Updated: June 25, 2022 10:42:29 pm
“There’s a wrestler in every house here in Mudhol. But that’s not the case with Ninga — he doesn’t have a house.”
In these two sentences, Arun Kumakale, a local wrestling coach, captures the history of the wrestling-mad town in North Karnataka, and the journey of its newest sensation and his prodigy, Ningappa Genannavar, 17.
On Thursday, Ningappa, whose strong defence and powerful leg-attacks are gaining in reputation, defeated Iran’s Amirmohammad Saleh in the final of the 45-kg freestyle category at the Asian Under-17 Championship in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. His medal contributed to India’s top-of-the-table finish at the junior continental event, and also put the spotlight on a wrestling hub that has remained in the shadow of the traditional hotbeds in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Punjab.
“The place is most famous for the Mudhol Hound, the dogs are known all over India,” says Ram Budaki, wrestling coach, Sports Authority of India (SAI). “The city’s next best produce is its wrestlers,” he adds.
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“It’s a quaint little place. The Krishna River flows through the city, most of the people are farmers, and almost every household has a wrestler. It’s a matter of pride. Every morning, you’ll see dozens of young boys and girls at the garadis (akhadas),” says N R Narasimha, secretary of the Karnataka Wrestling Federation.
It’s rare that wrestlers from outside the three Northern states — led by Haryana — and Maharashtra make it to the Indian team; even rarer for them to win medals. But gradually, wrestlers from Karnataka — in particular from the northern part of the state, from Bagalkot district where Mudhol is located to Dharwad and Belgaum — are trying to break the hegemony.
In 2016, Sandeep Kate won a silver medal in the Commonwealth Championship. Three years later, Arjun Halakurki became the first wrestler from the state since 1995 to win the national championship gold. Earlier this year, the Greco-Roman wrestler won a bronze medal at the Asian Championship.
On Thursday, Narsingh Patil won the bronze at the U-17 Asian Championship but Ningappa’s gold medal, according to Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) assistant secretary Vinod Tomar, was the first time a Karnataka wrestler finished on top of the podium at the continental championship.
“Earlier, we selected our teams, especially age-group teams, on the basis of their performance in the national championship. This time, we tweaked the criteria and conducted multiple events so that we could select a wrestler who performs consistently, rather than doing well in just one tournament. Ningappa showed his strength and skills all through,” says Tomar.
He’s been doing that from the time he first walked into a garadi. Ningappa’s father, Ramesh, a daily wager, hoped his son would become a wrestler. The family did not have their own house and struggled to make ends meet, but Ramesh had seen the respect bestowed upon wrestlers.
However, when he first took Ningappa to a vyayamshala (gymnasium), the boy was sent back for being too frail, under-developed and underweight. Ningappa then started training at a garadi run by former wrestlers, before Kumakale, a former national-level grappler, spotted the then 10-year-old and enrolled him in his academy.
Every morning, Ningappa travelled 4 km on a cycle to Kumakale’s Jai Hanuman Vyayamshala, which has grown into a feeder centre for bigger akhadas in the rest of the country. It is said that over the last few years, about 50 wrestlers from this centre have moved to advanced academies across India, including two at the National Centre of Excellence in Sonepat — Ningappa being one of them.
“Sir did not take any fees from Ninga. In fact, if his family was in need of money, Sir would help them,” says 18-year-old Datta Tarpade, Ningappa’s one-time sparring partner. “Ninga repaid the trust by working incredibly hard — I haven’t seen anyone train harder than him. He never got tired and never took a day off,” he recalls.
Ningappa says there were times when Kumakale even paid the expenses incurred while participating in a tournament. At other times, his father would take a loan to fund his trips — like he did when Ningappa was called to the National Centre of Excellence in Sonepat three years ago.
“In 2019, Ningappa won the bronze medal at the under-15 national championship in Kota and was subsequently called to join the NCoE in Sonepat,” said Ram Budaki, the coach at the SAI Centre in Dharwad. “His family had two concerns — they were anxious that Ningappa would have to travel to a state where Hindi is the main language because he couldn’t understand Hindi. But they were more worried that they did not have enough money to send him.”
So, Ningappa’s father, whose annual income is approximately Rs 90,000, took a loan of Rs 8,000 to send him to Sonepat. “He’s getting a proper diet and has a good place to stay, so the family is a little relieved,” says Budaki.
Not Ningappa, though. He hopes that wrestling will help wipe off his family’s debts. “My father had to borrow money to support my career,” he says, adding that he also hopes to “build a house someday.”
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