It’s ’bout time: Rudraneil Sengupta writes on Puja Tomar’s UFC win - Hindustan Times

It’s ’bout time: Rudraneil Sengupta writes on Puja Tomar’s UFC win

ByRudraneil Sengupta
Jun 15, 2024 05:29 PM IST

The 28-year-old has become the first Indian to win such a bout. It’s not her win, she said, through tears, but a statement ‘for all Indian fans and fighters’.

Puja Tomar bellowed inside the octagon in Louisville, every muscle in her compact, densely fast-twitch-fibred body recruited in service of that primal scream, eyes bulging, veins popping, a scream to put fear and foreboding into the heart of her opponent, Brazil’s Rayanne Amanda dos Santos.

With great flurries of punch combinations and explosive kicks, Puja Tomar beat Rayanne Amanda dos Santos of Brazil at the Ultimate Fighting Championship in Louisville. (Getty Images) PREMIUM
With great flurries of punch combinations and explosive kicks, Puja Tomar beat Rayanne Amanda dos Santos of Brazil at the Ultimate Fighting Championship in Louisville. (Getty Images)

On June 9, in the city made famous by Muhammad Ali, Tomar, the hard-punching 28-year-old from Budhana in Uttar Pradesh, made history by becoming the first Indian fighter to win a bout at the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), MMA’s biggest competition.

“This win is not my win,” she said post-fight, tears streaming down, “this win is for all Indian fans and Indian fighters, because people think Indian fighters did not stand anywhere…”

Indian fighters have been making slow inroads into the highly competitive, lucrative and fast-growing world of MMA. Ritu Phogat, from India’s first family of wrestling, was a pioneer, the first Indian to sign for the Singapore-based MMA tournament One Championship, where Asia’s best fight. This year, Delhi-based Anshul Jubli became the first Indian to bag a UFC contract—Tomar is the second—for five fights. Though both fighters have a non-disclosure agreement about the nature of their contracts, Jubli gave a hint to how it transforms the life of an aspiring fighter: “it has taken care of years of debt and removed all my financial problems.”

Jubli was outclassed in his UFC debut earlier this year by an American journeyman past his prime, which did not augur well for India’s presence at the championship. Which gives Tomar’s win—in which she pulled out all the stops with great flurries of punch combinations, and explosive kicks—an added importance. It was a statement, like she said, “for all Indian fighters.”

Indian fighters need this because this is a nation in love with martial sports. In 2008, Sushil Kumar won India’s first Olympic medal in wrestling in more than 50 years, and Vijender Singh won India’s first Olympic medal in boxing. Those two medals started a wave of interest in fighting sports in rural, and tier 1 and 2 towns across India. Mary Kom’s 2012 Olympic medal in boxing and Sakshi Malik’s 2016 medal in wrestling brought gender barriers crashing down as more and more women began to pick up boxing, wrestling, judo, wushu and MMA.

That wave shows no signs of abating. Its effects, especially for women, can be seen in the boxing and wrestling contingents headed for the Paris Olympics: Indian women have qualified for five out of six weight classes in wrestling, and four out of six in boxing, including two categories in which Indians are the reigning world champions.

A professional fighting championship like the UFC or One Championship offers yet another avenue for success for this rising tide of women fighters.

Back to that scream, the fiery challenge an embattled Tomar threw out to her opponent en route to victory.

“I’ve always been aggressive since I was a child,” Tomar said. “In fact, my aggression can be a problem because it’s sometimes better to have a cool head during a fight. So it’s 50-50, sometimes good for me, sometimes bad.”

To understand the aggression though, you have to look at Tomar’s childhood. She was born the third of three daughters in an extended family of farmers in Muzaffarnagar. “From the beginning, my relatives would tell my parents that their life was ruined because they had no sons,” she said.

Going against his family, Tomar’s father decided to start his own business and become financially independent. Within a few years, his tractor business took off, and he and his family could buy their own house. Then, when Tomar was 7, her father died in a tractor accident.

“It turned our life upside down,” Tomar said. “Things looked very bleak, and relatives and neighbours said, Now what will they do? They don’t even have a single man in the house.’”

This is when Tomar became a fighter. With her mother’s unstinting support, she took all her rage, her grief, and those patriarchal omens and turned them into striking capabilities.

Just ask anyone who has been at the receiving end of one of her solar-plexus kicks.

(To reach Rudraneil Sengupta with feedback, email

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