grew in popularity, Ritu’s fame grew as well. Despite her success on the Indian wrestling scene, Phogat wasn’t satisfied with her career trajectory. With her cousin blocking her path to representing India in international competitions, and feeling overshadowed by her older sisters who were incredible wrestlers in their own right, she decided to strike out on her own and blaze a new path. 

ONE Championship Comes Calling 

Determined to be a champion, albeit now in MMA, Phogat signed with ONE Championship in February 2019. Since the MMA industry is relatively undeveloped in India, she packed her bags and traveled to Singapore, home of the Evolve MMA gym. 

Phogat (4-0) has had a scintillating start to her MMA career, fighting in ONE Championship’s atomweight division (115 lbs). Although she has faced unproven opposition, Phogat has been an absolute wrecking ball in her performances. Her striking skills are still a work in progress, but it is unbelievable how developed her game has become after training MMA for less than two years.  

When Phogat’s opponents throw strikes, she deftly steps out of range or performs a well-timed takedown. Her opponents are so concerned about the threat of being taken down that they often forget to defend against strikes. She uses striking to set up takedowns, like throwing a big overhand right then transitioning straight into a takedown. 

Once Phogat gets a dominant grappling position, it’s game over. 

She unleashes hellish ground and pound that seems almost unfathomable for someone her size. Her favorite position is side control, where she seamlessly transitions into the crucifix. Once there, it’s elbows galore.

Ritu Phogat (Top) delivering ground and pound. Credit: ONE Championship
Ritu Phogat (Top) delivering ground and pound. Credit: ONE Championship

Be prepared to laugh, but Phogat’s work rate and cardio in the cage is reminiscent of Khabib Nurmagomedov. She still has not fully grasped jiu-jitsu, but her activity in the cage is incredible. Phogat is always moving, either looking to secure a better position or deliver strikes. At times she absolutely suffocates her opposition and has proven the ability to outwork an opponent for 15 straight minutes. That alone will take her far in this sport. 

Unfortunately, the same problem that plagued Phogat’s wrestling career may become a problem on her path to MMA stardom – she is just a tad small for her weight class. Also, the atomweight division in ONE Championship is loaded with young stars, so the road to a title will be challenging. Luckily for her, she is only 26, so she still has time to fill out her 5’1” frame and work on her MMA skills.

Despite the obstacles in her path, Phogat is determined to improve. She is training at a great gym with many skilled athletes and doing everything possible to have a long and successful career in the sport.

And remember when she grew up wrestling in the mud? She still remembers those days, and uses them to maintain her humility as she embarks on the path to becoming the face of Indian MMA. 

She may never win an Olympic medal, but I’m sure “The Indian Tigress” is fine settling for a crack at becoming a champion in one of Asia’s biggest MMA promotions.

Phogat’s quest for gold is scheduled to continue this year in a tournament, as she was recently announced for ONE Championship’s eight-woman atomweight grand prix. The bracket is scheduled to kick off in May, with the winner in the end getting a title shot.

Here is a mini-documentary ONE Championship put together that goes into more depth on Ritu Phogat’s background.