His teeth shone through the bloodied jaw as Harpreet Singh ran his fingers through his hair. For those 10 seconds, the soft-spoken Punjab police sub-inspector looked every bit intimidating as you would expect a wrestler to be.
Moments before, Harpreet had perfectly executed his signature move bagaldu. With less than a minute remaining, and trailing Junjie Na by a point, Harpreet snuck under his opponent’s arm, held him by the waist, lifted him and pinned the Chinese wrestler to the mat.
There were more Iran fans in the stands than the Indians. But the Iranians know their wrestling and were quick to appreciate this move, a combination of quick leg work and solid upper-body strength. That, in fact, was the only time in the day a home wrestler was cheered. The maneuver fetched Harpreet two points, which gave him a 3-2 win over Na in the 80kg Greco-Roman bout and also got India’s its first medal, a bronze, on an otherwise forgettable opening day of the Asian Championships for the hosts. India had entered wrestlers in each of the nine Greco-Roman categories on Wednesday but only two, Harpreet and Gurpreet Singh (75kg) managed to reach the medal rounds.
Gurpreet lost his bronze medal bout to China’s Bin Yang in mere 38 seconds while several others lost by technical fall, a scenario where the referee stops bout once the opponent takes an eight-point lead. As the South Korean and Iranian wrestlers dominated the first day, Harpreet saved the host nation its blushes.
Last year, too, he was the only Greco-Roman wrestler to win a medal at the Asian Championships. “It would have been embarrassing if we wouldn’t have won a medal today despite being the hosts. I wasn’t able to rest during the break between the prelim and medal rounds because of the anxiety,” the 24-year-old wrestler from Faridkot says.
Punjab has had a rich tradition in wrestling, primarily in the mud variation. But Haryana gradually became the hub of Indian wrestling, and as most of the activities moved there, Punjab lost its relevance and sheen. But Harpreet’s consecutive medals at the Asian Championship have brought Punjab back in the spotlight. When he won the bronze in Bangkok last year, Harpreet became the first wrestler from the state to win an international medal after 13 years. “Punjab has always produced good wrestlers but for some reason, they haven’t been able to make it big of late,” national Greco-Roman coach Kuldeep Singh says. “But Harpreet is one of the better ones we have had recently. His upper body strength is phenomenal, which is essential in this style of wrestling.”
Strength is his strength
Strength, Harpreet says, is in his genes. His father, Sardar Lachman Singh, was among the best national-level kabaddi player (circle style) while his grandfather was a renowned mud wrestler in Punjab. “It was my grandfather’s wish that I become a wrestler. So at the age of 10, I joined Hargovind Singh’s academy,” he says.
Harpreet joined the Baba Farid Akhara in Faridkot when he was just 10. It’s one of the most famous academies in Punjab, having produced Olympian Gurvinder and international wrestler Navjot Kaur in the past. Unlike most wrestlers who make a late shift from freestyle to Greco-Roman, Harpreet has always been a Greco-Roman wrestler and trained under Hargovind. Hargovind, a former chief national coach in Greco-Roman style, is considered to be one of the best in the business. “Training under him made Harpreet technically very strong. In Greco-Roman, you need good upper body strength and legs need to be explosive and Harpreet has a perfect physique for it,” Kuldeep says.
Harpreet relied on this combination to win the bronze on Wednesday. Earlier in the day, he was penalized for passivity. Even in the medal match, the defensive mindset early in the first round cost him a point but his strategy was to not concede a lot of points early on and attack in the last one minute.
With seconds ticking by, Kuldeep shouted instructions from his corner and Harpreet shifted gears instantly. Na’s defence looked impenetrable. But Harpreet snuck through his arms, lifted him by the waist and before Na would know, he was lying flat on his back, staring at Harpreet’s bloodied face. It was a shame there were few Indians in the stands to watch the move. But the Iranians who did went home with a new word in their wrestling glossary – bagaldu.