JUST A DAY AWAY from the biggest fight of her career so far, Asha Roka appears to be taking things in a stride, with the usual businesslike manner of any fight-week.
Asha Roka is taking on Stamp Fairtex in a featured bout in ONE Championship: Dreams of Gold on Friday in what is expected to be a sold out professional martial arts event in Bangkok. In terms of MMA alone, it's a fight between two newcomer professionals. But Asha Roka has a successful amateur boxing background and Stamp Fairtex is already a two sport world champion in ONE; in kickboxing and muay thai.
In TFG's fight breakdown, we pointed out that though both fighters are coming in from striking-based sports, Asha has demonstrated a willingness to go to the ground and Stamp, in comparison, has never been on the ground, at least in the professional arena. Speaking to us from Bangkok, Asha appeared unaffected by her opponent's decorated record, and didn't want to elaborate on whether she considered ground game to be an X factor in this fight that might give her an advantage,
"I have fought 4 fights in MMA so far 2 win by KO and 2 win by submission in first round. So for me it's not a problem, I'm comfortable on the ground as well... this is not kickboxing, it's MMA. whoever knows to switch game wins the game."
But although Asha has two submission wins, she has not demonstrated all her skills. All her previous fights have seen stoppages in less than 2 minutes, which means we've seen her jiu jiutsu for about a minute and a half in total. That's not much to go by, she's been at Brazilian Jiu Jiutsu for a good while now, training with a private group of wrestlers and BJJ players in Delhi, and not to mention her fight preparation footage at Tiger Muay Thai showed off a lot of ground and pound. Would takedowns be a weapon of choice on Friday? Asha danced around the topic again,
"You don't have to be black belt in jiu jiutsu to be able to use it well in MMA. It's one of tool one should know where and what to use so I keep it simple... I take the fight where I like it. If she wants to stand up, I'll put her down. If she wants to take me down then I won't let her... if I see the opportunity where I can mount her then nothing better then ground and pound."
The air of mystery mentioned in our preview seems exactly the thing Asha wants to preserve going into a fight against a multi-sport superstar with more than 80 professional fights, in her hometown with a sold out arena of heavily partisan fans, everyone cheering for Stamp and against Asha.
Although Asha is not concerned with the prospect of being the antagonist in this case. Asked how she would deal with the boos and the hostile crowd, she said,
"Even better, it motivates me more. I want them to cheer for her."
The fight between Nong Stamp and Asha Roka has been promoted quite heavily by ONE on social media and YouTube, which is also rather new; rarely we have seen an Indian fighter being given such a bright spotlight by a global promition. The Dreams of Gold event, for ONE, projects a theme of title ambitions; even the non-title bouts feature legitimate contenders from various divisions. The promotion, without a doubt, sees both Stamp and Asha as future stars in the Atomweight division, and will be happy to build them up as challengers for current champ Angela Lee. Asha herself, however, didn't want to get too far ahead of the task in hand and tried to play down the talks of a potential title run,
"For me every fight is a learning experience and I wish to do good for myself and my team. Of course I want the belt as soon as possible but not before somebody who has fought more fights then me and is unbeaten so far."
The catch here is, if she beats Nong Stamp, she will have an MMA record of 5-0, and no one in the division has a 5 fight winning streak plus an unbeaten record. Angela Lee is unbeaten at Atomweight but her last two fights were in Strawweight, both of which she lost. The only fighter with a longer winning streak is China's Lin Heqin, who has mostly competed at 125 pounds, but cut down to 115 in her latest fight to compete in ONE's Atomweight Division for her promotional debut this March. She has won her last 6 fights, but is not unbeaten, with a 9-2-1 record. So if she wins tomorrow, Asha Roka will be in the conversation for a shot at the belt soon whether she wants it or not; we may even get an India vs China showdown between Asha and Lin as a title eliminator. For Indian fans, that fight will be even bigger than this one.
But Asha is just taking in the moment. She is fighting in ONE for the first time, and has liked the experience of being in a global organization so far, and appreciates how they have handle the pre-fight obligations like medical tests, weigh ins and media opportunities,
"Definitely this is one step up so it takes away lots of thoughtful time from my usual lifestyle. But I'm cool as ever."
The fight is not just a step up for her but also for this country's athletes. Being featured high in a ONE card is rare for an Indian fighter, and a win for Asha will lift up the whole of Indian MMA.
When asked how she thought her fight affected Indian MMA as a whole, Asha said,
"Never crossed my mind, this thought. Indian MMA must do good one day when the real athletes and professionals start doing it. I think there's lots of talent but they want to stick to their A-game."
Here, by 'A-game', she was referring to the sport those athletes originally trained and competed in. It's common in MMA to see former boxers, kickboxers, wrestlers, jodokas, even American football and rugby players transitioning into MMA; like Asha did from boxing.
Which brought up the topic of Ritu Phogat, the accomplished wrestler who has been training for MMA at Evolve in Singapore. TFG's interview with ONE Championship CEO Hari Vijayarajan exclusively revealed that she will make her professional MMA debut later this year, although her weight class is yet to be revealed. But Ritu has been winning medals in wrestling at the 48 kg category, which makes it more than likely that she will compete in the ONE Atomweight Division (52.2 kg, 115 pounds), in the same weight class as Asha Roka. It's not out of the ordinary to envision an all-Indian superfight between Asha and Ritu in the future, which also plays into the classic striker vs wrestler theme that make some MMA fights so interesting. It would also likely be seen as the biggest MMA bout in history where both fighters are Indian.
Asha appeared to share that intrigue,
"Fight against Ritu makes it even more Interesting for India. so why not. I work with top wrestlers and boxers so if one day I have to fight with her will be prepared 200%."
For now, though, Asha is focusing on Friday's fight only, and enjoying the skyrocket to stardom she has experienced thanks to this bout, with her becoming the most talked about fighter in the Indian MMA circuits. When asked what she had to say to her fans back home, Asha said,
"I would like thank all of those who are going to take out of their precious time to watch me. Definitely I'll try my best not to disappoint them and I would love to keep them forever with me in all my upcoming fights. I'll try to make the fights how they like it with my own touch in there with aggressive and committed approach."
At just 20 years of age, Asha is standing on the verge of international stardom, ready to step into the ring against a veteran striker who holds two championship belts in two sports, and is gunning for the third. That's a level of accomplishments few Indian MMA fighters have ever known.
She had risked a lot going into MMA. Her parents repeatedly asked her to stick to boxing. But given where she has reached now, it's hard to second guess her determination and potential.
Do her parents still ask her to go back to boxing? Asha, in her usual way, side-stepped the question,
"For me it's just a beginning, there's a lot still to achieve even parents knows that."
Perhaps "ONE Championship: Dreams of Gold", which Asha's fans across India will be able to witness live on Star Sports Select 2 and Hotstar on 16th August at 4 pm Indian Standard Time, might just prove to be the biggest springboards for her pursuation of those achievements.