We first met the 29-year-old at the Kempegowda National Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) Championship 2021, held in October 2021 in Bangalore. The 5-foot, 46-kilo Sarita, who walked towards us with her coach Chaitanya Gavali, didn’t match our expectations of a National MMA women’s champion. Certainly not of someone who’d just beaten a 58-kilo opponent hours ago to become one of the two women MMA fighters to represent India in the Atom Weight Category at the Global Association of Mixed Martial Arts (GAMMA) World Championship (WC) to be held Berlin, Germany, in December.
Given the cacophony of the audiences’ cheers for the remaining fights in the arena, we plan a video rendezvous later. But before we leave, we manage to ask her, “What are your chances at the WC?”
“I’ll win a medal,” she returns. Suddenly, the girl we’d met a few minutes ago — introverted and looking shy to the point of tears —disappears, her body language of a fighter, a glimmer settling in her eyes.
How it began
Over our planned video call, we enquire how a shy Maharashtrian girl like her chose MMA. “For safety,” she replies.
Sarita, the last of the four kids in her family, was born to a mum who’d left her well-to-do Koli family for a man she loved. The man soon revealed his alcohol-dependencies, and one day, left home. Devastated but unwilling to return to her family, Sarita’s mum, Kalpana Rathod, took up cooking and cleaning jobs to care for her kids. While her oldest child, a son, left home after marriage, Kalpana’s third child, another son, became a trouble magnet. His brawls often landed him in jail. Soon, his enemies began showing up at home, armed, endangering his two sisters and mum.
“I didn’t want to live in fear,” recounts Sarita who began looking for self-defence classes to protect her mum, sister and herself. In November 2017, despite her family’s objections, the BSc IT graduate from Bhavans College in Mumbai enrolled for kickboxing training in Borivali, Mumbai.
Trial and errors
Sarita had been working since she graduated in 2013, and in 2017, she worked in a Canada-based diamond company at the Bandra–Kurla Complex. With enough to self-finance her lessons, she’d go to work in Bandra morning and then take the local to Borivali for her kickboxing classes where she’d train for two hours before returning home. Her dedication inspired many in the class, and she made some thick friends.
But the training and the infrastructure there were poor. Following suggestions from friends in her class, Sarita boarded her very first flight with a student visa to Thailand, to learn Muay Thai. That was in August 2019.
There, her trainer, Kru Ten, prepared her for a fight too. “I had to last in the ring for 2 minutes across 5 rounds each. I fought but wanted to give up; my coach ensured I didn’t,” recollects Sarita. She lost that fight.
Back to square one
Dejected and with her visa expiring, Sarita flew back home by the end of the year, determined to train in Muay Thai. Once again, a good friend from her earlier gym helped her. “He guided me to ‘Ultimate Fitness & MMA’, a gym owned by Chaitanya Gavali,” she recounts.
But Chaitanya — a fitness trainer, two-time MMA World Champion and Purple Belt holder in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Judoka with several medals at international bouts — taught MMA, a combination of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, kickboxing, taekwondo, grappling, wrestling, etc., not Muay Thai. Trusting her friend’s judgment, Sarita still chose to train under Chaitanya.
Sarita joined Chaitanya’s gym in early 2020. Well-equipped, it had great trainers and a great vibe; everyone worked like a team, encouraging and supporting each other.
The real grind
If the training standards elsewhere, including Thailand, disappointed Sarita, Chaitanya’s gym overwhelmed her. “Right from the start, I was thrown off my comfort zone. I wanted to quit,” she adds.
Chaitanya also recollects Sarita’s initial days. “She didn’t want to learn Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, grappling, etc. One day, she even asked, ‘Itna extreme kaise hota hain? [How can it be so extreme?]’,” he adds, chuckling.
Seeing in Sarita the potential she didn’t see herself, Chaitanya, nevertheless, pushed her more. Then, the pandemic hit. Forced to staying home, Sarita’s perspective on the MMA training changed. One day, breaking curfew, she headed back to her coach, this time without inhibitions. Soon, she was enjoying the rigorous training, working out daily, from 10.30 am to 2.30 pm and then 7.30 pm to 9.30 pm.
How it’s going
Sarita has since won 8 MMA fights (of which 5 were at the Nationals in Bangalore) with 1 loss. Chaitanya’s hopes are high. Did he think she’d bring a WC medal? “I am expecting gold from her,” he says matter-of-factly.
Abdul Muneer, Secretary General, All India MMA Federation (AIMMAF), also believes she can win a medal. “Given her passion and her moves and techniques, which are unlike anyone I know, if she gets a percentage of the exposure and sponsorship that fighters like the Phogat sisters get, she’d be unsurpassable,” he states.
With a month for Berlin, besides training, Chaitanya’s focused on increasing Sarita’s muscle weight so she can fight above her ‘walking weight’ in her category.
Meanwhile, Sarita hopes she trains for many more years. “My money’s running out, but after seeing my fight results, my brother (the ‘trouble magnet’), who’s settled in life, has started supporting me. Hopefully, I’ll find a way around money soon. But I want to keep fighting. Put me in any cage (the MMA fighting ring); I’ll wear my opponent out and win,” she says, adding, “I’m grateful for Chaitanya sir; if not for him, I’d have had to work much harder. I’m grateful for fighters like Ritu Phogat, who’ve made it easy for us in India to find our footing in MMA.”