Breaking down the barriers: Exclusive interview with MMA fighter Priyanka "Jeet" Toshi
Mixed Martial Arts is one of the fastest rising sports in the world today. With various MMA organizations cropping up all over the world, giving the fighters a platform to showcase their skills, one would believe that the athletes now have different options to pursue. However, the scenario is very different in India; although the sport has received a lot of encouragement, there are very few athletes who’ve taken up MMA as a full-time profession.
A lot of that has to do with the fact that there are no major organizations targeting the Indian audience. While SFL offered the fighters a lot of hope initially, the top three organizations in the world – UFC, Bellator FC and ONE Championship are yet to take the initiative to tap India’s potential. Moreover, it would be hard to imagine a female professional fighter from India. However, Priyanka “Jeet” Toshi has always been someone who has defied the odds.
“Sport in India is not the profession any parent would think of as a career for their children, apart from cricket”, Priyanka told us in an exclusive interview. “Of course, we have many sports men and women in India have excelled in, and have given their heart and soul in achieving what they are today, to name a few like Saina Nehwal, Mary Kom. Every individual athlete has to train harder and develop their skill sets.”
“In order to grow as an athlete, you have to dedicate a lot of time in training. And most time it is the gym where I should be. Unfortunately, it is not going to bear any expenses to make a living.” Priyanka also told us about the differences between training in India and abroad. “I have trained in India and abroad. There is so much of difference. I have to find the best for myself and while being able to have an income source and train.”
MMA is a niche sport, and mainly for the Indian fighters, it is an uphill battle to ‘make it’ at the professional level. “Since I have no sponsor and financial constraint to support myself, I have to find work for living and to bear all travel and training expenses all by myself. I need to earn enough income to afford the travels, and get a good gym for training as the opponents in ONE Championship are highly trained and have internationally renowned ranking.”
“There are many gyms now in India, but how many gyms have produced a world champion fighter in ONE Championship, or Legacy Fighting Championship or World Series of Fighting?
In order to be the best you got to be with the best. I had to look for a gym and a coach that has worked with the best. This is the reason I train abroad. And I am finding my way up to reach the top. But I am thankful to my country for giving me the base foundation where I started out, a local gym in Delhi.”
The Delhi fighter also recalled the tumultuous journey she had endured on her way, along with the dogmas that still persist in the country. “While trying to turn pro in India, especially being a girl and in a profession like this; it is endless. “You are a girl; this sport is not for girls, who will marry you? What is wrong with you? Why can't you find something suitable for girls?
“Indian girls are expected to be homely, and be the caretaker of the household. You see many feminists in the media, but how far is it (their philosophy) being practiced or is it just a myth? Modern families are now adapting to the new era of equal rights.
“Women are being empowered through several jobs, where it was once a ‘man only’ job. But that does not make it enough, or a breakthrough, to become a professional female MMA fighter and earn a living out of it.
“You have to go through all the odds. That's the reality. India still does not have the platform to mold an amateur female (fighter) to turn professional. I had to follow my heart and just keep the faith and take the next step. I love doing what I do, and it keeps me moving forward, even when there are hindrances because I believe in my passion. I know what I want and I will get there. This is my profession and I will achieve my goals.”
If there is any problem with anyone in what I do, first of all, why are they so interested in my business? There are challenges but should that stop me from my dreams? The best thing about having a dream is when you make it real. You just have to go pro to make it real.”
Jeet then told us what she thought were the major challenges for the fighters in India. “Inadequate infrastructure, lack of global exposure, lack of professional MMA fighters, no sponsorship for the female fighters, (female fighters) cannot make a living out of this profession.”
Talking about how she has evolved as a fighter, Jeet detailed about what areas she had to focus on, especially during her time with ONE Championship. “As a fighter, I always try to develop myself technically, physically and mentally. It is quite a demanding game where we need to give our full focus - both physically and mentally. I had a kickboxing background before I entered MMA, so I was fine with stand up. But I had to learn ground right from the scratch. I have grown up as an MMA fighter and have learned to be stronger and wiser through my failures and losses, both professionally and as a person.”
“During my younger years in Delhi, I started competing in kickboxing competitions, and never thought I would be a professional fighter someday. While I was in kickboxing, I had never heard of MMA. I was in college and had stopped kickboxing for two years that I was offered an MMA fight in FCC by a gentleman named Mr. Prashant Kumar through a mutual friend. After the fight at FCC, I was invited for a reality TV show in the Super Fight League. That's how I turned into a professional MMA fighter.”
“Further, I was offered to represent my country in ONE Championship, and that's how I entered into Asia's largest organization. As I had mentioned before, I am not a full-time fighter anymore. I work for a living abroad. I get about a month or two for training camp prior to the fight event and have to catch up on a lot of things in spite of several barriers.”
“There has been loads of pressure to get in a training camp as I am not a part of a team or attach (myself) with any gym. So every time I have to look for the best and figure out how to prepare for my upcoming fight. Most of the times it is not in my favor; I have to make all arrangements for the preparation in a rush, and do not get a proper place to train. For example, as you mentioned Nagaowa fight - I had less than a month to prepare. I had to fly to Thailand for a short camp.”
I spoke with Shannon Knapp – the President of Invicta FC last week, and during the course of my interview, I asked her if there were any Indian fighters on their radar. “We’re always interested. If there is talent, no matter where they are; in order for us to put on the best possible matches, we have to look everywhere. We have to get talent from everywhere in the world, and yes, I’m extremely interested in India, and to succeed in that area.”
When asked how that would be possible, Shannon did what no other promoter would do. “I’ll go a step further, how about this? Because I am supportive of the talent, and wanting to be able to accommodate the talent, what I will do for you during this interview, is I will give you my personal email. You can feel free to reach out to me. Other promoters don’t give their email, but I do. I’m very interested, and my goal has always been to get in here and make a difference. I think it’s a personal pleasure when you help someone in achieving their dream. It is personally very gratifying.”