Q: Was Sushil scared of fighting you earlier?
A: Sushil is a very good pehelwan; I will never say that he was scared.
Well, at least, mutual respect has not been sacrificed at the altar of Olympic ambition. Not yet.
Though Narsingh Pancham Yadav is at the end of his tether, answering questions about Sushil Kumar.
Narsingh is agitated that in the week since he landed back in Mumbai, he’s been asked little else. He is angry that what should be the most optimistic run-up phase to the Olympics, when he is in the form of his life, is hijacked by the cynical, doubting questions of whether he deserves to go to Rio, before crossing another obstacle, in the form of the celebrated Indian star Sushil Kumar.
“He should’ve made a name for himself in 74 kg in these last two years before demanding a trial. He should’ve fought in at least one major meet in 74 kg so that people would say — yes, Sushil pehelwan too is in contention,” Narsingh rages. Sitting at his modest SAI room on a hot May Mumbai morning, Narsingh questions how Sushil is attempting to upturn his world, in which ‘respect’ is hard-earned, and accumulated over a period of time, bit by bit, brick by brick, title belt by belt.
From mud to mat
For a long time before he aced the mat, Narsingh frequented the mitti dangals — mud wrestles — across Maharashtra and India, and watched how pehelwans acquired reputations in their weight categories or divisions.
The weight appendage was mighty important — because as a fighter, you did not overpower a smaller man. Life was fair in wrestling only when you proved yourself against an equal. “Sushil is a great in 66 kg, but he’s just not fought enough in 74 kg in public — not in practice — for him to demand a trial,” he explains.
“The way I see it, I fought at least 10 bouts — in selection and at international meets and at the World Championship where I won the quota and medal to earn my right to go to Olympics. Sushil can’t decide my destiny or make his reputation by fighting just one match when I have fought at least 10. That’s unfair,” he says.
He calls it a false debate, believes the fans have been fooled by a double Olympic champ’s PR blitzkrieg and that trials are a non-issue and that his critics are living in a bhramm — a delusion.
“Has Sushil ever given a trial before going to Olympics?” he demands to know. “When I came back from qualifying I expected everyone to congratulate me at least. But I was shocked at how this turned out. People still don’t really want to know about me or whether I can win a medal or not. All they want to know about is how I am stopping Sushil from going. It’s demoralising,” he says.
Finding his voice
It’s a tale littered with petty politics of the federation, coaches and the athletes themselves that will drag both wrestlers through muddied waters in coming weeks and months. But it’s changed a very reticent Narsingh into a feisty spokesman — a spokesman for himself. “Every person should fight for themselves. I have no hatred towards Sushil or anyone else. I am focussed on a medal. And I believe it’s my right,” he says. “Mera haq,” he’s said it a hundred times over in the last one week at his home SAI campus.
Narsingh believes Sushil had an opportunity to make his mark in 74 kg and at least get a debate started the right way. “He should’ve fought me in the league — he had a chance to make his presence in 74 kg and the world would’ve seen him and nobody would deny him then. He could’ve fought me at trials in Sonepat. He could’ve gone and fought a few international meets against the top names. He should’ve made a name for himself,” he reiterates. “There are right channels open for everyone. But you can’t come at the end and say I’ll win one bout and go to Olympics. It’s not fair, even if it’s a double Olympic champion,” he says.
Narsingh reckons 74 kg is his patch, and he will guard it zealously. “I accept he’s the best in 66 kg, but in 74 kg there is very little performance except Commonwealth Games which wasn’t great competition,” he says. Narsingh himself won gold at Delhi CWG 2010, but had known that unless he won a medal at the Worlds, he would be considered a nobody. At Las Vegas, he believes, he arrived.
So, why then does he shy away from a trial to defend his patch.
Q: Are you scared of fighting Sushil now?
A: I am India’s best in 74 kg category and a very good wrestler. Nobody can say Narsingh pehelwan is scared.
He smiled. Extending himself the respect that any good pehelwan should get.