Alright, listen carefully. No biting and no spitting. No attacking the groin or the kidney. No head-butting. Am I clear?” The man at the centre of the cage is laying out rules like a drill sergeant to a group of fighters huddled tightly around him. “You cannot insert your fingers into the opponent’s eyes, nose or mouth. You cannot throw the opponent out of the cage. And try not to break your knee or elbow, it won’t make you heroic. It will only keep you out of action for six months.” Some fighters smile weakly at this last statement, a deadly reminder of what is at stake. Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), which fuses together many forms of martial arts like wrestling, boxing, jujitsu, karate, and takes place in a cage, is listed as one of the most brutal combat sports in the world. Few rules apply, moves are defined by lethal names (the anaconda choke, the rear naked choke, dirty boxing, the guillotine, ground ‘n’ pound) and fighters pay in blood in most fights.
In a rundown building located in the industrial underbelly of Saki Naka in Mumbai, fighters from all over the world slug it out every fortnight for Super Fight League (SFL) matches, the only mixed martial arts league in the country, founded by Raj Kundra and Sanjay Dutt last year. It is the afternoon before Friday Fight Night (telecast on Star Sports) and the referee is outlining the dos and don’ts of the game to the fighters, all men, and almost each of them muscular and tattooed with their pectorals on display. There is an air of hyper masculinity in the cage, like a testosterone-filled locker room. Standing slightly apart from the huddle is 19-year-old Ritika Singh. Her match is the main event of the evening’s fight card, the first time for a women’s fight to headline the event. With her petite frame, 5’4’’ and 56 kg, she is distinctly out of place. “Don’t let her looks fool you. She throws one of the hardest kicks,” warns Alan Fernandes, head coach at SFL.
MMA is the fastest growing sport in the world, with an aggressively macho image that attracts a young, mostly male fan base. Its detractors call it human cockfighting, and countries like France and Norway have banned it. Like many other sports, it is also extremely sexist. For the longest time, the only space for women in MMA was that of ‘ring girls’, scantily-clad women who lead the fighters out and carry ring cards, an obvious bid to attract a wider fan base with men. As a token symbol of representation, some leagues would feature the occasional female fight, but in the past few years, a handful of women only leagues have sprung up across the US, Japan and Europe. SFL has tied up with Invicta, a women’s only league in the US, to promote and share female talent.
Away from the world of cage fighting, Ritika leads the life of any other young woman. She studies commerce in first year of college in Mumbai. A bright student, she loves spending time on Facebook, posting pictures of herself and her friends. The fact that she is a mixed martial arts fighter is something she likes to keep under wraps from most people. “People are uncomfortable with the idea of female aggression. I get the strangest reactions when I tell people I am a fighter. They tell me, why don’t you utilise your face for modelling. They expect female fighters to look a certain way, masculine I would guess, which I’m not, and I don’t see any contradiction in being a woman and a warrior,” she says.
We are sitting at the boot camp which houses training facilities and living accommodation for the fighters. Across the room, she eyeballs her opponent Irene Cabello of Spain. “I have to show her I’m mentally tough,” she says. “In MMA, conditioning of the mind is much more important than physical strength. I have to break her down mentally before I attack her physically.”
She scrolls through her phone to show a long email sent by her father laying out the game strategy against Cabello. “I have seen her videos. She is a pretty girl who cannot take punches on her face. That is what I will be aiming for.” Is she not scared of taking punches on her face then? “No, I can take it.” In last year’s SFL, she got a black eye, a swollen head and a knee injury. Her father, a boxing trainer, began to coach her in karate and kickboxing at the age of seven, and she has participated in several events at the state and national level. “It is the only thing I know. Fighting is almost an instinct with me.” Though her father is her inspiration to take up something as taboo as fighting, her mother has not been able to make peace with the extreme sport that her daughter thrives in. “She has never seen me fight, either live or on television. She nags me about it, she despises the violence, and is always praying for me to get away without any damage.”
