Updated: August 5, 2021 6:42:40 am
Across the string of akharas in outer Delhi and Haryana, Ravi Dahiya’s “jigar” (courage) is the stuff of legends. As part of their character building process, young wrestlers are told stories about the man who can be stopped only by the clock; whose relentless attacks suck the energy out of his opponents; and, whose ability to come back from the dead can put even Undertaker to shame.
Dahiya is just 23. But around these parts, he is a man with many myths.
On Wednesday, inside a mega convention hall just outside Tokyo, far removed from the dust bowls of Haryana, Dahiya added to his legend. The wrestler from Nahari, near Haryana’s Sonepat, ensured India’s fourth medal in Tokyo, a wrestling medal at the fourth successive Olympics, and a first final appearance in the sport since Sushil Kumar fought for gold in London in 2012.
Down 9-2 with less than two minutes to be played in the semifinal of the 57kg weight class, Dahiya also scripted a turnaround that will go down as one of the great Olympic moments in wrestling.
His opponent, the wily Kazakh Nurislam Sanayev, had used the “par terre” position — where Dahiya had his hands and knees to the ground with Sanayev grappling him from the back — to race to a seemingly insurmountable seven-point lead.
In an Olympic semifinal, it is rare for a wrestler to overcome such a deficit. But Dahiya stayed calm despite Sanayev, a two-time world medallist and reigning Asian champion, indulging in some gamesmanship, including sticking his teeth into Dahiya’s forearm. The Indian caught hold of the Kazakh’s left leg and rolled him over the mat before eventually pinning him in one of the most stunning takedowns these Games have so far seen.
When the referee stopped the bout, Sanayev lay flat on his back, writhing in pain, face buried in his hand as Dahiya looming over him with a passive-aggressive expression and a pumped right fist. This was the image of a wrestler at the peak of his powers, which has propelled him to an Olympic final, to be held on Thursday, in his maiden appearance — a feat no Indian wrestler has achieved before.
Two more Indian wrestlers are in contention for a medal on Thursday — in women’s 57kg weight class, Anshu Malik stands a chance to win a bronze along with Deepak Punia in the men’s 86 kg category. Malik will have to go through the repechage rounds and Punia is one win away from the podium.
The focus will firmly remain on Dahiya, however. Only Zaur Uguev stands between him and a gold medal. The odds might be stacked against Dahiya when he takes on the mighty Russian, but for someone who has an impregnable reputation of being Indian wrestling’s “unlikely man”, nothing seems beyond reach.
Dahiya, who comes from a wrestling family, has been mentored by two-time Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar at Delhi’s Chhatrasal academy. There, he stayed in the same room which was once home to London Games bronze winner Yogeshwar Dutt. Not surprisingly, Dahiya developed Sushil’s speed and Yogeshwar’s strength.
As years rolled by, however, he forged other attributes, slaying reputations and gatecrashing into tournaments he wasn’t expected to.
Like reaching the Olympic final. He started the day by defeating Colombia’s Oscar Eduardo Tigreros 13-2 and proceeded to demolish Bulgaria’s Georgi Vangelov 14-4. And his takedown of Sanayev in the semifinal was Dahiya doing Dahiya things.
That’s how he won his first major international medal in 2015, a silver at the world junior championship. That’s how he defeated some of India’s finest 57kg wrestlers — a crowded weight category teeming with top wrestlers from Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra – to get selected for the 2019 senior World Championship. And that was how, at that event, he clinched his quota for the Tokyo Olympics.
At the 2019 Worlds, a qualification event, India’s projection was to return with two Olympic quotas but Few, in fact, had given the rookie a chance. All eyes were on Vinesh Phogat in women’s 53kg and Bajrang Punia instead.
An outsider in the weight category back then, Dahiya won most of his bouts by technical superiority, as he did on Wednesday. His march at the time was halted by two-time world champion Uguev. Dahiya has a chance to settle scores when he steps onto the mat for the biggest bout of his short career.
Regardless of what happens next, the stories of Dahiya’s “jigar” will now be told beyond the akharas – and become a part of Olympic folklore.
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