“Let’s not fight like you did last time, let’s wrestle.” A gentle laughter echoed inside the wrestling hall of the IGI Sports Complex here at the contradiction in the statement made by Wrestling Federation of India president Brij Bhushan Sharan. It was a plea more than an order.
But Yogeshwar Dutt and Amit Dhankar, the two men on the mat, couldn’t care less. After a cagey start, a frustrated Dhankar slapped Yogeshwar right across the face a minute into the first round, forcing the referee to halt the tie and issue a warning. Of course, Dhankar would claim it was accidental but it was meant more to rattle his opponent and if that indeed was his aim, he had succeeded. Yogeshwar stepped back with an agitated look on his face, realising that if he wanted a shot to qualify for the Olympics, he would not just have to out-wit his opponent, but even out-muscle and, if needed, ‘out-slap’ him.
Considering that the duo shares a rough history, the bout was expected to be played dirty. A couple of years ago, Yogeshwar shifted from 60kg, a category where he won an Olympic medal, to 65kg after the international wrestling federation re-jigged the weight categories. Dhankar, on the other hand, had always competed in this category. In 2014, he had gone to court against Yogeshwar alleging favouritism after he was ‘unfairly’ dropped from the Glasgow Commonwealth Games squad.
And when they faced off for the first time in 2015 for the World Championships trials, it had been a feisty affair. It almost got out of control after both lost their tempers, with the bout nearly descending into a street fight. Yogeshwar ultimately prevailed 7-2 to make the cut for the Astana-bound team that will take part in the Asian Olympic qualifiers. But it also opened another chapter in their fledgling rivalry.
In this back-drop, you could understand why Sharan felt it necessary to issue a warning to both wrestlers beforehand. The passionate 1,000-odd fans at the trials only added to the tension, at times fuelling the fire. A wily wrestler himself, Dhankar knew this was his best chance to beat his arch-rival and get a shot at winning an Olympic quota.
Yogeshwar has been largely inactive for the last couple of years, taking part only in the trials and the wrestling league owing to multiple surgeries in 2015.
“I have had five surgeries in the last five years, few wrestlers could’ve managed to return after such medical reports. I had surgeries on both my ACLs, MCL and meniscus. I have spent a long way away the sport so my first target is to qualify for the Olympics and then remain healthy till the Games begin.”
After a bye in the first round, the 33-year-old looked rusty in his second round bout against Rajneesh Dalal, which he barely managed to win and, by the end of it, was almost out of breath.
His movements looked slow, legs heavy and overall, slightly distracted. But his confidante Bajrang Lal’s defeat to Dhankar seemed to energise him and Yogeshwar appeared to be his old self in the final. After the initial anxious moments, he moved around the mat with more freely, going for the ankle-locks and showing superfast reflexes.
“I could feel the pressure today. Matches against Amit are always tough and I had a point to prove so eventually, it feels good to have won,” Yogeshwar said. “Bouts against international wrestlers are tougher, no doubt. But the pressure is more during these matches because you want to be better than your local rivals before thinking of mounting an international challenge.”
Yogeshwar’s wasn’t the only place that was contested fiercely. In the 57kg category, Rahul Aware earned an opportunity to clinch an Olympic quota after he beat Sandeep Tomar in the final. But it wasn’t before his group, too, said wrestler Amit Dahiya was being favoured ahead of him. Aware had won his opening round bout of the day while Dahiya, Sushil Kumar’s prodigy, was shocked by Utkarsh Kale.
The federation, however, believed Dahiya stood a better chance of winning a quota so they decided to give Dahiya another chance while restricting Aware. The 24-year-old objected to the move and was engrossed in a long conversation with Sushil as well as Sharan. It was eventually decided that the duo would face each other and the winner would then compete in the final.
Aware would justify his claim and defeated Dahiya with ease. He then proceeded to shock another seasoned campaigner, Sandeep Tomar in the final to book his berth in the 57kg category.
The jostling for spots in several weight categories — especially in the 57kg, 65kg and 85kg — would surely be comforting to the coaching staff. Sushil and Narsingh Yadav will only add to the selection dilemmas in the future. The federation won’t mind it either, as long as the players ‘wrestle on the mat and not fight.’
Team for Asian Olympic qualifiers
Freestyle: Rahul Aware (57kg), Yogeshwar Dutt (65kg), Somveer (86kg), Satyawart Kadian (97kg), Hitender (125kg)
Greco-Roman: Ravinder Singh (59kg), Ravinder Singh (66kg), Harpreet Singh (75kg), Ravinder Khatri ( 85kg), Hardeep (98kg), Naveen (130kg)