“Jab nahin lad raha tha, tab dikkat thi. Ab jab ladna chah raha hoon, tab bhi dikkat hai. Hamare desh mein maansikta badi ajeeb si hai (When I wasn’t fighting, there was a problem. Now when I want to fight, there is still a problem. Our country has a strange mentality).“
Sushil Kumar says he doesn’t know why no one in the country is ready to fight him. Or why his gold medal at the recently-concluded National Championships in Indore was overshadowed by the three walkovers he received.
A little over a fortnight ago, when he had stepped onto the wrestling mat in Tbilisi, Georgia, the news had gone viral in Tehran, home to an age-old wrestling culture that reveres pehlwani and kushti. An Iranian social media channel had broken the news to the Persian wrestling community of his comeback.
“The lion is back,” said one comment. “India’s greatest,” read another, with a snide remark on his alleged ear-bite at the London Olympics sandwiched between the two.
Iran wasn’t the only nation discussing Sushil’s return. In October, the Indian quartet of Rajneesh, Sharvan, Amit Kumar and Deepak Punia were in the Russian city of Yakutsk for an invitational tournament. On their way to the hotel from the stadium, the cab driver got inquisitive. “He asked our nationality. When we told him we are from India, his next question was ‘Where is Sushil Kumar?’,” Rajneesh says.
In Georgia too, the 34-year-old’s training base, they have been waiting for Sushil’s return. Says Georgian wrestling coach Vladimer Mestvirishvili, who was with the Indian team for more than a decade, “He is considered the best there. All the wrestlers want to fight him.”
But on November 18, when the country’s most accomplished grappler competed in his first Nationals since 2008, what made more news was that his opponents forfeited their fights, in quarters, semis and finals, paving his way to gold.
What was ignored was that there were over 20 other walkovers in the contest. Some tactical, a few others just to protect reputation.
It’s that what Sushil — after back-to-back Olympic medals, a World Championship gold medal and two Commonwealth titles — is fighting for now. Many believe his time is over after spending the last three years engaged in a bitter court battle, a dope scandal involving his biggest rival and a spat with the wrestling federation, in a sport where the average age of a wrestler is approximately 26. Sushil hasn’t competed in any tournament since the 2014 Commonwealth Games .
The Nationals were to mark his official comeback. To put to rest doubts about his preparedness, fitness, and whether he remains the same aggressive wrestler despite his age. Instead, it ended up raising more questions.
Earlier this year, the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) made it mandatory for wrestlers to compete in the nationals to be eligible for international tournaments. This is what brought Sushil to Indore, where he turned up for his employers, the Indian Railways.
His mere presence turned the mundane event into an extravaganza in the star-starved Madhya Pradesh city, with fans queuing up to catch a glimpse of the wrestler.
On the tournament’s first day, as Sushil entered the arena in his ‘Barca’ jacket, fellow wrestlers rushed to greet him, touching his feet.
His first two opponents, from Mizoram and Jharkhand respectively, were dispatched in bouts that lasted barely two minutes overall. However, that wasn’t seen as surprising, given that the two competitors weren’t from the traditional wrestling hotbeds. Everyone looked forward to seeing Sushil face challenge from the quarterfinals onwards, where he would meet Parveen Rana, 25, Sachin Rathi, 20, and Praveen, 22 — among India’s most promising wrestlers in the 74-kg weight category.
What followed though was farcical, at least to those outside the wrestling world. One by one, Praveen, Rathi and Rana, in that order, stepped onto the mat, and bent forward aiming for Sushil’s legs; only, instead of pinning him down, they touched his feet and forfeited their bouts. Neither of them had come close to a podium finish at a national championship before. While this was Praveen and Rathi’s maiden appearance, Rana’s previous best was a ninth-place finish last year.
The news of the “three walkovers” quickly spread, eclipsing the over 20 other walkovers at the same tournament. Minutes before Sushil ‘won’ his gold, Haryana’s Pooja Dhanda was given a walkover in her 57kg semifinal by Railways wrestler Lalita Sherawat because the two come from the same akhara and Dhanda is more established of the two. The following day, defending champion in the 125-kg category, Hitender conceded his title to fellow Railways wrestler Sumit. Both come from dangal background but Sumit is seen as the ‘bada pehelwan (bigger wrestler)’ among the two. Similarly, Services wrestler Rubaljit Singh got a walkover from Madhya Pradesh’s Ravi Barot in the 97kg category semifinal.
VN Prasood, secretary general of WFI and also the competition director, says they were within the rules to concede a bout. “But there are two sides to this. If I am a coach, I would tell my wrestler to fight Sushil. As a wrestler, I should be excited to fight against a big wrestler and test myself against him. But in most cases, they choose not to fight because they come from the same akhara,” Prasood says. “Sometimes, it is also tactical. A wrestler forfeits the bout to save energy for the next round.”
Yet, there were whispers about Sushil’s bouts being “fixed”. Among others, Bollywood waded into the controversy. Actor Farhan Akhtar tweeted, “I hold @WrestlerSushil in high regard… Sincerely hope he does not accept the gold in this manner.”
