Lion, tamer

Sushil Kumar at crossroads as Bajrang Punia becomes Indian wrestling's new poster boy

Rising star: Bajrang Punia after beating Japan’s Daichi Takatani in the final | Sameer Hameed Rising star: Bajrang Punia after beating Japan’s Daichi Takatani in the final | Sameer Hameed

HIS SINGLET RED, the mat blue, his medal gold and his form purple. The moment Bajrang Punia entered the wrestling arena at the GBK stadium complex in Jakarta, there was an air of when and not if. It was his day. And he looked like he believed it.

As his teammates were falling by the wayside, most notably the veteran Sushil Kumar, Bajrang stood like a rock. His namesake god had once carried a mountain to help revive an ailing Lakshman. Bajrang, 24, did something similar for India’s ailing freestyle team. It was, without doubt, a performance worthy of superlatives.

He charged past his opponents in the 65kg category, winning the first three bouts on technical superiority, and had a lead of six points in the opening minute and a half of the final. Though there was a tense period, in which Daichi Takatani clawed back, Bajrang overcame the Japanese wrestler to give India its first gold at the 2018 Asian Games. “There was absolutely no pressure on me,” he told THE WEEK. “I had everyone’s support. As I have said before, I do not take pressure. I just wrestle. I just give my 100 per cent on the mat.”

Throughout the day, Bajrang had been quick on his feet, looking to attack and counterattack. “My coach tells me that attack is the best form of defence,” he said.

I do not take pressure. I just wrestle. I just give my 100 per cent on the mat.- Bajrang Punia

There were, however, a few tense faces in the crowd as Bajrang lost his lead. His coaches were yelling out instructions, egging him on to regain control of the bout. “Bajrang then kept getting points,” chief coach Jagminder Singh told THE WEEK. “There was a mistake on his part. He lost concentration. But, the last time his opponent attacked, Bajrang removed his leg. If he had done so earlier, the bout would not have been as close as it was. The referees erred, too. At one point, they gave both wrestlers two points. Those were only Bajrang’s points. But, we did not challenge it because we did not want to give the opponent time to rest.” Such was the confidence the coaches had in Bajrang’s stamina.

Talking to the media after the final, Bajrang said he would now concentrate on the upcoming world championships, to be held in Budapest in October. You could see the hunger in his big eyes. “Before me, there have been only two wrestlers, Yogeshwar Dutt and Rajinder Singh, who won both the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games golds in the same year,” he said. “I am the third.”

A protégé of Yogeshwar, Bajrang has now eclipsed the senior grappler. And, as they both compete in the 65kg category, it will be tough for Yogeshwar, who is in the twilight of his career, to make a comeback. But, if he had to make way for anyone, Yogeshwar would gladly do it for Bajrang. The bond the duo shares has been on display through interviews and social media posts for years.

However, overtaking his mentor is not Bajrang’s ultimate goal. He wants an Olympic medal. “He is a good candidate for that,” former wrestler and Arjuna Award-winner Ashok Kumar told THE WEEK. He had flown in from Canada, where he is now settled and coaches wrestlers. “Nowadays, wrestling has become more dynamic. Bajrang has to maintain the level of performance. Two years is a lot of time in wrestling,” he said.

Veteran’s woes: Sushil Kumar at Jakarta | Sameer Hameed Veteran’s woes: Sushil Kumar at Jakarta | Sameer Hameed

But, for now, at least, Bajrang is at the height of his powers. And it is safe to say that the grappler from Haryana will be around for quite some time.

Sadly, on the same day that India saw Bajrang cement his place as wrestling’s new poster boy, a legend gave hints of walking off into the sunset. Sushil lost his opening bout to Adam Batirov of Bahrain in the 74kg category. It is a law of nature: A sunrise in one part of the world is a sunset in another.

They say you can guess how experienced wrestlers are by looking at their ears. The longer the career, the more mangled the auricular appendage. In wrestling parlance, these are called cauliflower ears, because of their shape, and are seen as a badge of honour. As I spoke to both Bajrang and Sushil after their bouts, I noticed their ears. Sushil’s ears had many more years on them. He is now 35, and no spring chicken. One loss is not enough to write him off, but if he keeps performing like he did in Jakarta, there will soon be calls for his retirement.

He, however, chalked his defeat up to the long period he was out of action. “I’m playing such a big tournament after four years, and that is the reason I couldn’t do well today,” he told THE WEEK. “I just need the blessings of all my countrymen now. I will once again try to do my best. I need to do well in the 2020 Olympics. I’ll keep practising.”

Was it about endurance? “If it was about endurance, you all would have seen it,” he said. “I would have been breathless. There were no gaps in preparations. It happens. Whoever makes a mistake will pay for it. If he [my opponent] had done the same, I would have made him pay.”

Said Jagminder Singh: “The loss was partly because of the gap, but that does not mean that he has forgotten how to wrestle. He has a lot of experience. In wrestling, you have to take decisions within seconds. Everything is decided within seconds.”

So, where does he go from here? “Sushil is the in-charge of the Chhatrasal Stadium akhara. We cannot say how many more Sushils he will create there,” said Singh, possibly hinting at a full-time coaching position for Sushil.

Said Ashok Kumar: “He will decide soon on what he has to do. What you and I see during his performance (the shortcomings) will also be playing on his mind. He will get to hear about it from others. He will get a clear picture on where he stands. Even if he retires, his legacy will remain.”

Indeed, it will. Late last year, in a delightful interview with former cricketer Virender Sehwag, Bajrang had said: “Earlier, boys used to wrestle so that they could beat people up. Now, they want to wrestle because they want to win a medal for their country.”

This change of approach can, in part, be attributed to Sushil. After all, he has been the light that has shined bright for India for many years now. “Unless there is someone to remove him, why would he go?” asked Ashok Kumar. “At this time, he is a celebrity. His record for India is unbeatable. So, he will not go of his own accord. And why should he? He has no competitor in India. But, at the same time, it is getting tougher now because, in the trials, it is becoming competitive. Here (in Jakarta), he will get a heads up for the Olympics, which is good. We have to go to tournaments where there is competition. Unless anybody challenges you, you will not realise your weaknesses. In this bout, Sushil was giving his leg to the opponent. He should have been smarter.”

The claim that there is no match for Sushil in India, in his weight category, has been a contentious one. Last year, after being out of action for three years, he got three walkovers en route to a gold at the National Wrestling Championship. Then, just before the 2018 Commonwealth Games, supporters of Sushil and wrestler Praveen Rana brawled outside the venue where the two wrestlers had competed against each other. An FIR was later lodged against Sushil at the instance of Praveen’s elder brother Navin, who was beaten up, allegedly by Sushil’s supporters. “The wrestling should be confined to the mat. Once you take it outside, it affects your reputation,” said Ashok Kumar.

Though Sushil’s performance at the Commonwealth Games, where he breezed to a gold medal, silenced critics, his latest outing at the Asian Games will renew the argument against him.

“Sushil is not fit to compete at the Asian level,” an official of the Wrestling Federation of India told THE WEEK. “The Asian Games are not like the Commonwealth Games. His style of play was always slow and methodical. But, with age, he is not able to keep it up. He is losing the hang of it. If he does not realise that now, there is nothing to be done.”

Perhaps only the 2020 Olympics will tell us whether or not the sun has set on Sushil’s career. That is, if he makes the cut.