IT'S NOT EASY to take Puja Tomar by surprise.
For a small town girl from Budhiana, Punjab, she's had a rather unusual life and much of it has involved uphill battles; both literally and figuratively.
At 25, she has been the national Wushu champion 5 times with a combined record of 67-5. Twice a day, she teaches martial arts and self defense at a gym in New Delhi's Punjabi Bagh. And apart from that day job, she's also pursuing a career in professional Mixed Martial Arts.
So far, she has fought 7 times in pro MMA; 3 of them at ONE Championship where all of her bouts have been against standout talents who were fighting in their home country. Each time, she has walked out under the bright lights in front of thousands of hostile faces, for whom she temporarily becomes the object of concentrated collective resentment as they unanimously and vociferously cheer for their cherished compatriot in the most brutal unarmed combat sport in the world.
That's not somebody who's unfamiliar with life throwing curveballs at her. So when she received a message from ONE Championship asking if she'd be willing to fight rising prospect Bi Nguyen in her adopted hometown of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam on just two weeks' notice, to her it looked like business as usual.
What was unusual was that this was not going to be an MMA fight but a Muay Thai bout. She was being asked, on short notice, to take on a fighter with an extensive Muay Thai background, who trained out of a Muay Thai-specialist gym, in Muay Thai; a sport she had never competed in.
Puja recalls that day with a wry smile, "Yes, I was surprised. I had not thought of competing in professional Muay Thai until that moment. My background is in Wushu, which is a different art of striking, and my focus at that time was on developing my ground game for MMA."
But as unfamiliar as it was to think of competing in a whole new sport, to Puja it appeared more appealing than a different thought: turning it down.
"I don't say no to fights. Whatever ONE Championship put in front of me, I always agree," Puja says in a matter-of-fact way. "Yes, these are tough fights. But they're big opportunities as well. And it's better that I'm getting opportunities rather than not getting them. So I should work hard and make the best of them. There are different ways of getting experience and growing. If for me it's by facing really good fighters and measuring myself against them, be it in MMA or otherwise."
She wrote back, saying yes to the bout. At the promotional level, the wheels were set in motion to get her out to Ho Chi Minh City. Personally, she began a hasty ritual that, for her, comes before every fight - ringing up potential sparring partners, setting up timings for practice sessions.
She wouldn't take a break from her job as a trainer. In the morning, she would teach, and once her class had disbanded, train. In the evening, she'd teach her other batch, then train. Rinse and repeat, every day.
There wasn't enough time to learn complex new moves or introduce new elements to her fighting style. It was back to the basics, and upping the endurance.
Within days, she was within the groove of a pre-fight camp. She had temporarily put her Brazilian Jiu Jiutsu sessions on hold; but being a stand-up fighter whose losses had all come via submission, it wasn't something she particularly missed.
With time, her own training routine, and the training she provided to others at the gym, began to blend; complementing each other to solidify her fitness and endurance as she continued to build up to fight night.
Then, a week before the fight, she came down with a heavy fever.
Puja Tomar's father, Ram Kumar Tomar, was a farmer by trade. But he also had a rich athletic background, competing as a sprinter and winning multiple medals. At an early age, her father's background in sports instilled in her a desire to become a professional athlete.
When she was seven years old, he tragically passed away. The task of raising Puja, and her two sisters, fell on her mother, Babita Kumari.
An outgoing, energetic child, Puja was active all day; helping her mother out in the farm, going to school, participating in sports whenever she got the chance. But even at that young age, she knew she wanted to make it in the world of sports; but didn't know which exact discipline to pursue.
Then she saw a bunch of kids practicing martial arts - mostly Wushu and boxing - not far from her house. At first, she spent some time observing them, but before long the fascination with the striking arts brought her into their fold. She started taking karate lessons at school and even dipped her toes in judo and taekwondo, but it was in Wushu that she really stood out in.
Soon, she was participating in tournaments; first at state level, then at national. Her performance brought her into the radar of the Sports Authority of India, and when they offered her a scholarship to train and compete from the SAI Centre in faraway Bhopal, she did not hesitate. She left her home for a life of living in dorms and stadiums, training twice daily, and balancing the hard life an athelete with her studies.
She never stopped competing as she moved from high school to college. By now she had been earmarked as one of the top Indian prospects in the sport; bagging multiple medals in the national championships.
In 2013, she was ready to finish her studies and wanted to pursue a career in Wushu. Unfortunately, she was going through a bad patch, and had not won any medal that year. She was looking for job opportunities in Wushu, but none seemed forthcoming, at least in the coming months.
What she got instead was an offer to fight and earn money. Super Fight League, a Mixed Martial Arts promotion based in India, was looking to build a roster of domestic talent. To that end, they organized the Contender events; a series of fight nights where talented martial artists from across the country were given a chance to cut their teeth into professional MMA.
"Some seniors in my academy had an interest in Mixed Martial Arts. Himanshu Kaushik, who is a fighter too, used to watch MMA training videos on YouTube and practice those with others. We didn't have an MMA coach, so they tried to pick up moves and maneuvres by themselves and taught me as well. One day they told me about an MMA event taking place nearby and asked if I'd compete," recalls Puja. "Back then I didn't really have much interest in MMA. I prioritized Wushu. But I was getting paid to fight, so it seemed like a good idea at that time."
So in the month of October, she travelled to Nasik where the SFL Training Centre was located. On her very first MMA fight, she was the main event, taking on fellow debutant Priyanka Kadam. She weighed in at 48 kg, her natural weight class; but the fight was set at 62 kg (135 lb), and Priyanka was near the limit. Despite giving away the size, Puja won the fight in under a minute. Four days later she had her second bout, against Ishu Sood. Once again, she got the win in under a minute.
As somebody who has always sought out tough challenges, Puja's first impression of MMA was a poor one. "The girls I faced weren't very fit. They seemed to be from karate or taekwondo background... but the bouts weren't very competitive for me," says Puja. "I knocked one of them out on the feet, then took down another one and did some ground-and-pound. It wasn't exciting. So I thought there wasn't much to this MMA thing at all."
Puja went back to Wushu. She wouldn't compete in Mixed Martial Arts again for another four years.
