ONE Championship atomweight Asha Roka found her way to the sport of mixed martial arts by unconventional fashion.
Roka had established herself as a rising boxing talent in her native India, where she first cut her teeth in the realm of combat sports.
Known as ‘Knockout Queen,’ her reputation preceded her. She went on to earn national honours, representing India on the international stage and dominating the local amateur scene, which soon led to the birth of a promising professional career.
But her road to realizing her dreams was suddenly blocked when the sport’s national governing body was swept up in a vote-rigging scandal.
The outcome was a three-year ban on staging boxing events in India – a sweeping punishment that cruelly put a halt to her aspirations.
“There were no competitions being held,” Roka recalled.
“Camps were being organized, but there were no tours. I felt demotivated and lost interest in boxing. Also, there was lots of politics in boxing as well.”
Roka had to find alternative outlets to flex her combative muscles. There’s only so long a natural fighter can withhold such tendencies.
“I was watching some mixed martial arts fights on TV, and then I got attracted to it. I thought there was no harm in trying, so I took a break from boxing and tried mixed martial arts.”
After just a few months worth of training, Roka took to the cage for her first MMA bout in 2017 against a much larger opponent.
After ignoring the advice of her coaches who advised her not to accept the fight, she proceeded to use her punching prowess to storm to an emphatic knockout win in just nine seconds.
“At that time, I proved myself to those who kept telling me that I couldn’t do it.”
Three years later, Roka has amassed a 4-1 record, which she’ll be looking to add to against Filipina Gina Iniong at ONE: ‘Fire & Fury’ in Manila on Friday.
Although she realizes she’ll be very much up against it when she takes the cage in a rawkus Mall of Asia Arena against a staunchly partisan crowd on Iniong’s home soil, she’s confident she’ll be able to spoil the party.
In fact, Roka believes it may even play to her favour, as Iniong’s is forced to deal with the pressure that comes with being the hometown kid.
“It will be really disappointing for Philippines fans if she loses, while I can make my countrymen proud. Beating her in her hometown will be a huge thing to do.”
Intangibles aside, Iniong shapes as a stern test for the Indian. She’s fresh off the biggest win of her career against rising Malaysian dynamo Jihin Radzuan, who she beat in a tight split decision in at ONE: ‘Clash of Legends’ in February.
A product of the renowned Team Lakay camp in Baguio City, ‘Conviction’ is a gritty competitor who doesn’t bow easily and boasts a wealth of experience in ONE’s atomweight division.
“Gina has defeated lots of great fighters. Her overall game is really good. We are studying her game and will try to avoid her strong points,” Roka continues.
“I am working on my cardio a lot so that I can perform well against her.”
Iniong may be tough, but she is not known for her power. Striking is an area where Roka, whose ground game is still very much in its infancy, feels she will have a sizable advantage and she intends to cash in on it as much as she possibly can by keeping the contest standing,
“I will try to avoid takedowns but I am working a lot on my ground game as well,” said Roka.
“My standing game is great so I would like to fight that way. I will try to stay away from the ground as (my ground game is) weak, while her ground game is strong. I will try to attack her with more punches.
“Her punches lack knockout power. I will try to use mine to attack her chin and put her under pressure.”
Baptism of fire
Still just 21 years of age, the future is bright for Roka – whose fortunes will be keenly watched by ONE as they look to make an impression on the massive Indian market.
The promotion wasted no time putting her skills to the test, giving Roka a baptism of fire in her promotional debut in Bangkok against the division’s two discipline ONE Super Series champion, Stamp Fairtex.
While Roka was able to hold her own on her feet, Stamp ultimately forced her to tap to a rear-naked choke in the final round at ONE: ‘Dreams of Gold’.
Despite the defeat, Roka insisted the lessons learned from the outing were invaluable and she’s ready to take them into her bout against Iniong and represent her nation as best she can.
“I feel really very proud that a female Indian fighter has a chance to fight on such a big platform, and against an extremely good fighter.
“I will showcase my skills to the whole world and prove to other nations that Indian fighters are no less than others.”