Sushil Kumar, The Only Constant In Indian Wrestling

Sushil Kumar has been the unbeatable in his aura. His strength and valour can be best measured by the pin-drop silence during the rest of the bout .

Unlike during other contests, the spectators aren’t shuffling around, there’s no catching up to do on the sidelines. No joyous laughter from wrestlers done with their bouts, nor groaning complaints. When he steps on the mat, all eyes are on Sushil. And India’s greatest wrestler knows that well.

“When I left home today, the car had just turned, and we saw 2-3 people, saying, ‘hum bhi aa rahe hain(We are also coming)’. After a while, we met more people who said we will also reach with you,” said Sushil, after winning the 74kg World Championship selection trials at Capital’s KD Jadhav Indoor Hall on Tuesday. “Aate aate kareeb 25-30 gaadiya saath me ho li. Main baithe baithe soch raha tha, abbey yaar… kis kis ki zimmedaari lun(By the time we reached, there were about 25-30 cars with us. I was sitting there wondering ‘Man, who all am I going to be responsible for now?”)

The colourful aside is in reference to Sushil and his eventful selection trials (if his opponents compete, and not genuflect and concede the bout, that is). During his 4-2 win in the final bout against national champion Jitender, Sushil’s thumb entered the latter’s eye. Minutes later, Jitender’s arm was twisted during an exchange. Both instances left the 25-year-old writhing in pain and his coach fuming at the “rough tactics” of Sushil. And both also alleged that Sushil also jammed his thumb in Jitender’s mouth during a clinch.

“Eyepokes are never deliberate. These things happen in wrestling,” said Sushil, who had repeatedly apologised after the incident to the point that a senior wrestler called out: “Aap kyun safaai de rahe ho pehelwaan ji.”

Then there were the Commonwealth Games trials in late 2017, during which Sushil and opponent Parveen Rana’s supporters collided, and the latter left injured. Perhaps a possible redux was on the mind of the organisers, who told off those seated on the floor to relocate to the stands above.

“That is the thing. Did anything happen in the last trials? I am on the mat. It’s wrestling. There was so much crowd,” said Sushil. “It’s only natural… now one can call it love or something controversial.”

Sushil realises he is the show. And he believes there are people who try to latch on to his name to get their minutes of fame. “I mean Parveen Rana… After the last trial, entire India knows his name. I don’t lose my cool. Jitender too is like a younger brother. He respects me and even touches my feet whenever we meet,” says Sushil, adding an oft-repeated anecdote to drive the point home. “I was with coach Vinod in an elevator, and his shoe was untied. I told him, coach agar aapko main gira doon, aap bahar jaake kehna Sushil ne mujhe maara. Aap prasiddh ho jaaoge(Coach, if I make you fall down, you go out and tell everyone Sushil beat me. You will be famous).”

Slowing down

Errant it may have been, but the aforementioned eyepoke did come at the right time for Sushil, who looked in need of a breather after a quick start. There were flashes of brilliance and agility. Like during the two single-leg takedowns. But the 36-year-old has slowed down considerably and won the two bouts (first against Vinod 3-0) on the basis of experience and awareness. Sushil and coach Vinod played it off like going-through-the-motions, getting-the-job-done approach.

“You win by 10 points or by two, a win is a win,” said Vinod. “The idea was not to overexert in this competition.” Sushil added: “This was the direction. I had to control the bout. Winning a wrestling bout is an art too.”

After a disappointing Asian Games campaign last year, Sushil returned to the mat this month, and lost a bout to World No 5 Bekzod Abdurakhmonov in Bulgaria in 90 seconds. He is, however, hopeful of better results, under the tutelage of former Russian international Kamal Malikov, who lined up a number of Dagestani grapplers for Sushil to work with.

Kismat se mile hain ye coach(Found him by good fortune),” Sushil says of the association which began in March earlier this year. “We’ve only had 40 or something training sessions. But he is very insightful and experienced. Improvements are going to show. He is probably going to fly me out very soon to some other tournaments.”

As far as Jitender — who roamed about the hall long after the last bout was done with a bloodshot right eye and elbow wrapped up — is concerned, he was rewarded for his troubles (and credible performance). He will take on Virdev Gulia, the winner in the 79kg category, on Friday, for another shot at a Worlds berth.

Men’s freestyle squad for worlds: Ravi Dahiya (57kg); Rahul Aware (61kg); Bajrang Punia (65kg); Karan (70kg); Sushil Kumar (74kg), Winner of Jitender vs Virdev Gulia (79kg); Deepak Punia (86kg); Praveen (92kg); Mausam Khatri (97kg); Sumit Malik (125kg).