Brewing up a storm: Puja Tomar’s long-winding journey to the top

Many trained. A lot of them tried. And almost all of them failed when it mattered, except a certain 30-year-old. 

Puja Tomar defied the odds to become the first-ever Indian MMA fighter to register a win in the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship). ‘The Cyclone’ achieved this milestone at UFC Louisville, where she secured a split-decision victory over Brazil’s Rayanne dos Santos in the strawweight division a few weeks ago. 

“It was an amazing feeling. I badly wanted to win the bout for my India. MMA has been there in India for quite some time, and people have performed well. But for some reason, there are no fighters in the UFC. Many tried but were sadly unsuccessful. So that win made me feel as if I had won a medal in the Olympics,” Puja said, with a beaming smile, in an exclusive interaction. 

Anshul Jubli was the last Indian to have a go at the UFC. He performed exceptionally well in the Road to the UFC, a qualifying event for the UFC, and grabbed an opportunity to fight in the UFC with a second-round knockout win over Jeka Seragih. 

However, his debut against Mike Breeden of the United States did not go as planned. Anshul dominated the first round and continued overpowering Breeden until halfway through the second round. But when Breeden started to move swiftly, Anshul went into a defensive stance. Breeden saw this as an opportunity and started taunting the Indian, who eventually went on to win the fight with a knockout via strikes in the third round. 

Apart from Jubli, Bharat Kandare and Canada-based Arjan Singh Bhullar have represented India in the UFC, but failed to register a win. 

Such is the pressure that a stage like the UFC puts an athlete under. But Puja says otherwise. “Looking at it as a fight didn’t put me under any pressure. But I had this constant rage to win a fight, at least for the flag I represent. I’ve seen a lot of fights like this and have won championships. So the bout was like any other fight, but I felt a slight pressure to win it for India,” she said. 

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“That’s why, after the win, I urged other fighters in India to try and fight in the UFC and bring glory to India,” she added.

The UFC win is just another feather in the cap for Puja, who is managed by IOS Sports & Entertainment. She turned heads with her technique in the ONE Championship and went on to participate in the Matrix Fight Night, a promotion founded by Bollywood actor Tiger Shroff. 

The Uttar Pradesh-born fighter moved up the ladder and tasted success by winning the strawweight title bout against the USA’s Bi Nguyen. She then defended her title via knockout against Russia’s Anastasia Feofanova, and that is when the UFC came knocking on her door.

When asked about her journey to the UFC, she explained: “I knew when MFN was started, there would be a steady rise in MMA’s popularity in India. MFN was the promotion that kickstarted my career. Yes, I started to fight to get financially stable, but MFN provided a lot more than financial stability, and evidently, my career took off.”

But her road to the top has been filled with speed bumps. The first of which was being born as a female in a country like India, where opportunities in combat sports dip drastically compared to her male counterparts. 

“Getting validation from my family was the most difficult part. If it were boxing, it would’ve been different since people know about the sport, but MMA is different. They didn’t want me to get injuries or cuts on my face. My mom was my only support system. She faced a lot of ridicule from everyone, but she didn’t let that affect me. It was difficult, but you gotta do what you gotta do,” Puja said. 

Puja lost her dad at a very young age, and her mother had to manage everything on her own. To help her mother make ends meet, Puja had to work on their farms, and the hours that she put there, have helped her improve her endurance. 

“After my dad passed away, I wanted to help my mom in some way as she had to cope with everything alone. I didn’t expect that would make me much stronger. I went on to participate and win the Wushu national championship. So I guess all the ghee I ate and the milk I drank helped me become stronger and made me who I am today,” she said.  

Puja reveals that the switch from Wushu to MMA happened purely based on monetary benefits. “Despite being a national champion, Wushu did not help me get financial stability. I was contemplating quitting combat sports, but a league director approached me and explained about MMA and guaranteed proper remuneration. That’s when I decided to give it a shot, and I’m grateful for that,” Puja said. 

Puja isn’t certain when she will enter the octagon next in the UFC, but one thing will happen for sure, she reckons: clinching the championship belt and bringing glory to India.

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