Later, the same evening, she throws a few punches at Cabello in the face, but her injured knee lets her down and Cabello defeats her within two minutes of the first round. An audience member is heard exclaiming, “Why are these pretty girls fighting? It must be a fake fight, like WWE.” For the Indian audiences, unused to mixed martial arts, it is a common misconception to compare MMA with WWE and dismiss it as either fake or too dangerous. It is harder still to place women in this violent environment.
A recent article in Sports Illustrated on the state of women’s MMA in America mentioned how most people think of it as “gimmicky” or a “freak show”. “It’s a culture shock for the Indian audience to see women fight,” says Fernandes. “Some of our female talent has done better than men. Women fighters grasp the technique of MMA better than most men, and their mental conditioning is better. They stay calm under pressure.” The pool of Indian female fighters in SFLis nearly 30, most of them from Delhi and Haryana. Fernandes mentions that their database of potential female fighters is close to 100, that they are currently undergoing training at the SFL camp in Nashik, and that over the next few months, more women fighters will make their debut.
Chuck Palahniuk famously wrote in Fight Club, “I just don’t want to die without a few scars.” Manjit Kolekar, who has not read Palahniuk, ends up echoing his words. “Most girls like wearing make-up. I hate make-up, but I wear my scars and bruises with pride.” Kolekar, 22, who wears her hair closely cropped, rides a Bullet, and calls herself a tomboy, has come up as the strongest female Indian fighter. The winner of SFLChallengers, an MMA reality show that was aired on television last year, she has not lost a single fight to date.
For all her aggression in the cage, there is no sign in her of the flamboyance that most fighters wear as second skin. She hesitates before talking about herself. “People think because I’m a fighter I must be very aggressive and I must be getting into street brawls all the time. That’s far from true. It’s only when I’m fighting that I become aggressive. Through fighting, I have learnt to control my emotions and be calm.” The ruthlessness of the sport does impinge on her conscience occasionally. When she lands a nasty blow on her opponent, she always follows it with an apology. She talks about a fight last year with opponent Priyanka Sharma of Delhi. “It got really dirty, I kicked her with my knee and her nose was broken.” A few weeks ago, Mona Munir from Egypt ended up with a bloodied and swollen cheek at the end of a long-drawn fight with Manjit. One of her most difficult fights was with Ritika, her closest friend, for which she had to condition her mind for weeks. “In the cage, nobody is a friend. Your mind becomes empty, and something primal takes over.” She hurt Ritika on her head, but their friendship remains unharmed. She is often riddled with guilt for weeks after these incidents.
And yet, fighting is all Manjit has. There is no back-up plan. She dropped out of school to concentrate on boxing, for which she has won several medals at the national level. When she was asked to audition for MMA, everything came together. “I love being a mixed martial arts fighter, to combine strategy and technique with raw and brutal fighting.” She trains for hours every day, mostly with men and often defeats them.
The day we meet, Manjit is taking on Monika Mallik from Haryana, whom she has already defeated in a fight his season. But that does not keep away the fear. She is in a nervous state, worried about the outcome, even though other fighters keep reminding her that she has an upper hand. “It’s very important to keep fear close to you. If you get overconfident, you make yourself vulnerable,” she says. The daughter of a college professor, she is aware that her chosen career is unorthodox. “Our society does not accept women as fighters, and there are limited opportunities. My family has been my greatest support. My father cannot watch me fight, his heartbeat goes up, but they are all extremely proud of me.” As one of the highest-paid female fighters (her fee is close to Rs 1 lakh for every fight), she dreams of representing India internationally, to make the sport more acceptable to Indians, and to clear the air that MMA is not a hoax like WWE.
Her fight with Monika lasts for the entire three rounds of five minutes each, it’s closely fought and Manjit wins by a few points. The audience is awed by the energy and focus displayed by the two women. She steps off the cage, exhausted, “It’s a fight for survival.”