Remember when we were kids, we would playfully challenge our siblings to join us for ek ek haath (panja) hojaye game? Those days are gone but memories still live on. But again if we carefully think about it, it was always considered a man’s sport. But, anyone who says women are not fit for the toughest competitions has not met Samata Sonavane yet! She reminds us of how women can overpower even men. Samata says like most girls she grew up playing with friends, but her passion was never sports. She wasn’t very athletic in her childhood but was always fascinated by sports from afar. Today, Samata is enrolled with Ultimate Panja League (India’s first Pro Arm Wrestling tournament), founded by Prashant Kumar. Well, how did she end up there?

This Mumbai-born girl loved watching different genres of sports on TV but in reality she was never in an environment where she could go out and play them. Most of the boys in her locality would play Cricket and the non-athletic Samata would suppress her fascination for sports. This was until she met Kumar, an expert in Mixed Martial Art, and to everyone’s surprise her passion to become a panja fighter grew.

She was trained at South Paw Boxing Club and participated and won in various district and state level competitions. Her next target was to master Mix Martial Art, and so she did! The passion grew further to master Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in which she won a bronze medal in BJJ Maharashtra state 2019.

In her quest for victory, she started off with boxing then shifted to Unifight. She was trained at South Paw Boxing Club and participated and won in various district and state level competitions. Her next target was to master Mix Martial Art, and so she did! The passion further grew to master Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in which she won a bronze medal in BJJ Maharashtra state 2019. Today, the 24-year-old competes in Panja tournaments, practices MMA, and conducts kickboxing classes at fitness centres. The woman is a power house of martial arts, all in one!

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In his quest to bring back the nostalgic childhood sport of Arm Wrestling into the competitive sports arena, Kumar, has launched six teams consisting of six men and one woman participant ranging across weight categories of 60kg to 80kg and above for men and 55kg for women. And, Samata’s background in MMA fighting was the right mix that is needed for the sport.

Prashant Kumar on why he thought women can slay in the Arm Wrestling arena…he told SheThePeople.TV, “Women have generally been referred to as the “Weaker Sex” ….This is their chance to prove that wrong”

Things were never easy for India’s female martial artists who are driven by strength and muscle power but did not get the much needed backing. Being a female martial arts practitioner in India comes with its own set of challenges—family, societal pressures, and gender stereotypes. Samata gets candid about her journey so far.

As a fighter, I have always thought of using my strength in every new format that would allow me to develop and know my power within.

Women generally don’t go for arm wrestling. What inspired you to take up such an underrated sport?

So basically I’m a MMA fighter and bringing that experience to Arm Wrestling format was somehow exhilarating. Because the sport was something new, something we used to indulge in as kids with our friends and our siblings. Yes, it is true that women generally don’t pursue such tough sports but these days it’s actually rare not to find women in these fields. As a fighter, I have always thought of using my strength in every new format that would allow me to develop and know my power within. That’s why I found Arm Wrestling a great opportunity, as I fared well at top competitions.

I never took part in anything when I was a kid but I always loved sport and growing up I realised I actually wanted to do something in that space. Besides, learning self-defence techniques and be able to defend myself against all odds were my biggest inhibitions while training.

What is your core passion and long-term vision?

I want to make a name in MMA but I want to try different things, to go out for some leisurely sports that would excite me.

What are your biggest challenges that came your way?

So, the big challenge is of course money. Martial art is still at its nascent stage in India and is largely a male-dominated sport. To be able to play further I need money for proper nutrition and training. However, coming from a traditional middle class family, I can’t afford my dreams. It was worst when I began but now since I’ve started earning I’m managing on my own. I am looking for sponsors but in India they would never take us seriously as new comers we still don’t have a fan following or fame for them to invest in.

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What and how do you think government should consider supporting you?

As I said investors should look at our talent and not at our fan following. A sport was always treated as leisure but they should give us a chance. India has a lot of potential sportspersons but the problem is we lack financial support.

Samata Sonavane, Arm Wrestling

Your take on women sportsperson and gender discrimination in our country, how are you being treated among men?

Honestly so far my experience is really good…I don’t think anyone has ever treated me differently or less than men. Mostly, because we train together as very few women in this sport and the treatment towards athletes is not biased. The only discrimination we face is from our own family and society. I think our typical Indian mentality expects us to believe that women do not belong in sports, or they should focus on their studies first so they can get a well settled man for marriage. This very thought stops parents from sending their daughters into sports and I think that should change first.

Do women now want to take up the sport professionally?

Yes, there are a lot of female athletes who are getting recognised for their work and that is changing women’s perspective towards sports. A lot of women are actually seeking sports as careers. Sports is not just another industry anymore it has become a lifestyle, it is for fitness and for self-defence.

MMA is considered a masculine arena. Do you think this belief is changing?

There are mixed opinion from people about MMA or Arm Wrestling. A lot of people think women should not pursue this and there are also people who support women athletes too. We are getting an opportunity here to turn sporting passions into promising careers. So, yeah, we have a long way to go but things are definitely changing for good.

Feature Image Credit: Samata Sonavane

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