Medals have been piling up for Narsingh Yadav. A bronze medal at the Asian Wrestling Championships in Doha last month was followed more recently by a gold at the men’s 74 kg freestyle category of the International Wrestling Tournament in Italy.
Naturally, the 25-year-old is high on confidence. Yet at the same time, there is an air of caution. For all the gallantry in his weight category, Yadav is yet to face Sushil Kumar — his most formidable opponent on the domestic front. The clash between the country’s top two 74 kg grapplers is slated to take place in late July, when the pair square off — for the first time — for a spot at September’s World Championships. The tournament itself serves as a chance to secure a berth for next year’s Rio Olympics.
At the last edition of the quadrennial event in London in 2012, the pair participated as the individual entries in different categories. Sushil won a silver medal at the 66 kg event, while Yadav, who’s a veteran of 74kg, was knocked out in the first round.
Since then Sushil has moved upto Narsingh’s 74 kg division after the Fédération Internationale des Luttes Associées (FILA), the governing body for international wrestling, sacrificed the lighter weight in order to maintain the sport’s eligibility as an Olympic event. Sushil picked the gold at Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games beating Pakistani Qamar Abbas in the 74 kg final — his only international appearance since London. Consequently, Narsingh now finds himself needing to compete against and overcome his one-time idol.
Between the pair, 32-year-old Sushil, India’s only individual two-time Olympic medallist holds greater prestige, automatically making him the favourite to secure qualification to all upcoming major events. “That strong reputation comes after achieving and succeeding at so many levels in the sport. He’s been doing that for so many years at a very high level,” says Yadav.
The young grappler goes further to claim that despite the stature, he will be looking to stave off Sushil’s challenge. “It’s not that I don’t still look up to him, but it’s either him or me, so I will be doing my best to earn the spot,” he adds.
The grapplers are presently attending a national camp at the Sports Authority of India complex in Sonipat, where coaches too are fretting over the dilemma of having one of their top wrestlers dropped in favour of the other. Nonetheless, when it comes to assessing one from the other, assistant coach Jagmal Singh, who has also been coaching Narsingh for the past 10 years, claims his younger ward has the upper hand.
“Sushil has adapted well to the weight change, but there are still a few things he needs to get used to. He has the experience in wrestling, but Narsing has always been a 74 kg wrestler. That itself has its own benefit,” he claims.
Head coach Kuldeep Singh is wary of the rivals finding pride in just beating the other. “What they need to make sure is that they aren’t just looking to beat each other, but are actually preparing to go beyond. There are harder challenges ahead,” Kuldeep mentions.
In terms of his own preparation, Narsingh has brought in several changes learnt from his foreign sojourns. The most important lesson, he claims, was at the debacle of London 2012, where the best in the world competed.
“I got to see the speed and strength those athletes have and I realised I needed more power and had to get quicker. Tactically, foreigners constantly go for leg attacks, so I’ve worked hard on defensive moves and it’s been quite effective,” he adds.
Narsingh claims that the rivalry between Sushil and himself is strictly left on the mat. “Outside he’s still a great person and someone I respect,” he mentions. “But when we face each other, he will be just another opponent I need to beat,” he concludes.