Within the fraternity, however, where walkovers are commonplace, no one batted an eyelid. “He is such a big wrestler. Why should I fight him?” says Rathi, who won a silver medal at the junior national championship last year. “Darr kuchch nahin hota. Bas maan-sammaan hai (It is not fear, it’s about respect).”
The announcer at the stadium called it parampara (tradition). But that is a far too simplistic explanation. To understand why the community was not surprised, it is important to first understand the sport’s nuances.
At a time when most traditional sports, such as kabaddi, are bulldozing their way towards modernity, wrestling remains warped in a world of its own, deep-rooted in an ethos of respect and hierarchy.
Often, the pehelwans have a larger than life persona — such as Dara Singh. Sushil, in many ways, enjoys a similar status. At Delhi’s Chhatrasal Stadium, Sushil’s alma-mater, he is deified. Every day, roughly 300 aspirants train here. There’s a Hanuman idol at the entrance. Next to it are two giant pictures of Sushil. The pehelwans first seek the Lord’s blessings; they then touch Sushil’s feet. “For us, he is God. Everyone here has taken up wrestling because of Sushil,” says one trainee.
But these are also big men with fragile egos. In his book The Wrestling Body, Anglo-Indian author Joseph Alter captures a wrestler’s obsession to make a name. “…Identity is reduced to what appears to be mundane pride and a simple narcissistic concern for fame,” Alter writes. “A wrestler’s status reflects on his akhara. When he wins, his akhara brothers also win, and when he loses, all the members of the akhara sink with him.”
As such, the fear of getting humiliated sometimes outweighs the will to fight. “The gap between Sushil and the rest is too big. Why would they risk their reputation?” says Amit Dahiya, a one-time Sushil protege and now a leading 55-kg wrestler.
The sentiment is shared across regions. In Maharashtra too they are not surprised at the walkovers. “He is so good that he does not even have to compete at the Nationals. It’s only because of his problems with the federation that he had to participate,” says Kaka Pawar, a famous wrestler-turned-coach.
Even the federation, which does not miss a chance to take a swipe at its biggest star, concedes there’s no challenger. “He may have had a difference of opinion with us but that does not take away from his high wrestling quality,” a senior WFI official says. “We are not aware if the decision to give walkovers was purely out of respect or tactical. But there’s no denying that Sushil is still our best wrestler.”
Although there is no record, it is believed Sushil was last defeated at the national championships in his debut year in 2001 when, competing in the 60-kg category, he lost to Ravi Kota, who has now quit wrestling. Since then, no Indian wrestler has beaten him, even in the selection trials.
In the 2004 and 2005 Nationals, Uttar Pradesh’s Shokender Tomar gave walkovers to Sushil in the 66-kg final bouts. Back then, he didn’t even enjoy his present cult status.
But Tomar says he knew he didn’t have the skill to beat him. “As a wrestler, you know how good you are and if you can beat the other person. I knew it when I gave up those bouts,” says the 35-year-old Arjuna awardee.
Satpal Singh, Sushil’s coach since childhood, says the wrestler is in his best shape since the London Olympics, where he won the silver medal. “In training, he routinely defeats wrestlers who weigh 130-kg,” says Satpal. “His opponents at the Nationals would have had their reasons, but deep down they all knew they didn’t stand a chance.”
But it might be an indication of a deep-lying problem. In the absence of Sushil and London Olympics bronze medallist Yogeshwar Dutt, who has been dilly-dallying on his future after a poor performance in the Rio Olympics, India has struggled to win a medal at a world-level tournament in the last two years. There have been a few eye-catching performances at the continental level, but the country has not won even one major tournament.
In the 74-kg category, especially, the options are thin. Earlier, with Sushil and his nemesis Narsingh Yadav, it was a weight category where India was spoilt for choice. But last year, Sushil was accused by the wrestling federation of spiking Narsingh’s food, which led the Rio Olympics-bound wrestler to fail a dope test.
Narsingh had won a bronze at the 2015 World Championships after Sushil pulled out due to an injury. The medal secured India’s quota for the 2016 Rio Olympics. Sushil expected a selection trial, but the federation cited parampara and decided to send the wrestler who had earned the spot — Narsingh.
In the drama that followed, reputations were damaged and relationships soured. It also dealt a blow to India’s chances. With Narsingh serving a four-year suspension, India did not have a wrestler who could compete even at the Asian level. Jitender and Parveen Rana are next in line but don’t have a big win.
Jitender’s best performance is a Commonwealth Championship title he won last year, while Rana’s last big win came in 2014, when he won the gold at the Dave Schultz Memorial tournament. Veer Dev Gulia, a junior world medallist, has shown potential but will take time. “After Sushil and Narsingh, there was suddenly a big gap as other wrestlers did not have similar international exposure,” says Prasood. “We have been trying to send them to competitions so that they get some experience, but it takes time.”
