In the rustic humour that is typical to the region, the kids at Chhara village in Jhajjar, Haryana, teasingly called Deepak Punia ketli. A tea pot. “Deepak was plump. You know how children are at that age… they were all 7, 8 years old,” the wrestler’s childhood coach Virender Dalal says. “They started calling him ketli… woh chai waali.” The nickname has stayed ever since.
On Saturday, the 20-year-old who was once mocked for being overweight ended India’s dubious record in heavyweight categories at the World Championships, becoming the first wrestler to reach the final in these classes. His remarkable show at the World Championships in Astana also earned him an 86-kg quota for next year’s Olympics.
Deepak, in fact, is only the fifth Indian wrestler to enter the final of a World Championship (others being Bishambar Singh in 57kg, 1967; Sushil Kumar in 66 kg, 2010; Amit Dahiya in 55 kg, 2013; and Bajrang Punia in 65kg, 2018). The wrestler, who last month became India’s first junior world champion in 18 years, now has a chance to end the country’s 9-year wait for a senior gold.
But for that, Deepak will have to beat Iran’s Hassan Yazdani, who is one of the best wrestlers of this generation. Yazdani won the Olympic gold in the 74 kg category in Rio 2016 and followed it with a top-place finish in the 86 kg category at the 2017 Worlds in Paris. It will, in a way, be fitting if Deepak pulls off an upset to be crowned the world champion. For, he comes from the same akhara as the last wrestler to achieve that feat, Sushil Kumar, who is also one of his mentors.
Before he arrived at the Chhatrasal Stadium in 2015, though, Deepak was just a happy-go-lucky teen who spent his time grappling — be it with fellow trainees at the local academy in Chhara, or the rotis at home. “His two favourite things are wrestling and eating,” Dalal, 47, says. “He would even finish all the food that would be left over by other trainees at the academy.”
Since 1995, Dalal has been running an academy in the middle of farmlands in Chhara, teaching techniques and passing on the knowledge he inherited from his guru Udey Chand, independent India’s first World Wrestling Championship medalist (1961, bronze in 67kg). Bajrang, who won bronze on Friday, spent his formative years at this akhara, Dalal says (from 2003 to 2008). “Irrespective of the career they choose, yahan har aadmi ek baar langot zaroor bandhta hai,” Dalal says.
Not all of them do. And certainly not Deepak’s father Subhash, a prosperous farmer with a booming dairy business. From dawn to noon, Punia Sr would be at the family’s farm, a 10-acre land where they cultivate multiple crops. Post lunch, till late night, he would travel almost 50km to deliver milk to residential areas in the outskirts of Delhi. “Everyday, I used to deliver 300 litres of milk. At first, I used to ride a bicycle for 30 minutes to reach a railway station and then take a train to Delhi. Later, I got myself a motorbike,” Subhash, 49, says.
The long working hours gave Subhash very little time to pursue his passion: wrestling. “So, I decided to make my son a wrestler,” he says. The Punia family farms are adjacent to Dalal’s academy. Deepak walked through the academy’s gates when he was five and since then, he has barely gone home. “Even though his house was not very far away, Deepak stayed at the academy. He surrounded himself with wrestling — all his friends were wrestlers, spoke endlessly about the sport and later on, watched videos on loop,” Dalal says.
Bigger than other children of his age, Deepak was made to train with the elder wrestlers who were heavier than him. Like most wrestlers in this category, Deepak wasn’t quick. But his strength and counterattacks stood out even back then. Given the dearth of quality heavyweight wrestlers, coupled with the promise he showed, Deepak progressed rapidly and in 2015, he joined Chhatrasal — an academy that is considered a stepping stone to national and international tournaments.
“I have never interfered with his wrestling; that has been left to the coaches – Virender, Mahabali Satpal Singh and Sushil pehelwan. My only responsibility was to ensure he continues to get nutritious food,” Subhash says.
So, Subhash stopped his dairy business. His daily trips to Delhi continued, but these would be to deliver food to his son. The heavyweight wrestler’s everyday staple, according to his father, includes 3 litre cow milk, 250 grams ghee, 250 grams white butter and approximately 2kg curd. “Did you see his bouts on Saturday? How do you think he gets such strength?” Subhash asks. “It’s because of the quality of food he eats and the right training he has been getting since he was 5.”
The luck of the draw favoured Deepak; he just had to overcome a tricky opening bout against home favourite Adilet Davlymbayen to get a relatively easy route to the medal rounds. The Kazakh tried multiple tricks to unsettle the Indian — including poking him once, for which he was warned. It worked, too, as Davlymbayen raced to a 5-0 lead.
But Deepak showed composure that belied his years as he levelled the score with two quick takedowns. Ultimately, the tie was decided after Kazakhstan challenged a call that went against them when scores were 7-7. The challenge was unsuccessful, which meant Davlymbayen was penalised a point, which helped Deepak clinch the bout. He defeated Tajikistan’s Bakhodur Kodirov rather easily, 6-0, and then staged another spectacular comeback against Colombia’s Carlos Arturo Mendez in the quarterfinal. With a minute remaining in the bout, Deepak was trailing 6-3. But two quick counterattacking moves in the dying moments helped him score four points and win the thrilling encounter 7-6.
With that win, a quota was sealed for the Tokyo Olympics. But Deepak wasn’t content with that. “When I last spoke to him, two days ago, he had said he would win the quota with a medal,” Subhash says. And his prophesy proved right. He outclassed Switzerland’s Stefan Reichmuth 8-2 in the semifinal to set up a final showdown with Yazdani, who has won all titles there are to win.
Dalal, though, is cautiously optimistic. “One of the ways we test young wrestlers at our academy is by taking them to dangals to see if they get afraid because of the ruthlessness of it,” Dalal says. “Deepak was one of the few who did not flinch. Size or reputation has never bothered him. His nickname as a kid was ketli. Today, I would call him fearless.”
Incidentally, that’s what Yazdani is called too. Fearless.