As Puja dealt with the high fever just days before her very first professional Muay Thai bout, she was compelled to entertain a possibility that she outright despised: would she, in light of her sudden illness, pull out of the fight?
Even though it billed as a standalone Muay Thai contest in the ONE Super Series, she was well aware of the permutations that went behind setting up this bout.
Both Puja and Bi Nguyen were active contenders in the ONE Atomweight division (52 kg, 115 lb) with one win apiece in the promotion, possibly just a couple of victories away from being considered for a title shot against the regining champion Angela Lee. Even though this was a Muay Thai bout, it would definitely play a role in setting up their next MMA fight.
And this wasn't some throwaway undercard fight. Vietnamese-American Bi Nguyen, who had grown up in the USA, had built up an extensive resume in MMA fighting in regional promotions Legacy FC, TKO Fighting Alliance and KOTC. Her first two bouts in ONE Championship happened in Malaysia and Philippines, where her performance had made her an overnight star in her country of birth. This bout in the Vietnamese capital was not only a feeling-out for contenders in the division, it was also a homecoming for one of the budding stars in the promotion. If Puja pulled out at the last moment, there's no guarantee ONE Championship would be able to find a replacement in such a short time. The event could lose one of its big draws.
As she lay recovering, Puja thought about the email she would have to write to ONE Championship if the fever didn't subside in time. She went over how she'd draft it, how she'd tell them that their breakout event in Vietnam was losing a lot of shine because in faraway New Delhi, she had taken ill in the August heat. The very thought of it, to her, seemed harder to bear than the fever itself.
Next day, with the mercury still threatening to spill out of her thermometer, she was back in the gym to continue her training.
As Puja was busy with senior level Wushu tournaments, the Super Fight League experimented with its format and looked to establish itself overseas. They held multiple events in the USA, and also took the show to Canada. But their most successful event in terms of width of popularity took place in Dubai. SFL 38, held on 27th February 2015, pitted fighters from India against those from Pakistan. The event generated a lot of viewership on TV and led to the promotion's management trying out 'city vs city' events in USA that had reasonable impact with the local populace.
This led to them bringing the concept back to India. For 2017, they planned an elaborate championship season where several Indian cities with their own rosters of MMA fighters from various weight classes would compete for national glory. A large number of fighters, both Indians and foreigners, were signed by the promotion. With a steady broadcaster and a brand that was established in the market, the pay wasn't bad and it was a rare opportunity for Indian combat athletes to compete regularly in front of a wide audience; and this was what brought Puja Tomar back into MMA.
With an 2-0 record from her fights four years ago, she was pitted against another undefeated fighter, American prospect Hanna Kampf, in February 2017. This time, she was giving away less size; a 48 kg athlete competing in the 56.7 kg (125 lb) division.
But this time, she was getting into a kind of fight she had never had before. Unlike her previous opponents, Hanna, a former Naval offier, wasn't carrying excess weight; she was in her legitimate weight class. She also had a good amateur career back in California and was adept at Brazilian Jiu Jiutsu. Puja, who was still banking on her Wushu coming into the fight, was about to be dragged into waters deeper than she had ever seen before.
Early on, Puja's attempts to initiate a striking exchange didn't work, with Hanna keeping her at bay with her superior reach. They went into clinch and within 30 seconds the fight went to the ground. Puja landed on top and tried to establish a dominant position but Hanna kept her in the guard. Soon she flipped Puja over and mounted her back, looking for a triangle. All of this happened within the first minute of the fight; and for a moment it looked like the end was near for Puja.
But that wasn't it.
Hanna got the choke with her right hand, pummeling Puja with her left in an attempt to sink it in. Puja was soon flat on her chest with Hanna on top, but she managed to fold in her left leg to deny her the full mount using her knee. In side control now, Hanna had tightened the choke, but Puja kept fighting her hands and after a few seconds, Hanna relented. The choke was off, and soon Puja had shaken her opponent off; springing back to her feet.
Knowing that in-fighting was the only way to get past the reach disadvantage, Puja charged straight at Hanna, trying to land knees from the clinch. Hanna, clearly the stronger fighter, pushed her back against the cage and took her down. It was Puja's turn to pull guard and try to survive, carrying the weight of a larger opponent, defending armbar and choke attempts. Hanna took the back again, unleashing ground-and-pound. Puja survived a full minute of strikes to make it out of the first round.
For the first time in her MMA career, Puja was clearly facing defeat. And she chose to respond by going al out.
At the start of the second round, she sprinted in and opened with back to back body kicks. Hanna stumbled and fell backwards. Sensing an opening, Puja ran in, taking her down and trying to get a grab her neck.
But she had acted in haste. The momentum of her dash knocked them back, and she lost the hold. Hanna quickly moved into side control, and all of a sudden, it was back to Puja being in survival mode. Hanna took her back, applying a rear naked choke. Puja fought it off but now Hanna was in mount, dropping punches.
But Puja survived, and managed to tire Hanna out in the process. Once free, she got back up. As Hanna tried to get up too, Puja quickly snuck in an attempted guillotine choke. But once again Hanna displayed her superior BJJ skills, fighting off the choke and regaining top position.
What followed was nearly two minutes of Puja covering up and weathering Hanna's unrelenting ground-and-pound until the round ended.
From here it was a vicious one sided pounding. Early in the third round Hanna took Puja down again and continued with the blows. Puja took it all and refused to give up until Hanna switched to an armbar, forcing her to tap.
It was Puja's first loss in professional MMA. And yet it wasn't without an asterisk. In most promotions, a fighter weighing in at 115 lb limit wouldn't be matched up with a 125 lb regular; they belong to different weight classes, and had substantial size difference.
Puja, however, sees the fight as a valuable experience; which taught her the importance of incorporating ground game into her fighting style, "Back then I had little training in Brazilian Jiu Jiutsu. I was good at striking, but had no idea what to do when they fight went to the ground. After that fight, I decided that I would have to train in BJJ as soon as possible."
But her season at SFL wasn't over. Just 9 days later, she was back in the cage for her next fight; against Thulasi Helen, the former amateur boxer who had scored some notable wins in her career; including a victory against Mary Kom back in 2011.
This time, Puja came in better prepared. She weighed in at 54 kg, gaining them presumably through eating, in an attempt to make it harder for her 55.7 kg opponent to control her.