Which explains why Sushil’s camp believes he is the best, and also unbeatable. Rana, however, disagrees. He now says he forfeited the bout against Sushil in the final because of an injury. “Else I could have defeated him. We might meet each other in the Commonwealth Championships or in the trials for the Games. I will compete against him there,” he says.
“Kya mein unka haath pakadkar le aata (Should I have dragged them to the mat at the Nationals)?” Sushil asks. “I wanted to fight. But what can I do if they do not want to compete?”
He has just completed a sparring session at Chhatrasal. But the lack of competition means sparring is the only wrestling action he has managed in the last three years.
Sushil is aware of those raising questions. “I can understand why people want to see me wrestle. But I have been yearning for a challenger as well,” he says. That Sushil has stayed away from national competitions and even the Pro Wrestling League hasn’t helped either.
Right now, more than his form, Sushil is rankled by the conspiracy theories, and the Nationals have joined that list. “The National Championships was important so that no one could question my place in the team,” Sushil says. “I have done whatever was in my control. Beyond that, I can’t help things.”
In that, Sushil has the full backing of chief coach Jagmender Singh. Despite his age, Jagmender says, Sushil is the best wrestler in the country by a mile. “He may not be like the Sushil of five-six years ago but there is no competition. There is a big gulf between him and other wrestlers,” Jagmender says.
Sushil now has his sights set on the Commonwealth Games gold — the next edition is in Gold Coast, Australia, in April 2018. The quality of competition is so low at the CWG that, if selected, Sushil is expected to steamroll his opponents to win the gold.
His real challenge will be the Asian Games. He has missed the last two editions and the challenge in Jakarta next August is expected to be tough. Reigning Asian champion Bekzod Abdurakhmov of Uzbekistan, who finished fifth at the Rio Olympics and will be 28 next year, will defend his gold medal. Kazakhstan’s Akzhurek Tanatarov, Sushil’s opponent in the London Olympics semifinal, too is likely to be there while Iran’s 20-year-old prodigy Mohammad Aliasghar Mottaghinia will be a tricky opponent along with Japan’s Youth Olympic champion Yajuro Yamasaki, also 20.
Among his competitors, Sushil is known to possess the strength of a heavier wrestler with quick reflexes. But there is no evidence of him being in top form. And for an ageing wrestler, recovery takes longer. The fact that Sushil has won every medal except the Asian Games shows just how tough the event is.
Satpal says they will carefully choose the competitions. “He has to get used to competing at an international stage again. Three years is a big gap,” says Satpal. “Our first target is the Commonwealth Games. After that, it will depend on his recovery.”
Sushil, though, isn’t fretting over these issues. “I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. I just fight for myself,” he says. “Ab Sushil sirf khud ke maze ke liye ladega (Now Sushil will only fight for his own enjoyment).”
A Timeline of Sushil Kumar’s Career:
– Wins bronze in 2003 Asian championships, his first senior international medal.
– Has a forgettable Olympics debut in Athens 2004, where he finishes 14th in the 60-kg category.
– Clinches bronze in 66-kg in Beijing 2008, becoming the first wrestler since Kashabha Jadhav in 1952 to win an Olympic medal.
– Becomes the first Indian to win a world championship in 2010, in 66-kg class. Later wins gold at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi.
– Becomes only ever Indian to win two individual Olympic medals, with silver in the 66-kg class in the 2012 London Games.
– Changes in weight class forces Sushil to move from the 66-kg category to 74 kg in 2014.
– Shoulder injury forces him off the mat in 2015. Misses world championship, where Narsingh Yadav wins bronze. The federation then leaves Sushil out of the Rio team after a bitter court battle.
Narsingh Yadav, 28
World bronze medallist, is serving a four-year doping suspension
Parveen Rana, 25
Former youth CWG gold medallist, was the back-up for Narsingh Yadav at the Rio Olympics last year
Sachin Rathi, 20
Promising junior, made first senior national appearance in Indore
Jordan Burroughs, 28: Apart from the gold at the 2012 Olympics, the American has won four of the last five World Championships in the 74-kg category. Considered to be the best-ever in this class
Bekzod Abdurakhmonov, 27: The man from Uzbekistan is Asia’s best in the 74-kg category, having won gold in the 2014 Asian Games and the Asian Championship titles in 2015 and 2017.
Sosuke Takatani, 28: An Asian Games silver medallist, the Japanese wrestler is a favourite for the next Asian Games and Olympics
At the nationals (74-kg), in Sushil’s absence
Gold: Pradeep — has stayed on the fringes of the national team since
Silver: Vipin — did not compete in 2015 and finished 8th last year
Bronze: Sumit Sehrawat — his best-ever performance
GOLD: Jitender — first major medal after returning from a two-year suspension for failing a dope test.
Silver: Pradeep — occasionally in and out of the national team
Bronze: Manoj — has now fallen out of favour with national team
Gold: Jitender — defended his gold but has since moved onto higher weight category
Silver: Sandeep Kate — only major achievement
Bronze: Dinesh — did not qualify for 2017 nationals as the Railways berth went to Sushil