Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

How MMA's Puja Tomar fought her way to an UFC win

Tomar is the first Indian ever to win a bout in the prestigious American MMA promotion

Published: Jun 21, 2024 10:32:29 AM IST
Updated: Jun 21, 2024 10:42:27 AM IST

Puja Tomar of India reacts after her victory against Rayanne dos Santos of Brazil in a strawweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at KFC YUM! Center on June 08, 2024 in Louisville, Kentucky.
Image: Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images Puja Tomar of India reacts after her victory against Rayanne dos Santos of Brazil in a strawweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at KFC YUM! Center on June 08, 2024 in Louisville, Kentucky. Image: Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images
 
‘Where there is a will there is a way’ is an apt maxim for Puja Tomar.
 
When she was young, Tomar watched boys wrestle on a muddy field in Uttar Pradesh’s Budhana village, watching and learning every move keenly. Now 28, she has become the first Indian MMA (mixed martial arts) fighter to win a bout in the UFC (Ultimate fighting Championships, a prestigious American MMA platform). But her journey has been anything but easy.
 

At 7, Tomar lost her father to an accident. As she was growing up, she had to help her mother out in the fields to meet household expenses. Yet, somewhere, that became a blessing in disguise. “Through this work, I became physically stronger without even realising it. Working in the fields not only helped me contribute to our household expenses but helped me gain immense physical strength. It is amazing how physical labour can turn a person stronger without them even noticing it,” Tomar told Forbes India in an exclusive interview.
 
Outside her house in Budhana was a small field where kids practised karate. “There was no proper training ground in my village, just an open field where boys used to train. And I would watch them and learn the moves as we did not have much money to train formally. I would also watch Jackie Chan movies, and practice some moves when I would come home. This kindled the interest of fighting in me,” adds Tomar.
 
She also fought against stereotypes—prejudiced thinking like girls don’t fight—but it was her mother who stood behind her like a rock. “My mother never stopped me. Despite tough times, she raised three successful daughters—turned my sisters into doctors, and me into an MMA fighter. For me, my mother is my hero,” says Tomar.
 
“The road to the UFC was very difficult and the journey was filled with numerous hurdles. Coming from a village in Uttar Pradesh where girls were not valued, being born a girl was considered a great sin. My family also wanted a male child, so I always strived to dream big and achieve something that even a boy had not done,” adds Tomar, who signed up for the UFC promotion in October.

During her bout against Brazilian Rayanne dos Santos in Women’s Strawweight (52kg). Tomar walked out to a popular Indian popular song while carrying the Tricolour, and eventually secured the historic win. At the at UFC Louisville 2024 on June 9, the farmer’s daughter clinched by fight by a split decision. The judges scored the fight 30-27, 27-30, and 29-28 in favour of Tomar, who caused damage to Santos by running, yelling, and kicking until the final bell rang, and then sank into tears of joy before delivering a stirring speech.

Puja Tomar of India reacts after her victory against Rayanne dos Santos of Brazil in a strawweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at KFC YUM! Center on June 08, 2024 in Louisville, Kentucky.
Image: Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images (L-R) Puja Tomar of India kicks Rayanne dos Santos of Brazil in a strawweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at KFC YUM! Center on June 08, 2024 in Louisville, Kentucky. Image: Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images
 
“My motivation has always been that I am playing the hardest and toughest game in the world, and no one from India has won in UFC so far. Winning that fight was my motivation,” she says. “When I won the fight, I felt a sense of accomplishment. It reminded me of a time my father was saddened by the fact that he had three daughters. Winning the fight made me realise that if my father were here today, he would have been thrilled to see me succeed in the Octagon.”
 
Known as “The Cyclone”, Tomar was a former five-time national wushu champion before she became an MMA sensation. “Many people believed that I had aggression within me. Whenever I fought, I would strike with great force and play with anger. It was from there that I earned my nickname,” she says.
 
Tomar, though, doesn’t want to remain a one-trick pony and believes this is just the beginning. Among her fans is her coach Mike Ikelei, under whom she trained at Indonesia’s Soma Fight Club and who put her through a rigorous two-month training schedule ahead of the UFC fight. “Puja is not the easiest to get hold of—with an eye on the task, she puts her head down and trains with sheer dedication,” Ikelei told Forbes India.
 
