The terms ‘freestyle wrestling’ and ‘fan engagement’ took a different connotation at the Commonwealth Games trials on Friday. Because all the action took place beyond the mat — slaps, blows and take-downs with plastic chairs, a free-for-all in the corridors of the venue, Indira Gandhi stadium.
And when the chaos died down, men with bruised bodies and broken bones threatened police action and those with frayed tempers shouted about bite marks on the arm of India’s most-celebrated wrestler Sushil Kumar. The double Olympic medal winner Sushil made it to the CWG squad that will travel to Australia in April; his rival, Praveen Rana, made it to the police station. Rana alleged the Sushil’s supporters had beaten up his brother and threatened him if he “dared” to compete against Sushil in the Pro Wrestling League next month.
The Sushil-Rana semi-final, that the former won 7-3, was easily the day’s most hotly-contested. The faceoff had seen Sushil complaining to the referee, accusing Rana of biting his arm, slapping him across the face and trying to trip him during the bout. Later in the final, Sushil edged out Jitender Kumar in another fierce bout. Minutes after the final though, around 20-25 spectators ran down the narrow corridor of the stadium, slapping and heckling Rana. When Naveen stepped in to shield his younger brother, he became their target and was punched, kicked and beaten with plastic chairs in the warm-up area. Naveen sustained multiple injuries and blood flowed from wounds on the forehead.
The crowd dispersed only after police were called. Rana (25) and Naveen were escorted to the nearby IP Extension police station by policemen to lodge a complaint. “Moments after my bout with Sushil Kumar, some men came and began to beat and heckle me, saying ‘how did I dare to fight against Sushil’. They also threatened to kill me if I fought Sushil in the (Pro Wrestling) League,” he said. “I have trained at the Chhatrasal Stadium for around 15 years, so I know everyone by face. I can identify the people who have beaten me and my brother. I will file a police complaint.”
Sushil condemned the incident and came out in support of Rana. “It is really sad. Whoever is responsible for this, even if it is someone from my family, it is wrong. This should not happen in sports,” he said.
It wasn’t supposed to end like this though. Rana is a product of the wrestling academy at Delhi’s Chhatrasal Stadium, Sushil’s alma-mater, and has had a cordial relationship with his mentor. Over the last 12 months, he rose through the ranks to become India’s first-choice wrestler in the 74 kg category. However, that equation changed after Sushil decided to make a comeback after spending three years away from the sport. At the National Championship in Indore, Sushil’s opponents forfeited their bouts as the 34-year-old won the gold medal in his first tournament since the Glasgow CWG in 2014. Among those who conceded their bouts was Rana. Back then, Sushil’s supporters claimed the walkovers were a mark of respect for the veteran wrestler.
Rana, however, insisted he pulled out of the final due to a thigh injury and promised to challenge Sushil if he got another opportunity. He didn’t have to wait long. The duo faced each other again in the final of the Commonwealth Championships in Johannesburg a fortnight ago. Sushil prevailed over Rana in an extremely close match. The part three of their fledgling rivalry drew nearly 5,000 fans to the stadium Friday. And it was anything but ‘respectful’. It was a very physical bout with even the support staff of the wrestlers too getting drawn into a heated argument.
Sushil’s supporters were incensed as they alleged that Rana had slapped their wrestling. Sushil wasn’t in a mood to complain. “Everyone has a strategy. He chose to be aggressive today, which is okay. It’s normal in wrestling,” he said.
This isn’t the first time Sushil’s supporters have been accused of threatening his opponent’s lives. Last year, 2015 World Championship bronze medallist Narsingh Yadav too alleged he received threats after winning a bitter court-battle with Sushil before the Rio Olympics. Narsingh, who was training at the Sports Authority of India’s Sonepat Centre, was subsequently given police protection.
Narsingh eventually failed a dope test and did not compete at Rio. Rana, meanwhile, was the federation’s back-up choice ahead of Sushil.
The Wrestling Federation of India (WFI), meanwhile, washed its hands off Friday’s incident. WFI president Brijbhushan Sharan Singh said since it took place outside the main arena, it was not their responsibility.
“It is not the federation’s issue. Nothing happened in the main wrestling arena. Parveen Rana came and informed me. But I have not been able to verify the allegations. The issue has been taken to the police. They will deal with it. If someone lodges a complaint with us, we will look into it,” he said.