As usual, Puja began the fight on an aggressive note; throwing a high kick. Thulasi kept her hands down, trying to draw Puja in. Puja ducked under her jab and landed a body shot that startled Thulsi, causing her to slip and fall on the mat. She got back up but by then Puja had closed the distance, and held her against the cage.
Thulasi defended well from the clinch, breaking free and pushing Puja back. She continued to bait Puja to come closer, looking to counter as she came in. Puja, perhaps learning from the moment of haste that robbed her of momentum in the previous fight, responded by playing a game of patience, jabbing and kicking to the body. The game of cat and mouse continued for the rest of the round; with Puja controlling most of the movement, landing some sparing strikes and even a takedown for good measure.The second round began with much of the same, with Thulasi looking to keep her distance at first. But about a minute in, she attempted a brawl, and this brought the fight right where Puja wanted. She responded with counters, then used a hip toss to score a takedown. Within seconds, she transitioned from half guard to full mount, and dropped some vicious ground and pound, forcing the refere to step in.
Puja leapt to her feet and celebrated in relief. She was back in the winners' column, and had regained the confidence in herself as a capable contender in this sport.
Those to fights in February 2017 altered the course of her career, and to some extent, changed the way she looked at MMA.
"SFL was a new kind of experience for me. For the first time there was a big crowd at the venue to see me fight. A lot of my friends had turned up and the fight was also live on TV," Puja says. "It made me feel like what we were doing really mattered, and I could make a career out of this."
For the first time, Puja was considering competing in professional MMA for a living. And the timing couldn't have been better, because that very year, ONE Championship came knocking.
Puja reached Ho Chi Minh City on fight week looking to battle more foes than one.
The fever had taken about three days to subside. Even though she worked hard to limit the interruption in her training schedule, the illness had sucked away much of her stamina. Despite being able to withstand five minute rounds in MMA when fully healthy, she was suddenly struggling to keep up with the 3 minute rounds of Muay Thai on the training mat.
The sprawling capital city of Vietnam, with its ever-chaotic streets and swarms of motorbikes, has its own rich history with martial arts. And for this breakout show, ONE Championship had put together an all-striking extravaganza with only Muay Thai and Kickboxing featuring on the card topped off by the ONE Muay Thai Bantamweight championship; no MMA.
With Thai athletes dominating the top of the card, three Vientmese prospects lined up the main card to add depth to the evnet. Bi Nguyen would be the first of them to walk out, the second bout on the main card; which put Puja right in the middle of the fight that was expected to get the local fans fully into the event for the first time that evening.
The fight week, by all appearances went normally. The weigh-ins, the staredowns and handshakes in front of the media. The spotlight was obviously on Bi; Puja was happy to just be there and fulfill her role as a competitor.
Behind the scenes, however, her focus was on an unusual fight preparation; one that put as much emphasis on rest and restoring health as much as on devising a strategy for the opponent she had in front of her; if not more.
Come fight night, Puja made the walk first. The arena was sold out and the event was being watched by millions; including Indian viewers on Star Sports.
But while a sizeable - and steadily growing - base of MMA fans in India cheered for her as she walked out, the crowd in front of her was very much in favour of her opponent. There were boos and jeers, intercut by a few voices of support from Indian expats.
Puja was used to this dance by now, "At first, the hostile crowd did concern me. But now I like it when the crowd supports my opponent, shouts and cheers for her and boos me. I feel like that puts all the pressure on her. I remember in Indonesia I had a bunch of people yelling at me when I was walking out. I didn't understand what they were saying but it probably wasn't very nice. But even though I was not the crowd favourite, when I started fighting well, they all calmed down, got into the action and applauded me whenever I pulled off a good move."
The Vietnamese crowd, one of the more well-informed groups when it comes to martial arts, booed Puja but did not go out of their way to show hate. But they truly came alive when Bi Nguyen, their budding superstar, came out, the sold out crowd at the Phu Tho Indoor Stadium roared with its fullest voice for the first time.
After the customary introduction and touch of gloves, the bout was on.
The first minute was mostly about feeling each other out, but it was Puja who started probing her opponent with range-checking kicks and jabs. Bi led with feints with the right foot to attempt some overhand lefts.
But before long, both fighters switched into a higher gear. As Bi tried to get close to Puja, she blocked her with side kicks twice. But Bi managed to get drag Puja into the in-fighting with more feints and they started swinging in a phone-booth, barely missing each other and clinching.
Bi tried to push Puja up against the ring. Puja threw some elbows and broke free, assuming her stance, waiting. As Bi took two steps forward and threw a front kick, Puja countered with her side kick again. She then tried to exert pressure by moving in with a combination but Bi connected with a counter punch. Then, as Bi tried to attack the body, Puja got her with an elbow.
Now, the battle heated up. Bi took two side kicks from Puja and moved in to force an exchange of punches, and landed a singificant shot to the chin that forced Puja to stumble backwards. Bi moved forward and tried to engage again but this time, Puja landed a hook and mainatained distance. Bi, knowing her advantage lay in closing the distance, chased her, and this time Puja landed a side kick as well as a jab, slipping out of the corner of the ring. Relentless, Bi was still running after Puja as the bell rang to end the round.
It was a close one. Bi had established her dominance as a technical Muay Thai fighter who excelled in close range brawls. But Puja had held her own, managed the distance well and landed a good few blows; especially side kicks and elbows. Arguably, Puja had won the round by a very slight margin. The crowd cheered, knowing they had a fight in their hands that was going to the deep end.
Puja walked to her corner to get a drink of water. While the round had given her confidence that her Wushu skills could translate well into Muay Thai, the ghost of the sickness that bogged her down a week prior was rearing its ugly head again.
An already weakened Puja had gassed out. And there were two more rounds of brutal striking still ahead of her.
When Puja took up competing in Wushu, a few relatives had raised their eyebrows, but most had more or less agreed to it.
It was, after all, a sporting discipline. Puja was the daughter of a sportsman, and it was not uncommon for girls in Punjab to take up sports during school. If they were good enough, they could win medals that were prestigious for the family, and get scholarships for higher studies.
