Third straight win could fast-track Ritu Phogat's MMA title dream

A win against Cambodia‚Äôs Nou Srey Pov on Saturday would boost Ritu Phogat's chances of competing for the atomweight title. VCG/VCG via Getty Images

Eight months after her last Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) bout, India's Ritu Phogat will step into the ring once again on Friday to take on Cambodia's Nou Srey Pov in the first fight on the ONE Championship: Inside The Matrix promotion. Ritu's opponent has plenty of combat sport pedigree, but is less experienced in MMA. While Ritu starts as the favourite, the main challenge for her would be to show just how much she has improved since her last MMA fight.

What's in it for Ritu?

The three-round competition is only the third of Ritu's MMA career, since her transition from Olympic-style wrestling in February last year. While she's still early in her career, she's expected to win her third straight fight with the promotion. After making her debut in November last year, Ritu was expected to fight several months ago, but those plans were cut short owing to the coronavirus pandemic. A third straight win would allow her to make up for some lost time and rise up the ONE Championship rankings in her weight division

Immediate challenge

Looking to make things difficult for the Indian is Srey Pov. The Cambodian's fighting background is the traditional martial art of Kun Khmer. Similar to Muay Thai, Kun Khmer is a striking-based martial art centred around punches, kicks, elbows and knee strikes with particular emphasis on elbow strikes. Although Srey Pov has a dominant 91-8-2 professional record in Kun Khmer, her record in MMA is a less impressive 1-1, with a win off her previous fight.

Considering Ritu's wrestling pedigree, the match-up is expected to be a classic striker versus wrestler contest. Ritu has had plenty of wrestling success in her two previous fights, taking down both Nam Hee Kim and Wu Chiao Chen early in their respective bouts. Should Srey Pov be taken off her feet, she is likely to struggle against the Indian. The Cambodian has admitted as much. "I've watched her fights. She is very fast and has dangerous grappling skills. She is full of energy and strong," Srey Pov says. "I need to be careful from the opening round and try to escape from those difficult wrestling positions," she told ONE Championship.

Long break

One area Ritu will look to improve on is working towards submissions after taking down her opponent. In her last bout against Chen, the Indian brought her opponent to the mat early in each of the three rounds. Although she landed some strikes, and had control over her opponent, she was unable to successfully transition towards submissions. While Ritu would have wanted to work on her ground grappling and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu skills leading up to her bout, she's been unable to train as much at the Evolve gym in Singapore as she would have hoped because of restrictions put in place at the facility over the past few months. Ritu has mostly been able to work on her striking though, and has promised to stop or submit Srey Pov in their encounter. And while her wrestling has always been her mainstay, Ritu has also said she's looking to show other skills in Friday's contest.

Long-term goal

While Ritu will obviously be looking to win comprehensively on Friday, just how she performs could have an impact on her near-future career as well. When Ritu made the decision to walk away from wrestling and switch to MMA, it was with the stated goal of becoming the first Indian to hold a world title. That opportunity could come up earlier than she might have expected. Earlier this month, the ONE Championship announced that the women's atomweight (52.2 kg) belt would be up for grabs following reigning title-holder Angela Lee's announcement of her pregnancy. The belt will now be decided by way of an eight-person Grand Prix.

While Ritu is still extremely early in her career, she's hopeful of being considered to compete for the title too. Although there are many who feel that with just three fights to her name, she's too inexperienced, Ritu certainly believes she could have a chance in the Grand Prix. "This title is the reason I became a MMA fighter. It would be great if I got the opportunity of being chosen as one of those eight fighters as well. My target is to get selected for that tournament although my first focus is my upcoming match," she says.