Around 7 am Sunday, Sushil Kumar began his routine work outs at the Chattarsal Stadium. A shoulder injury has sidelined him for a major part of the last three years. But he now feels fitter than ever, ready for Rio. As he went through the paces in Delhi, Narsingh Yadav warmed up for his World Championship medal round of the 74kg category inside a glitzy arena of a sprawling Las Vegas hotel. Till a couple of years back, Yadav was the undisputed best in his category in the country. Until a new International Wrestling Federation rule intertwined his and his idol Sushil’s paths. An Olympic berth for either of the two wouldn’t be so straightforward this time.
As he trained at the Chattarsal akhara, Sushil’s mind was fixated on the goings-on in Las Vegas. It had been an extremely disappointing outing for the Indian wrestlers, with none of them finishing on podium. Suddenly, London Games medallists Sushil and Yogeshwar Dutt’s absence was magnified. And then, Yadav stepped on the mat.
The 26-year-old defeated France’s Zelimkhan Khadjiev in style late on Saturday evening local time to win the bronze medal and earn an Olympic quota for the country. Highly under-rated among his peers, Yadav is the only Indian wrestler to return with a medal. But crucially, it has now put the Indian Wrestling Federation in a spot.
His qualification will now mean that the federation will have to choose between him and Sushil for the Rio Games, a decision they are likely to take following a selection trial that will held closer to the Olympics.
The Mumbai grappler — living in the shadows of arguably the greatest wrestler of his generation — knew Las Vegas was his last chance to prove a point, even though it’s technically his first. A failure here would have meant Sushil would be favoured in future events keeping in mind he is now fit to compete. His reputation also supercedes the debate.
The under-performing Yadav wasn’t even among the favourites to win a medal at the worlds. Amit Kumar and Bajrang Lal were more fancied to finish on the podium and subsequently win an Olympic quota. But Yadav put all his cards on the table and won a gamble where he had plenty to lose.
However, his medal has now given a new angle to the healthy rivalry between him and Sushil. As per rules, an Olympic berth is for the country concerned and not the wrestler who might have clinched it. None of the wrestlers are thinking about it at the moment, though.
“We should celebrate Narsingh’s achievement today rather than talk about selection for Rio. It takes a lot of effort to win a world championship medal and Narsingh has made all of us proud,” Sushil told The Indian Express, adding that he feels fitter than he has since 2012 London Games.
Yadav, according to former India coach Satpal Singh, has become more assertive and proactive on the mat.
The aggression approach has complimented with his upper body strength, which a combination he has exploited well.
“Because he has the strength to do it, he has been able to implement his moves well. He has been aggressive than before and perhaps it’s because of the self-confidence that stems from good performances in the last few tournaments,” Satpal said.
The aggression and self-confidence were on display in the medal match on Saturday evening against France’s Zelimkhan Khadjiev. The 26-year-old raced to a 4-2 lead with two take-downs but his advantage was overturned by Khadjiev, who took a massive 12-4 lead after two rounds.
Staring at defeat, Yadav pinned his opponent down with a beautiful headlock and kept him down for five seconds.
The referee declared Yadav the winner by fall, even though he trailed Khadjiev 8-12 on points.
Yadav was just five seconds away from a final berth. He was leading Unurbat Purevjav 4-3 but the Mongolian pushed Yadav outside the mat and qualified for the final by the virtue of having picked up the last point.
“It is an incredible feeling. I was doing well all through the day. Luck wasn’t on my side when I faced the Mongolian wrestler (in the semifinal). I was really disappointed with what happened in the semi-final but the determination to pick up a medal was always there,” he said.
“Winning by fall is perhaps the sweetest victory that a wrestler can achieve and there is no better feeling than winning a medal for your country.”
Satpal feels a face-off between the two would be the best way to decide who travels to Rio. “Also, we need to take into account who has more chances of winning the gold medal,” Satpal said.
The main challenger in the 74kg category for both Indians is American Jordan Burroughs. The 27-year-old, who won the gold on Saturday, has won 11 gold medals in the last 12 major tournaments he has been a part of.
It includes gold at the London Games and three world championships, except for 2014 when he won bronze. “Jordan is clearly the man to beat. The question is, which Indian can do that. I think no one except Sushil has the talent to do that. I don’t mean any disrespect to Narsingh. But Sushil has better chances of winning the gold,” Satpal said.
He might have played all his cards, but Narsingh, it seems, still has a long way to go before stepping out of Sushil’s shadows.
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