Puja did win medals, and established a career that not many sportspersons manage to achieve. But all that was within the familiar framework of Olympics-oriented amateur sports; all about point-fighting and technique.
It was when she started to lean more towards Mixed Martial Arts that she started to face questions and doubts.
"What is this brutal thing?" Some wondered, "People beat each other bloody like a street fight, is this supposed to be a sport?"
"You'll get hurt," others opined. "Don't do this, people break their bones and everything."
Some were more concerned than disapproving, "After all, there is no future in it. No government job has quota for MMA. Where's the future in this? You're better off sticking to Wushu."
Puja was adamant; her fights in SFL 2017 had given her a glimpse of the bigger world of MMA that lay out there. It seemed challenging, and required a vast improvement of her skill-set. And she got paid for every fight. All of this was exactly what she was looking for.
Her mother, Babita Kumari, however, never opposed her wish to pursue an MMA career, despite hearing about the numerous risks. She even had some advice on how Puja could do better in the cage; although she had not watched much MMA herself. Puja recalls with a smile, "She told me, 'I think you shouldn't fight falling down. Just stand and fight.' I replied, 'yes, mommy.'"
Now established as a rising prospect in Indian MMA with a professional record of 3-1, Puja was looking for an opportunity that would allow her to test the waters; to experience MMA as the global sport that it is.
And one day, out of the blue, she got what she was looking for. ONE Championship reached out to her.
Puja says she was surprised, "I got a message on Facebook from them. At that time I didn't even know what ONE Championship was. I spoke to Himanshu about it, he told me it's a big event, biggest in Asia and everything. I was very excited that out of so many fighters they chose me."
ONE Championship have had an eye for the Indian market from the very beginning. Their very first event back in 2011 had featured Susovan Ghosh in the preliminary card. In March 2012, Jeet Toshi became the first Indian woman to compete in the promotion. Since then, a bunch of Indian fighters, including Himanshu Kaushik, had fought there and some had established a decent presence, as the promotion had grown over time to become one of the biggest martial arts organizations in the world.
But it was still a rare privilege for an Indian Mixed Martial Artist to get called up by ONE. And even more rare for them to make an impact fighting there. Puja knew the odds were against her; especially since the first fight she was being offered was just one month away, against an undefeated fighter who was looking like she was going to fight for the title soon.
But the opportunity was too good to turn down. Puja wrote back to ONE, saying she would indeed be willing to fight Tiffany Teo, who was coming in with a 5-0 professional MMA record with three wins in ONE, in her own home country on a month's notice.
And with these, two precedents got established that are unbroken to this day: ONE Championship would always offer Puja a fight against a rising prospect at their own country, and Puja would always say yes.
So Puja's ONE Championship debut was set, and she began her preparations to face Teo, a well-rounded MMA fighter who had knocked out her first opponent with a kick, submitted the second one with a rear naked choke, stopped the third one with ground and pound and went the full three rounds with the next one. In her short professional career Teo had fought different styles, been in different situations, and come out on top every time. Plus she belonged to one of the major martial arts gyms in Singapore, Team Highlight Reel. She came into each fight fully prepared with a team of veteran coaches guiding and honing her each move.
Meanwhile in India, Puja was trying to figure out how to prepare for her first international bout. She knew Teo was good at the ground, and was well experienced in Brazilian Jiu Jiutsu. But Puja couldn't find a BJJ coach on such a short notice; nor had she an MMA gym to go to where she would be able to have experienced sparring partners in boxing or Muay Thai, and a cage to train in.
Doesn't matter, Puja thought. She would avoid going to the ground, and just brush up her Wushu in the academy. She trained hard for a little over three weeks and then it was time to fly to Singapore; where she would experience the global forefront of Mixed Martial Arts for the very first time.
"The first time I fought in ONE, it was a big event and a major fight, at that time I was taken aback by that occasion," Puja says about that night. "I just looked at the bright lights and wondered, where am I? There were thousands of people present in the arena, it was nothing like anything I had seen before."
The fight, too, was about to take Puja to a greater depth than she had been before.
As the bout began, Puja was the first one to break the intiial feeling-out staring contest, throwing her familiar side kick to warn Tiffany that she meant business; following with an experimental low kick that gingerly landed. Teo responded by walking Puja down with two stinging angular patently Muay Thai kicks.
Puja retreated, then tried to shoot back with an overhand right and another high kick; neither of which landed or stopped Teo's methodical inching-forward that brought her lead jab hand ever so closer to a touching distance.
Puja knew she had to stay away or she'd get taken down. She continued to respond with the overhand right and side kick; which Teo could see coming from miles away and easily dodged. Then, as Puja threw a leg kick, Teo decided to let it land; and in the split second where Puja was in follow-through finding her two steady feet again, she pounced for the clinch.
Puja wasn't going to budge. She threw a knee, absorbed an elbow and switched to defensive maneuvre, pushing Teo hard against the cage. But Teo worked her way out of it and reversed the position. Now Puja was up against the cage, and Teo was in the dominant position. When Puja tried to break free, Teo got her into a close range brawl that she won and regained the clinch against the cage. From there, she kept softening Puja up with knees and elbows, while setting up a trip. Puja, desperate not to go to the ground, resisted hard, and finally got out of the position where she landed a hook on the exit.
For the next minute, the battle remained on the feet, with both fighters exchanging blows. Puja maintained her distance, and Teo remained in pursuit of getting into Puja's guard to get a takedown. She finally got Puja to clinch again, this time with a high kick. But, to Teo's surprise, it was Puja who first got a takedown using a hip-toss.
But Teo got back to her feet and made sure to continue the clinch. She pushed Puja back up to the cage and this time, finally, she got the takedown.
Now Puja was in trouble. She tried to twist hard to looses Teo's hold while bearing with the ground and pound. But Teo locked in an armbar and Puja had to tap. The fight was over with a minute left in the first round.
Puja had shown some good moments of skill and durability. But when the fight inevitably went to the ground, she was still found to be lacking.
"I felt I hadn't learned anything. I had miles to go before I could become a well rounded fighter," said Puja about how she reacted to her first fight at ONE Championship. "I didn't know the first thing about BJJ. I was concerned that not having an opportunity to build my ground game would leave me weak, and wouldn't allow me to develop my style for the better or try something different."