He adds: “We put a lot of preparation into this. At the UFC level, small mistakes can determine the outcome. We tailored her training for two months. She worked with four grappling coaches daily, focusing on specific techniques to keep her out of the clinch and off the floor. I provided padding for her nearly every day. Our strength and conditioning coach, Angkor, worked with her 2-3 days a week, incorporating hypoxia training (underwater training) to improve her breathing. We also spent a lot of time watching videos of her opponent to analyse and work on details.”
 
What makes Tomar stand out? “Her heart,” says Ikelei. “The girl can fight, and fight hard. She has a very good read in the fight, she can see the punches and she knows where to fire her weapons back. It’s a very hard skill to develop but she has it. And she’s just super tough—by stopping three of Santos's takedowns she showed all the work had been done.”
 
Ikelei himself headed to Delhi's IGI airport to pick up Tomar, who arrived in India on Wednesday evening to reunite with her family. She returned to her hometown in style, aboard a Thar decked with a Tricolour and fitted with loudspeakers. At the airport, her fans greeted her with gifts and flowers, sharing high-fives and embraces. At her hometown too, she was met with thunderous cheer from friends and family. 

Also read: My self-belief helped me overcome tough times: Sakshi Malik
 
“My coach has worked very hard on me. I have also told my coach that where I come from, girls are not liked. What my coach meant was for me to remember that I have come from a small village to be here [in Octagon], and to prove to everyone how much passion I have inside me. This motivated me a lot, and I thought to myself I have to win at any cost to prove my mettle,” Tomar remarked.
 
Ahead of the much-awaited fight, Tomar’s sparring partner Himanshu Kaushik, also an MMA fighter, flew straight from his win in Karate Combat in Dubai to coach and partner with her. “Our biggest asset partner-wise was Himanshu. He’s a long-time friend of Puja, but he really stepped up and put his body on the line for this fight. I credit a lot of her win to Himanshu’s ability to be the right training partner,” Ikelei says.

Puja Tomar of India reacts after her victory against Rayanne dos Santos of Brazil in a strawweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at KFC YUM! Center on June 08, 2024 in Louisville, Kentucky.
Image: Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images Puja T with her coach, sparring partner Himanhsu K. Image: Puja Tomar/Special Arrangement
 
“Puja and I were wushu athletes, and later, as I transitioned to MMA, I led her too. We took up MMA at a time it was still new in the country and scientific training systems were unknown to us. We hustled through, defied all odds and made it to the ONE Championship (a multinational combat sports promotion),” says Kaushik. “Some people blamed both her and me for switching from wushu to MMA. I always put an extra effort into her because they told her I was going to ruin her career.”
 
Adds Kaushik: “Every fight camp is different for us and we thoroughly planned for her UFC debut. We worked on playing her strengths in the bout and defending going to the ground, since her opponent was a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) black belt. Together we refine techniques, test strategies, and improve overall proficiency.”
 
Tomar began her career in small tournaments before attracting the attention of major players and MMA scouts. With her base strong in wushu, she quickly rose through the ranks. She began her professional MMA career in 2013 with Super Fight League (SPL) and has an overall 9-4 record. In 2017, she made her ONE Championship debut, but in 2020 was dismissed from it following three defeats in four matches. “A lot of people try to point to her losses in the ONE Championship but that was over five years ago. She’s changed so much, she really found herself on the Matrix Fight Night (MFN, an Indian MMA platform) platform. That’s where she matured as a fighter,” says Ikelei.
 
In September 2021, Tomar made her debut in MFN and defeated Jojo Rajkumari. At MFN 12 in 2023, she would go on to win four straight bouts and bagged the strawweight title by beating Russia’s Anastasia Feofanova via corner stoppage. Known for her tactical fighting style, Tomar’s impressive performances have solidified her position as one of the most skilled fighters in her weight class. “The next step is to continue fighting, to overcome any shortcomings, and to work hard to bring the UFC belt to India,” she says. The champion fighter is now savouring her time at home before returning to Bali in a few weeks.
 
Says coach Ikelei: “I’m hoping that more Indians understand that having athletes in what is truly a global sport is an amazing thing. It is the fastest-growing sport in the world, and UFC is the Mecca. Having fighters in there is like being at the finals in the Olympics.”