Tokyo. The dream destination of every Indian athlete right now, with the clock showing less than a year to go for the Olympics. Wrestling is a discipline the Indian contingent will pin hopes on. It has given the country four medals from the last three editions. The first Indian medallist in wrestling was Khashaba Dadasaheb Jadhav, won claimed bronze in the 1952 Helsinki Games. The most medals have been won by Sushil Kumar — bronze in 2008 and silver four years later. In the autumn of his career, the 36-year-old is seeking to change the colour to yellow.
The men’s World Championship squad has been selected. Sushil is yet to make the cut. The trial in his category has been postponed to August. The women’s squad will be selected on Sunday. Other than a medal in Kazakhstan, the focus will mainly be on qualifying for the quadrennial showpiece.
It was 7 am. The KD Jadhav indoor arena was starting to fill up. There wasn’t that buzz you associate with a wrestling trial. All of that changed as soon as Bajrang Punia walked in. His fans and fellow wrestlers followed him inside and the 600-odd that had gathered let out an almighty roar. Bajrang stood calm, seeping it all in. There are small things to notice when in the presence of a top athlete. The crowd chants, other bouts happening around, nothing fazes them. Warm-up routine, as dictated by personal coach Emzarios ‘Shako’ Bentinidis, was done to perfection. Focus never wavered.
When his name was announced, the roar resembled the one heard at the opening show of a highly anticipated movie. And though a gulf in class between him and his opponent was evident, the 25-year-old did not appear low on commitment. In next to no time he was assured of a World Championship berth. The adulation that followed showed how big a star he has become. Two-time World Championship medallist, Asian and Commonwealth Games champion — he has earned every bit of it.
Selfie requests, autographs, Bajrang calmly handles it all. From instructing a camera person to take time and not panic to offering another shot in case the first one was not up to the mark, his humane qualities stand out. When his opponent got injured, the grappler from Khudan in Haryana was the first to assist him. “God is watching all the time.
Only if you do good will good come to you. This is something I believe in,” he says. India’s biggest medal hope credits mentor Yogeshwar Dutt — the 2012 Olympic bronze medallist — for everything he has achieved. Once a part of the famed Chhatrasal Stadium, he followed his mentor out, which caused a controversy. Some even alleged he had had a fall-out with Sushil. “A player only yearns for happiness. I had no problem at Chhatrasal but I wasn’t happy there because Yogi bhai had left,” he explains. “We had been together since 2008. There was no issue with Sushil bhai.
He is one of the biggest names and has been motivating me. But because I was attached with Yogi bhai, I moved out. He is my role model and it was my wish to become a wrestler and a human being like him.” Yogeshwar’s inputs are as valuable as they were back in the day. “He still gives me counsel. Always keeps telling me to improve my leg defence. That’s something Shako has been working on day in and day out.” The other constant in his life, Shako has helped Bajrang find better sparring partners as well as constantly motivating him to improve.
The Georgian reckons there is nobody close to Bajrang in India. “There is a sea of difference between Bajrang and other Indian wrestlers. He is the most disciplined, who has dedicated his life to the sport.” Ask what changes he wants to see in Bajrang, Shako makes it obvious. “Leg, leg, leg, leg. That’s his only technical weakness. Also, the biggest problem with Bajrang is he loses focus sometimes and gives away points. It becomes a minus three, minus four start for him. We are working on it. It’s difficult. Lots of legends have lost out at the Olympics. It’s a serious competition.
You must give everything. One poor bout or 30 bad seconds, and it’s goodbye. When I came he was 18, now he is 26. It’s difficult to change but I am giving my best,” says Shako. Bajrang agrees. “I used to concede points at the start and then win on my own,” he says, adding that he is paying greater heed to the advice from his coach. “I thought I could win despite trailing but coaches want me to win those points from the start. And I will try to do that.” There has been progress on that count. Bajrang has lost just once in his last 10 international assignments.
It is not only Bajrang. A new crop of hungry grapplers are climbing up the charts. Three of them shone at the trials — Ravi Kumar and Rahul in 57kg and Deepak Punia in 86kg. While Ravi and Deepak made the Worlds cut, Rahul did not. However, he outfought Sandeep Tomar, the 2016 Olympian, and Utkarsh Kale, his heir apparent. National coach Jagminder Singh says this category sees the fiercest competition. “Everyone can beat the other. It is that tight.
The main thing for me as national coach is the fact that we have so many knocking on the door. Healthy competition is what is needed to help the sport take the next step.” Another common factor between the three is their place of training — Chhatrasal Stadium. One visit shows why so many consider it to be a temple. It becomes home away from home. Kids and stars warm up together before being split into groups according to their weight categories.
While mornings are for building up strength, evenings are devoted to technical know-how. Sparring sessions are conducted, moves are learnt and old flaws corrected. For wrestlers training at the stadium, a life of complete celibacy is the norm and single-minded dedication to their craft is the motto. Everything from equipment to food is taken care of.
The old diet using a lot of ghee has given way to modern protein supplements. To top it all, they have Sushil as role model. “Sushil bhai is everything. He is my idol. That’s why I train there. To become like him,” Deepak says. “Guruji takes care of everything, any problem we have. Also, we can focus on training and not think of external problems while here.” It’s a thought echoed by Ravi.
Ravi and Deepak will get the chance to emulate their hero when they travel to the city of Nur-Sultan on September 14 to try and make it to Tokyo. “Worlds has more participants than the Olympics. It is going to be tough and it will show exactly where we stand.” They will make their debuts in senior World Championship. Both train under coach Virender. With only one weight category left to be decided, it is full speed ahead of Tokyo for India’s brightest grapplers hoping to finally crack the gold code.