Luckily for her, she was soon invited to Evolve MMA in Singapore, where she got her first formal training in Brazilian Jiu Jiutsu from world class coaches. "The first thing I wanted to learn was armbar defence," Puja said.
Since she had not been injured in the fight, Puja did not take a break, and wanted to prepare for her next bout that she knew was coming in about three months. After the short training stint at Evolve, Puja returned to her old academy; resuming training, but this time with the added elements that she had picked up.
Soon enough, she was offered her next fight. Once again, it was against a hometown prospect with a solid jiu-jiutsu background. Jihin Radzuan, who was just 1-0 at the professional circuit at that time, was already being considered one of the top prospects in Malaysian MMA due to her amateur career. And all the fights she finished came either from ground-and-pound or armbar. Puja was to face Jihin in her hometown of Kuala Lumpur; and she was going to get a camp of less than three weeks to prepare for it.
Come fight night, within twenty seconds of the first round, Puja got taken down.
This time, she was more prepared for it. She rolled and resisted, ultimately managing to stand back up. And then she took Jihin down; although her opponent's strong guard didn't allow her to do much with it. The fight went back on the feet, and Jihin pressed Puja against the cage, trying to get her down. Puja dropped some heavy elbows on Jihin but the latter proved durable; picking Puja up and dropping her on the canvas.
This time, Puja kept Jihin in the guard and refused to let go until she managed to get back on her feet. A fierce clinch battle ensued, where both fighters tried to trip each other, threw elbows and knees. Then Jihin made a mistake; she took a knee to try to drag Puja to the canvas, but Puja partially resisted the move and ended up right on top of Jihin; but Jihin pulled guard and suddenly, with a quick roll, she was on top and Puja was forced to pull a half guard.
Knowing she had the upper hand on the ground, Jihin pushed the action. She moved to side control and tried to get at Puja's arm. Sensing the dreaded armbar coming, Puja resisted, pushing back with her legs and hands. Jihin quickly switched to a toehold but Puja got out of that, dropping a couple of hammerfists on her head.
When the bell sounded for the end of the round, both fighters were gasping for breath on the canvas, but everyone else in the arena was on their feet cheering. The contest unfolding was just the second bout on the preliminary card; but the action was of a high level.
At the start of the second round, Puja felled Jihin with a mighty kick to the leg. She unleashed a couple of fierce hammerfists on Jihin but the latter withstood them and managed to get on top, and hit the grounded Puja with some heavy knees. As Puja tried to push her back, Jihin suddenly got hold of Puja's arm and quickly attempted the armbar, and for a second it looked tight.
But within that moment Puja had turned with the pressure, wrenched her hand free and mounted her opponent. Jihin had a strong guard but Puja dropped some ground-and-pound nonetheless. And that gave Jihin a chance to grab Puja's arm and go for another armbar attempt; this one looked deep with significant bend on Puja's arm.
But Puja fought it with all her being. She rolled and pushed, almost lifted Jihin up to try to get the arm free. But her opponent did not let go. Puja moved into her guard, trying to ease the pressure off the arm. In response, Jihin wrapped her legs around Puja's neck; letting go of the armbar in favour of a triangle choke.
Puja didn't give up easy. She kept twisting and rolling, but eventually, as the choke grew tighter and Jihin kept hitting her trapped head with elbows, she had to tap.
"I was determined to escape the armbar, but didn't even realise when I got caught in the triangle. And that cost me the fight."
For the first time in her professional MMA career, Puja had lost two bouts in a row; something that changes the life of a fighter.
Back home, the doubts began pouring in from all sides. The relatives who opposed her choice of being an MMA fighter amplified their disapprovals. Even in the academy, she was hearing concerns from her seniors. Losing three in a row all but guaranteed her contract with ONE would not be extended. And being dropped by a reputed organization like ONE is a huge setback for a fighter's career; the competition to get on their roster is so hard, few ever get a second chance.
Puja now had a record of 3 wins and 3 losses, and her MMA career's progress was hanging by a thread.
And the only way she could turn things around, was to fight.
Puja came out fighting. As the bell rang for the second round, she walked right up to Bi, stepping in with high knee feints that Muay Thai fighters often use. She threw a probing high kick that Bi checked, and started to push ahead.
Sensing she was close to the ring ropes, Puja threw a big overhand right; Bi replied with a jab. Now just two feet from each other, both fighters started swinging wildly. Both landed. But one of Puja's punches startled Bi, and made her step back.
The crowd roared as Puja assumed her stance again, walking sideways towards Bi who took a couple of seconds to collect her thoughts and put together a plan.
The moved in a semi-circle, and Bi attacked, stinging Puja with her left hand, then moved back.
All of a sudden, the situation seemed to have reversed. Bi, who wanted nothing more than to close the distance on Puja, was suddenly more interested in outboxing, hoping Puja would step into her range and get hit.
But Puja didn't fall for that. She connected with a range-checking side kick, and when Bi tried to move in to counter, landed three strikes and moved out of the pocket, but not before Bi had landed a sharp elbow.
The two clinched. Puja landed a couple of jabs, and Bi managed to knee Puja in the face. After a few seconds, Bi kicked Puja on the side of her hips with as much force as she could muster. The impact made Bi lose balance and fall to the ground, while Puja didn't even flinch.
The two got close again. Bi landed a hook, Puja responded with a jab. As Bi tested range by standing closer, Puja landed an outside leg kick. The two again brawled up close, both swinging, both landing, neither letting up. The crowd screamed and moaned with each connecting blow.
Bi tried to duck under and move in for an upper cut but Puja checked her with two jabs. They clashed, once again mutually landing. Bi landed a heavy kick on Puja's belly, and both went into a clinch. When separated, Puja threw an angular kick that hit Bi in the face. Bi responded with a combination of punches as the round ended.
The sold out arena cheered in unison, and no one could have said for sure who had won that round. Both fighters were putting everything on the line, breaking each other's guard and trading blows. Like women possessed, neither was going down, or relenting.
It seemed Puja, who was feeling completely drained after the first round, had suddenly found a second wind on her sail.
