India’s newest star Deepak Punia rises from dangals
Deepak Punia wanted badly to break India’s 18-year-old gold drought at the Junior Wrestling World Championship at Tallinn, Estonia. It was also the last chance for the 20-year-old wrestler from Haryana to change the colour of the medal he had won at the Worlds last year, before his switch to the senior level.
Fighting through a muscle strain sustained during his semi-final bout, and with the possibility of aggravating the injury and missing the Senior World Championship next month, Punia pushed on. “I could not have attacked too much because of the shoulder. I was looking for the right opportunity. It was the toughest bout,” Punia said, speaking from Moscow.
Trailing for most of the final against Russia’s Alik Shebzukov, the 86kg wrestler used all of that grit to execute a thrilling takedown in the dying moments to become the first Indian since Ramesh Gulia and Palwinder Singh Cheema in 2001 to win gold at the junior worlds. Punia’s path to wrestling follows a familiar trajectory; his father and grandfather both dabbled with the sport at the local dangal level, and this is where Punia too began.
“He was in love with the idea of becoming a pehelwan,” says his father Subhash, who ran a small dairy business from home.
Punia grew up seeing wrestlers around him; the village he comes from, Chhara in Jhajjar district is very active in the local dangal circuit, and he was introduced to the sport when he was just four. His older cousin Sunil Kumar was a well known name in the circuit, and Punia started accompanying him to the village akhada. Soon, the young Punia began travelling to fight in dangals in neighbouring villages. He got so good at it, that he could count on winning dangals, where bouts are fought on earthen pits, as a steady source of income.
“Whatever little I was earning from dangals I was spending it on my diet and also helping my family,” Punia said.
In 2015, he moved up a step, joining Chhatrasal Stadium in Delhi, the wrestling school which produced both of India’s Olympic medalists in men’s wrestling, Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt. It was Punia’s cousin Sunil who brought him to Chhatrasal as he realized that fighting only in dangals would restrict his potential. “Deepak is one of the most disciplined and hard working kids I have seen,” says Chhatrasal coach Virender.
He narrates an incident when it was raining heavily in the morning and Virender asked the trainees to reassemble at 5am instead of 4. “When rain stopped and we went for training I saw Deepak had not left and he was training on his own in the rain.
“He used to play a lot in dangals but now in last two years he has stopped. Wrestling is very different on the mat, you get just six minutes to prove your superiority. He has great stamina and power and that is what you need in modern wrestling. Technically he is still learning.”
Punia’s mat success has followed a reassuring pattern—he won gold at the cadet world championship (for ages 16-17) in 2016, before winning a junior (ages 18-20) silver last year, and now the junior gold.
Now comes the big jump—the Senior World Championships from September 14-22 at Kazakhstan. The event will offer quota places for the Tokyo Olympics , and Punia is up for the challenge.