Manjit Kolekar has three tattoos, while Asha Roka has four of those, albeit in a smaller size on the fingers of her right hand, barring the thumb. Both women want more ink but have decided to put those plans on hold till the Super Boxing League is over.
While Kolekar heads to her evening training after a brief chat, Roka enjoys a rare evening off. The two women meet each other in the lobby of the restaurant that they are dining in, and casually wave to each other.
Judging by the demeanour of the women, you could never guess that the two are scheduled to battle each other on Saturday, a fight that both say should have happened earlier this year. A love for tattoos isn’t the only similarity that the ladies share.
Both started with a love for boxing, only to take up Mixed Martial Arts due to boxing “politics”, a word they both use to explain their departure from the sport.
The 18-year-old Roka last boxed competitively in 2014 while Kolekar, 26, hung up her boxing gloves in 2012.
Roka is of Nepalese origins, hails from Bhopal and took up boxing when she was 11, following her brother to boxing training at the TT Nagar Stadium in the Madhya Pradesh capital. “His coach Roshan Lal just saw me and asked me what I was doing in the corner. At first, I didn’t like the sprints and the other strength building exercises but I am now used to it.”
She would go on to win medals in national and international tournaments, including a gold in the 2nd Nations Cup International Sub-Junior Boxing Tournament held in Serbia in 2013 and a bronze in the AIBA Women’s Youth & Junior World Championships in Albena, Bulgaria in 2013. “The Federation’s ban imposed in 2012 hindered a lot of things and I waited one year after my last fight in 2014 while training all the while. When I saw things weren’t getting any better, I packed my bags for Delhi to train for MMA in 2015.”
While Roka chose not to heed her family’s warnings about the brutality of MMA, Mumbai-based Kolekar said she had contemplated “killing herself” after not getting selected for the boxing nationals from Maharashtra in 2011. “I defeated the candidates in the 57 kg and the 60 kg category. At the selection trials, they said I didn’t have any experience and declined to send me, sending the other two instead. My coach said I should have knocked them out,” reminisces Kolekar.
“My mind couldn’t take it. Why did I make those 4.50 am train trips from Kalyan to Mahalakshmi for a year? An entire year was wasted.” She waited till 2012 for her shot when the then-19-year-old Kolekar discontinued her studies on the eve of her Geography paper and went to the Nationals in Guntur, only to be knocked out in the second round.
“The judges scored a win for the Haryana-based boxer, Pooja, on points. All of them hailed from the same state (Haryana) and I felt I had clearly done better. That’s when I decided to quit the sport,” explains Kolekar.
After fighting MMA bouts in Kerala, Goa and Nashik and the Super Fight League, Kolekar was the first Indian woman to take part in the US-based Invicta FC in 2016. “While training for the bout at the JacksonWink MMA Academy in Albuquerque, I ruptured the fingers on my left hand 20 days before the bout. I fought Kaline (Medeiros) without much use of my dominant hand, since I am a southpaw. The fight went the distance and I was praised by her coach after the match even though I lost on points. That meant the world to me,” reflects Kolekar on her experience.
At the Super Fight League 2017, which is a MMA-league, Roka won four matches, powering her team to the title. Kolekar won two matches but her team exited the competition after two rounds, preventing a showdown with Roka.
This Saturday, the two will have a chance to finally face each other with their unbeaten domestic streaks on the line.
Roka, the youngest fighter in the entire league and the only female captain of a franchise, has four first-round MMA knockouts. The Northeast Tigers star will box Kolekar of the Mumbai Assassins, who has never lost a MMA fight in India with a record of 11-0-0 in the country that includes a win over Saala Khadoos actress Ritika Singh, previously a MMA fighter herself.
Their quite contrasting styles should make for an interesting match-up. Roka, who last year was briefly courted by the Ultimate Fighting Championship only to be turned down due to a lack of international fighting experiences, is known as the beat-down queen for her lightning-fast knockouts and sheer aggression from the start.
After taking up MMA training at the SFL gym in New Delhi, Roka has studied wrestling, Jujutsu, Muay-Thai and Judo says she admits she likes to take opponents to the ground and fight them there. “I enjoy putting my opponents under locks and then finishing them off. It is a little difficult to switch from MMA to boxing but I’m confident,” she admits.
Kolekar, who’s more reserved than the expansive Roka in the ring and also in conversation, is more of a dogged counter-puncher, as she describes herself. “I’m not aggressive at all. I like to wait for my opening and I’m very patient,” says Kolekar.
The 26-year-old native of the Kohlapur district in Maharashtra likes to bide her time, preferring to wear her opponents down and is a very cerebral fighter. Like her opponent, Kolekar notices the differences in approaches between MMA and boxing as well, “While MMA is about developing every inch of your body, boxing is about the strength in your shoulder and your arm speed.”
Both women won their opening bouts, Roka’s speed was overwhelming for her opponent in round one as the Nepali fighter landed a seven-second knockout.
What next after Super Boxing League?
One of the promoters of the SBL, British professional boxer Amir Khan, had spotted Roka’s talent and had invited her to his academy in the US after the completion of the league. Roka however, retains the dream of competing in the Olympics, after sanctions prohibiting professional boxers from competing in the quadrennial event were lifted prior to Rio.
A fan of both Mary Kom and Amanda Nunes, Roka is clearly spoilt for choice while also being a potential UFC candidate in the future. “I want to go to Amir’s academy but let’s wait for the future. I also want to continue my MMA fighting,” she admits to having ambivalent thoughts about the future.
Kolekar, meanwhile, is almost certain to return to MMA action after the league and is poised for another shot at the Invicta Fighting Championships, with whom she’s signed a two-year deal.
At the moment however, both fighters have their minds firmly fixated on Saturday’s bout. Their styles may be a contrast, but their paths till this point are similar, more so than both would like to admit, prior to an intriguing contest.