Puja's do-or-die third bout at ONE Championship was to be against Indonesian contender Peiscilla Gaol. She was coming in with a decent professional record of 5-3, all of them in ONE. She was riding a two fight win streak and had looked good in her last six fights; winning two of them by submission and one by knockout. She had lost to both Tiffany Teo and Jihin Razduan; the two women who had beaten Puja in ONE. And just like Puja, she too was a Wushu champion in her country. So in terms of MMA math, the match-up made sense.
But that wasn't the only common thread Puja and Priscilla had in their career. Priscilla, in her first two bouts at ONE, had lost by stoppage. She was on the verge of having her MMA career being cut short if she lost another one; and from there she came back strong, winning the next three bouts by stoppage, earning her keep in ONE Championship.
She had been to the same dark depths of doubt as an MMA fighter that Puja was going through now, as she prepared for the fight that could very well change the course of her life, for better or worse.
She knew she had to work hard on her ground game. But she still didn't have dedicated sparring partners or training space. So she called up whoever was available, whether at her academy, or nearby gyms; and trained wherever she could, twice a day.
One day she would work on her striking at the Wushu academy. Next day she would focus on strength training at a nearby gym. Then she would have a Brazilian Jiu Jiutsu player available for a roll somewhere else and show up there. Sometimes she would just train in a park. She didn't have a cage available to train at, but her seniors at the academy put cushions on the floor to simulate a canvas and approximate size of the famous ONE Circle.
No matter the place or partner, Puja kept training obsessively until fight week came.
19th January 2019 was to be the day that would determine whether she proved herself as a contender at an international level or not. Puja travelled a few days ahead to Jakarta, as fully prepared as she could be, ready to leave it all on the cage no matter the outcome.
When she made the walk, she found herself facing the most hostile crowd she had ever experienced in her MMA career. They yelled at her as she walked towards the cage, saying things she could not understand. But she didn't have to know the words to know what they represented; to her, they echoed all the doubters that had told her she wouldn't make it in ONE Championship, that she had bitten off more than she could chew.
As usual, Puja, facing a much taller opponent with longer reach, established her distance control throwing kicks and punches that Priscilla dodged. After a few seconds of feints, Priscilla landed an outside kick, Puja responded with a jab.
Determined to keep her distance, Puja traded blows with Priscilla, using leg kicks to reach her opponent who was often out of punching range. Priscilla was using her hands well, exploiting the greater reach. To avoid that, Puja resorted to a sting-and-move strategy that demonstrated improved agility on her part.
A minute and a half in, Puja was near the cage, and Priscilla tried to close in with punches. This time, Puja did not duck out. She stood and countered, forcing Priscilla to step back. Puja was gaining confidence.
Priscilla switched to a side kick, and for a moment, Puja managed to grab onto her leg. The slight disruption it caused to Priscilla's balance was enough to open a window for Puja, and she duly capitalized on it, landing two quick jabs. Priscilla kicked her in the belly, and Puja just ate it up; countering with a hook. Priscilla threw a leg kick, and Puja answered with a combination.
Puja, who had begun the fight range-checking with kicks, had turned the table on Priscilla; who was now bleeding from the nose. Wary of Puja's hands, Priscilla was staying away, using kicks to look for a way in.
Now Puja was on the hunt. She landed two side kicks on Priscilla's upper body and sent her hurrying backwards. Priscilla tried to sneak closer, and Puja sent her back again, combining an overhand right with a low leg kick.
Then, Priscilla managed to sneak in and clinch, hoping to change the game. But she got more than what she bargained for; Puja tripped her onto the canvas, took top position and hammerfisted Priscilla into giving up the back.
Puja was pummelling Priscilla with blows to the head when the round ended. And the crowd that was booing her roundly a few minutes ago was now cheering wildly. Somehow, Puja had made Priscilla's hometown crowd her own.
The second round began with Priscilla throwing a kick, then quickly retreating as Puja sought to counter with punches. Then she suddenly changed levels and got hold of Puja, looking for a double leg takedown. But Puja stayed on her feet, locking Priscilla's head with a guillotine. They pressed up against the cage and traded knees until Puja broke free.
As Priscilla tried to get close looking for another window to shoot, Puja caught her with a high kick, exactly on the nose where she had opened up a cut with punches in the last round. The bleeding started again. Priscilla tried to retaliate with a low kick but tasted Puja's right hand again.
The two circled each other, trading kicks and punches. Puja appeared to be the stronger of the two, landing the more impactful blows. Priscilla ducked down and shot for a single leg takedown; Puja got pressed against the cage but once again she had Priscilla's head in a guillotine. Priscilla, this time, managed to slip her head out of it; but Puja, too, managed to break freee from the position. Stalemate.
Once again they exchanged blows, with Puja getting the better of the exchange. Priscilla's nose was getting bloodier and she knew she had to get past the striking; soon enough she was in the clinch again, and finally, she managed to take Puja down with a trip. The crowd leapt to its feet again, back to cheering for their hometown girl.
On her back, Puja tightened up, holding Priscilla's hand and restricting her chances to land ground and pound as much as she could. But Priscilla moved quickly and got Puja in a kneebar. Puja grimaced through the pain and managed to get her leg free just before the round ended.
For the first time, Priscilla felt she was in the fight. The MMA bouts in ONE do not follow a round-by-round scoring system, so even if there was no stoppage, if she managed to end the bout strong, she could win in the judges' scorecards. At the start of the third round, Priscilla came out kicking; capitalizing on her reach advantage to get some early damange. Pua countered with punches, but soon, Priscilla scored a double leg takedown. On her way down, Puja once again got Priscilla's head in a guillotine, but the latter broke free.
Priscilla moved to top position, bearing with the fists Puja was throwing from the bottom. She moved into Puja's guard and took her time, working hard to free up space and land ground-and-pound. But Puja stayed strong in her guard, limiting the damage Priscilla was doing.
But with a minute to go, Priscilla dragged Puja to the fence and took her back, sinking in a chokehold. Now it was Puja's turn to survive as the seconds winded down. And just before the bell sounded, Puja once again managed to break free of the choke; a move that would prove crucial.
The bout was over, and the arena exploded with cheers.
The judges, however, had a job in their hands. If the fight was scored round by round, Puja would surely win thanks to her performance in the first two rounds, proving to be the superior fighter on the feet. But the bout was to be scored as a whole, and Priscilla finished both the second and third rounds in dominant fashion.
