Of brawn and promise, the many moods of Wrestling Nationals
Among the first thing one notices upon entering Faizabad Road from Lucknow en route Gonda are the giant hoardings flanking the highway, announcing the ongoing Senior Wrestling Nationals. From those vantage points, the giant, looming spectre of Wrestling Federation of India president Brijbhushan Sharan Singh smiles back, surrounded unmistakably by the Prime Minister, state Chief Minister, and BJP's national president.
The advertisements become increasingly frequent as Ayodhya approaches, and once the highway gives way to the emaciated road that leads to the vast greens of Nandini Nagar Mahavidyalaya on the outskirts of Gonda, all one can see is Singh. This is, quite literally, his playground. The college is among over 50 educational institutes that he owns in and around the area.
In local parlance, Singh is a bonafide bahubali. The term loosely translates to "strongman", but translations rarely justify his clout. Singh is currently serving his sixth term as a Member of Parliament from Kaiserganj, and his political career is littered with run-ins with the law, including being charged under Indian Penal Code (IPC) sections 147, 148 (rioting) and 365 (attempt to murder) in the Babri Masjid demolition case (he was acquitted last year).
His residence is an endless swathe of land dotted by manicured lawns, colonial-style pristine white complexes and gun-totting security personnel. His dinner invite is more a command than a request, and his singular exhortation is enough for people to fall in line. More than once during the Nationals, eager supporters of competing wrestlers would block the galleries bordering the mat. Singh would simply take the microphone and announce, "Don't make me come there." Inevitably, the commotion would be clear within seconds.
At the wrestling venue, he sat on the impressive parapet with a bevy of local politicians and influential attendees, shouting instructions, or when the mood hit him, commentating on the live action. The importance of the bouts were unmistakably decided by Singh's decibels. On one occasion, he ordered people to drop everything they were doing and watch the Narsingh Yadav-Amit Dhankar quarter-final bout.
"Narsingh could not make it to the Rio Olympics because something happened. But he is a fine wrestler," Singh remarked, choosing his pauses perfectly. "Amit is a very experienced grappler. This is a match-up worthy of a final, so don't miss it." Sure enough, the masses obliged, and almost on cue, the two wrestlers produced a thoroughly entertaining bout that Yadav won.
"Let me tell you, this is not cricket. Unlike our cricket team that lost to Pakistan, our young wrestlers have won medals at the world stage," he would invariably gloat on the microphone to hard sell a bout, and unsurprisingly, the crowd would erupt in delirium.
Debuts and comebacks
The Wrestling Nationals was not only about Singh though. It threw an eclectic mix of first-time champions as well as comeback stories from the more seasoned practitioners. Geeta Phogat and Sangeeta Phogat marked their return to Nationals with podium finishes - Phogat Senior won a silver in the much-anticipated 59 kg final against Sarita Mor, while Sangeeta, returning to mat after a prolonged knee injury, defeated Delhi's Ritu Rani in the 62kg final.
Since 59 kg is not an Olympics category, Phogat and Mor will eventually move to the 57kg class, confirming further showdowns. Among men, Narsingh Yadav, bidding for a return in the 74kg class, eventually lost to Delhi's Yash, a Junior World Championships bronze medallist (2021), but marked his comeback with a bronze. Railways' Jitender Kumar, Bajrang Punia's sparring partner, also returned to competition after an injury layoff to claim silver in the 79kg category, going down to young Gaurav Baliyan in the summit clash.
Though big names such as 2019 World Championships bronze medallist Vinesh Phogat, Tokyo Olympics silver and bronze medallists Ravi Dahiya and Bajrang Punia, and impressive new talents such as Sonam and Anshu Malik did not compete, the event gave the early sightings of some promising wrestlers.
Madhya Pradesh's Shivani Pawar, who won the 50kg division, marked herself out for bigger things. Fresh from her U23 World Championships silver, Pawar barged into the semis with 10-0 wins in her first two bouts. Her first match barely lasted 90 seconds, while the next was won inside 30 seconds.
Next, Shivani won by fall against Chandigarh's Gunjan Sharma, beat Tokyo Olympian Seema Bisla, and set up a blockbuster final against another upcoming sensation, Simran. A product of Delhi's famed Changdiram Akhada, Simran won a bronze at the junior World Championship earlier this year. She has also won a bronze at the World Cadet Championship 2017, besides a Youth Olympics silver in 2018. Both Shivani and Simran have booked their ticket for the Commonwealth Championships in South Africa next month.
"This is not cricket. These are our tigresses," Singh would remind from the pulpit.
Pooja Gehlot, another young wrestler with burgeoning pedigree, won the 53kg crown. Gehlot has been a consistent performer at the junior international level, and if not for her injuries, she could have posed some competition to Vinesh Phogat in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics. Gehlot won Junior Nationals in 2015, and became the junior Asian champion two years later. A silver at the U23 World Championships arrived in 2019 that catapulted her to big league before a spate of injuries kept her out of competition.
Commenting on the inevitable possibility of meeting Phogat in near future, she said, "Vinesh is a very experienced wrestler, and I know I am competing in her category. I am fully confident of wrestling her whenever there is an opportunity. We have wrestled in the national camps, and it has always gone well for me.
Among men, Rohit Kumar, who lost the bronze medal playoff at last month's World Championships in 65kg class in the absence of Bajrang Punia, retained his Nationals crown. In a repeat of the 2020 Nationals final (held in January 2021 in Noida as COVID-19 jeopardized the 2020 calendar), Kumar defeated Sharwan to cap a successful year. However, both his Nationals wins came in the absence of Punia.
Along with Yash (74 kg silver medallist), Aman, who aced the 57kg division was an eye-catching talent. Representing Haryana, Aman was barely challenged by any wrestler in his weight class and cruised to gold with a commanding 12-4 win over Delhi's Abhishek Dhaka. A cadet Worlds bronze medallist (51 kg, 2018), Aman is still a work in progress, but is being groomed by Ravi Dahiya - who competes in the same weight class - in the capital's Chhatrasal Stadium.
Expectedly, the finishing touches arrived from Singh. "Let me remind everyone around, wrestling has been around for over 15,000 years and it will continue to remain India's No 1 sport forever. This is not cricket. We don't lose to Pakistan and come home smiling."