Rohtak in Haryana was always known for its boxing and its municipality Kalanaur for its rasgulla; 22-year-old resident Praveen Kumar loved them both as a teenager. Then the quiet son of a peon, who worked shuffling around tiringly for a vigilance office of the Haryana State Electricity Board, felt severely let down by both.
Favouritism in boxing left him bitter and the rasgulla became far too sweet for his maniacal weight control needed for sport. So in 2013, the then-15-year-old shifted to another combat sport, Wushu, channelling his anger with the boxing selection system into India’s fastest growing martial art. On Wednesday, Praveen was crowned India’s first Wushu male World Champion in the 48 kg at Shanghai.
“Today my opponent Russel Diaz was sending flying kicks like a windmill. Par maine andar ghuske punch maarkar usko haraaya. Boxing ki poori bhadaas nikaal di, (But I punched him hard. I took out all the frustration I had because of boxing)” says the man who dreamt of nothing but boxing after seeing Akhil Kumar box at Beijing in 2008.
Praveen who won 2-1, countered Filipino Diaz with uppercuts from the inside unleashing a flurry in the last round, and fulfilled his dream of punching to world glory, albeit in a different sport.
The sport-obsessed lad had first watched Wushu in passing on television during a National Games repeat telecast, and was immediately smitten. “Boxing mein dhoka khaaya, (Boxing let him down)” says his father Harish Kumar. Feeling betrayed by nepotism of a local coach, Praveen would join a small Wushu centre under coach Pramod Katariya with two jaded mats discarded by wrestlers, at Bahu Akbarpur.
Wushu, essentially Chinese kung fu, incorporates punches, kicks, jumps, sweeps and throws, and has seen a phenomenal rise in the north and north east of India – especially in J&K and Haryana. When he was sidelined by the boxing coach, he would tell his father he needed an outlet and Wushu was a good combination of fitness and self defense.
India’s first men’s medal, however, came in the sanda (wushu’s full contact format), which combines elements of kickboxing, boxing and wrestling.
“He was always good at sports – kho kho, cricket and wrestling too besides boxing. He even went to Kanyakumari as a school boy representing Haryana in Manipuri fight sport thang ta,” says his brother Pawan, who would end up a very reluctant sparring partner.
“I am 70 kg and he is 48 kg. And he would charge towards me and challenge me to thrown him down. He is tactically so good and his presence of mind is excellent. I’ve not even managed to push him one step behind till today,” he laughs.
Praveen who won the trials for the World Championships earlier this year, is also known in Wushu circles for his obsessive training. “There’s an Indira Gandhi Park nearby where he gathers young wrestlers and spars with them for hours. He’ll run 15-20 km on the road or a bypass, after returning from a camp, when I’d expect him to be exhausted from travel. And though he still swears by kachcha doodh (fresh milk), he can scarily go for days on just water while keeping his strength when he needs to get his weight down from a normal 53 kg to 48 kg,” says Pawan, with much awe.
Befitting martial arts fairytales, Praveen had a heartbreaking loss in the 2016 finals of the Asian Championship that changed him overnight – he turned to manic training. “He would talk in his sleep about why he’d lost and didn’t eat for 2-3 days. He would keep crying to our mother, explaining why he might have lost and saying galti ho gayi. She told him – he would need to work harder,” Pawan recalls.
It was his mother Darshna Devi, who had understood very early, how obsessed her child was, with sport. The family would often need to borrow money from her brothers, for Praveen’s diet and equipment. There was some respite when he beat many-time National champion, Umesh Chandra, impressed coaches of Indian Army. Praveen is now attached to the Assam Regiment serving as Havaldar.
On Wednesday, the family would gather around the only phone with internet data, brother Pawan’s and watch the final at 8 a.m. Playing a former junior world champion, Praveen knew he was up against a very combustible kicker and puncher in the Filipino.
The Indian would win the opening round, and go down in the second with the momentum having swung wildly and kicks raining down on him. It was at this point that Praveen would throw himself into the whirring blades of kicks and punches, cutting down their efficacy.
“We told him to play close and not give his opponent any range. He overcame a rampaging opponent in the third round to win 2-1,” coach Kuldeep Handoo, says. It was a strong attacking counter when he moved in and unleashed short, snappy punches.
“This was my first world championship and to win the world title is a great feeling because I’ve worked hard all my life. I know Wushu is not in Olympics, but this was important so other players know they can win a world title too,” Praveen said.
The government’s financial support hinged on a world gold medal (also 2 silvers, 2 bronze), though the Indian contingent was happy to get their best-ever finish at the world’s – third behind China and Iran.
“Wushu flies under the radar because it’s not at Olympics. But it’s very popular at the ground level. You will be surprised with how many girls are taking it up, and obviously our first ever gold medallist was Pooja Kadian last time. Praveen’s was a tough category to win, but he fought excellently,” said Wushu federation’s Suhel Ahmed.
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