But here was the kicker: even though Puja had trouble on the ground, she managed to escapte the chokeholds before each round ended. She was never saved by the bell. The judges couldn't say she was a goner.
The decision could go either way. Everything Puja had worked for to get to this stage, and where she would go from here, hung on the opinions of three persons. Puja stood next to the referee, looking down and biting her lips, as announcer Dominic Lou read out the decisions; one by one.
The first judge scored the bout for Priscilla. The second one awarded the win to Tomar. It would be a split decision, no matter which way it went. Puja closed her eyes, waiting for the decisive third judge's verdict.
"Your winner by split decision," said Dominic Lou, taking his time. "From... the... blue corner..."
It took Puja a full second to realise that it was her in the blue corner, with the blue tapes around her gloves. As the referee raised her hand, she leapt up in the air; not bothering to get her feet straight as she fell to the ground.
For once, every ounce of energy had left her body. She lay still, hiding her face on the canvas. The crowd was silent; the result was a major upset. An underdog fighter from India, with no prior win in ONE Championship, had bested the hometown hero.
When the officials got Puja back on her feet, she was in tears. She accepted the winners' medal, barely able to say a word. She had done it. She was no longer a failure on the global stage. She had proved she could walk into hostile conditions and come out on top. She now had a win in one of the biggest martial arts promotions in the world.
All the doubters at home and aborad, all the talk of her being a cannon fodder to put on a show for the stadium crowd by putting over the local star, she had proved them all wrong. She had earned her place at ONE Championship.
How exactly was she feeling at that moment? Puja pauses for a second to collect her thought and answers, "For the first time since starting MMA, I felt like I had really done something worthwhile."
Back home, she got a hero's welcome. The family members who had told her not to follow MMA were suddenly full of pride at her achievement. Even those who had predicted a loss for her were singing a different tune, "People who said you wouldn't be able to do anything, they were suddenly saying we knew all along you'd win. I said, you told me I couldn't do it and I should just focus on my Wushu. They were like, yeah but we also knew you'd win this one."
Suddenly, Puja's spell at ONE Championship was being seen under a new light. Her ground game, rusty at first due to lack of BJJ coaching at home, had improved marginally and she had never been dominated on the feet. Like many other fighters who did not have an established MMA gym to back them, she was learning on the job, getting in trouble but steadily improving. Her status had moved from cannon fodder to contender.
And with that, it was inevitable that she would get a higher quality opponent and a bigger challenge next time. And that's how it turned out; a few months later, she got picked to fight Bi Nguyen, in a Muay Thai bout.
As Puja got up from her chair, fists up ready to engage Bi Nguyen in the last round, she knew the fight was going to be a close one. In her MMA career, she had never been knocked out, and Bi got TKO'd as an amateur four years ago, never showing a sign of breaking since. The first two rounds could go to either fighter, and it could be that they had been awarded one apiece by the judges. So it all came down to the final three minutes.
Bi opened the exchange, landing a kick and a combination. Puja responded with a half-punch half-push that knocked Bi off her feet. It was on.
Again, Bi tried to land some straight kicks, and got put to the ground again by Puja. Retaliating, Bi caught Puja with two solid jabs. They clinched and Bi pushed Puja to the ropes; blasting her with knees. The knees hurt, visibly. With each blow, Puja buckled, and ended up on her knees. A dominant knockdown.
The two exchanged blows again, and before long, Puja was again on the ground. Slowly but surely, Bi was winning the round.
Puja looked to her corner for advice. At this point she was surviving. They clinched again, but Bi tripped Puja straight to the floor. As they clinched again, Bi landed a downward elbow; and as she pulled her arm back up, her elbow grazed Puja's forehead and a big cut opened up.
The referee paused the bout to let the doctor take a look at Puja's wound. But Puja was adamant to continue. She wasn't going to let a cut lose the bout with just seconds to go in the last round.
The action resumed for the last time, and this time Puja, who had been able to take some helpful breaths during the pause, went all out to end strong. She threw cautionary kicks, landed a good couple of punches. Bi answered with jabs that hit Puja right on the button. They clinched, kneed, and traded blows, and just before the bell sounded, Puja fell to the floor again, exhausted, drawing deep breaths.
Bi raised her hands to claim the triumph. Puja quietly walked to her corner. She had started well, but as the fight progressed, lost her grip over the contest. The weakness and lack of her normal cardio due to the illness a week before the fight had played a decisive role in her performance.
But although Bi had finished strong and clearly taken the third round, the judges had a more complex job in their hands. This bout, being under Muay Thai rules, had to be scored per round. And Puja's strong showing in the first two rounds made it difficult to judge.
And it turned out to be another split decision. Puja listened to the verdicts; her cut open again, a trail of blood trickling down her forehead. When the third judge awarded the decisive verdict in favour of Bi, Puja was disappointed but not surprised. The two warriors embraced and parted with mutual greetings.
Puja had lost again, but somehow it did not look like a thumb down for her career. She went in with a veteran in a sport she had never competed in before. She took the fight on short notice and overcame illness to make it to the ring. And she got awarded the win by one of the judges. If the ONE matchmakers had made this fight to establish a new contender in the Atomweight division, they had, perhaps unexpectedly, established two.
In a way few could have seen coming, even in defeat, Puja had caused an upset.
The victory for Bi Nguyen meant that she was ready for a contendership fight in the ONE Atomweight division (the 52 kg / 115 lb weight class).
She was matched up next with Stamp Fairtex, the Thai superstar who held the championship belts in both Muay Thai and Kickboxing in Atomweight, was also undefeated in professional MMA, and was slowly gearing up to challenge Angela Lee, the reiging MMA champ in the division.
So it was Bi's turn to take on the undefeated challenger, and it turned out to be a good contest. The bout went all three rounds, but Stamp Fairtex was the better fighter without a doubt; and got the victory by unanimous decision. It was just her third fight in professional MMA, and for the first time, the two sport champ went the distance.
It was clear that in order to be a proper threat to the veteran Angela Lee (A black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jiutsu who has fought 12 times, never lost at the 115 lb weight class, been the champ since 2016 and defended the belt 4 times, more than any other reigning ONE champion), Stamp needed to face another more challengers to get her the competitive experience she required and establish her as the undisputed number one contender in the division.
So, to give her a durable opponent in her hometown, it made sense to pick the woman who had, against all odds, took her fight with Bi Nguyen to a split decision. Puja Tomar, ever so willing to play the antagonist to the hometown hero, is now getting a shot at a double champ striker; facing Stamp Fairtex at the Impact Arena on the 10th of January.
Is she ready? Days ahead of her first bout with a world champion opponent, Puja feels she is better prepared to take on the challenge than ever, "I feel like I've trained much more than the previous fights. Because even when I'm doing my job as a trainer, it feels like I'm going through my own training. A few seniors are really helping me out, I have even managed to spend a good amount of time training BJJ."
She has still been putting in her time as a trainer in the Delhi gym. But this time, she has had a full camp to prepare her for this fight, allowing her to actully add and implement new elements in her game. "My life has changed, I have moved a bit away from wushu to some extent," she says. I'm splitting my time between different disciplines within MMA and finally living the life of a Mixed Martial Artist. I am fighting at a very high level, so I feel compelled to work harder to match up to it and try to win."
But not being part of a dedicated fight team is something that still holds her back, "I still have to look around for training and sparring partners from different sports. If I find a good boxer, I try to get them to train a little boxing with me. If I find a BJJ player, I ask for a bit of practice on the mat. There's no consistency in the training because I don't have steady training partners, and most of them are not from MMA background so they don't provide you insights into the little variations of the sports that you see in the cage; like boxing in MMA is different from pure boxing. It leaves a bit of a gap in the preparations."
She pauses again to think, then adds, "I wish I got a little more time to prepare. But that's not something I'm going to get hung up on. I feel like being chosen to fight a superstar like Stamp Fairtex is a big thing in itself. I'm grateful to have this platform and opportunity."
It's this willingness to walk into adverse situations that has come to define Puja Tomar's MMA career. Ever since she has entered ONE Championship, she has been an underdog in each fight. By now, she has made a habit of it. So going up against one of the most talented martial artists in the ONE roster doesn't feel any to her.
On paper, Stamp Fairtex is better in every way. She has had a long Muay Thai career, and beaten world class strikers both in Muay Thai and Kickboxing. In MMA, she has knocked out an opponent and submitted another, proving she is good at the ground game too. Almost everyone who follows the sport would pick her as the winner. But Puja Tomar, as a competitor, excels in situations like this. It's her durability and penchant for producing surprises that makes this fight compelling.
Asked how she will approach the fight, Puja says, "I am from a striking background, just like her. Common wisdom is that Muay Thai translates much better into MMA than Wushu. But I don't think Wushu is a weak martial art, so I'll stick to making it the core of my strategy. I have also worked hard to improve my ground game. I know Stamp is a blue belt in Brazilian Jiu Jiutsu. So she is tough everywhere. But I think I'll give her a tough competition. Usually my instinct is to go for an early finish, but since she's such a tough opponent, I feel this bout may last all three rounds."
Her last two outings have helped Puja gain a sizeable fan following both in India and abroad. Then, Ritu Phogat's debut in ONE Championship brought a lot more attention to the sport, which has rubbed off on this bout. Puja says she is aware of the increased attention from fans and the added responsibly that comes with it, "It's a good news for all us Indian fighters that Ritu Phogat has transitioned into MMA. She has a great wrestling base, and everyone knows the Phogat family in India so she's bringing a lot of spotlight and new fans to MMA... I will give my all in this fight, I'll go beyond 100%. Everyone watching at home, I hope you'll support me and pray for me. All I can say is I'll leave no stone unturned and try to win."
Things are changing for Indian MMA fighters; especially in ONE Championship. The promotion is investing heavily in the Indian market and plans to have its first show on Indian soil in 2020.
Almost every flagship event in ONE Championship now features an Indian or Indian-origin fighter; with the likes of Arjan Singh Bhullar, Gurdarshan Singh Mangat, Rahul Raju and Roshan Mainam Luwang already registering significant wins in their divisions. Roshan and Ritu are training at Evolve MMA, one of the best martial arts gyms in Asia.
Slowly, the approach to Indian fighters is changing; from regulary being pitted against hometown heroes, they are now being groomed for their own moment in front of a cheering crowd; the pioneers that will carry the first ever global MMA event in India.
Puja is waiting for her chance to be in that position. And she wants a tough opponent on that night; preferably a foreigner, "I'd prefer to fight a fight somebody from another country, especially if the event is happening in India. It's intriguing for our fans to see Indian fighters taking on somebody from another country. But I'm not into turning down opportunities, so if it has to happen - as a title eliminator, for example - I think I should take the fight, no matter who the opponent is."
Keeping the quick-moving nature of the ONE Atomweight division in mind, it's not that hard to do the math: if both Puja and Ritu win one more fight, they will be in contention for a future title shot, and it's not unthinkable that they may be pitted against each other to determine who gets to face the champion. Can that happen in ONE's marquee Indian event? Who knows. According to Puja, however, that's thinking too far ahead, "Right now all my focus is on this fight. Afterwards I'll try to refine my training schedule and get even better in every aspect of MMA. I want to put together a dedicated camp of 3-4 months where I can get guidance to plug the holes in my game. After that I'll think about taking the next fight."
So, for now, Puja is set to be play the antagonist once again; in a co-main event, no less, right before a Muay Thai world title fight. Both globally and in India, this will be her most viewed fight. And she feels she has a statement to make this time, "Indian fighters get a bad rep outside that they aren't very good. So I feel that chip on my shoulder to represent my colleagues too, and that happens every time I compete, not just this particular fight."
And if that's a point she wants to make, there can't be a better opponent than Stamp Fairtex. Of her three MMA fights, two have been against Indian opponents. Stamp won both by stoppage, knocking out Rishi Shinde and submitting Asha Roka. Puja is going to be her third Indian opponent in four fights; the pattern is out there for everyone to see.
So once again, against all odds, she will make the walk on Friday night. She will once again face a hometown hero as the underdog. She will, yet again, walk into a perfect storm of challenges. She's been there and seen it all before.
It's not easy to take Puja 'The Cyclone' Tomar by surprise; not any more.