Asian Games 2018: Wrestler Bajrang Punia determined to fill Yogeshwar Dutt's shoes for continental glory

Bajrang Punia lies spread-eagled on the left corner of his double bed. His lower body is under a thin brown blanket that runs across his wafer-thin waist, and his well-built torso — behind a blue sleeveless t-shirt — is propped up at an angle, holding his rugged face and an unruly mop of wet hair above it.

He is fresh from the shower, the air-conditioner in his tiny room at Sports Authority of India’s (SAI) Sonipat centre is adjusted to perfection, and the young man is resting under the glare of a Hanuman idol. There’s a sipper on the side-table, and the translucent bottle indicates the pink hue of the protein drink inside.

This could pass off as the hostel room of a third-year engineering student. Turns out, it is home to world’s s second-ranked 65kg freestyle wrestler. Bajrang though, like most wrestlers, wears his modesty with characteristic humility. He remembers his roots. He understands that wrestling has helped him marry off his siblings — one brother and three sisters, all elder to him. Not surprising then, dealing with responsibilities comes easily to him.

“I understand I have a responsibility towards the nation. People expect me to get a medal. It doesn’t put me under pressure; instead, it fills me with hope and pride. It tells me that I am good enough for people to have certain expectations of me,” he says.

It’s easy to judge Bajrang if one watches him go about the simple business of arriving at the morning practice. At precisely 7 am, his SUV screeches to a halt outside SAI’s Sushil Kumar-Yogeshwar Dutt Wrestling Hall. Bajrang sits purse-lipped at the wheels, and out pop muscle-men from each side, one after another. Bajrang alights last, slowly and theatrically in a thin cloud of dust. He stretches his arms, and two heavily-built men rush to touch his feet and shake hands in reverence. We could well be looking at a local strongman, and considering where we are, we might as well.

Then, the transformation. As he jumps the few steps and troops into the hall, the confident strut of a truck-driver makes way for the subdued gait of a student who is late for class. Except, Bajrang Punia is never late for class.

He touches the feet of chief coach Jagminder Singh, offers a quick prayer to a Hanuman idol, touches the mat with his forehead, and is ready to be thrashed.

Bajrang insists his physique is Image courtesy: Twitter/ @BajrangPunia

Bajrang insists his chiselled physique is a result of six-hour, six-day-a-week training with minimal visits to gym. Image courtesy: Twitter/ @BajrangPunia

“I think he is a complete wrestler. Over the past year or so, his kushti has undergone remarkable improvement, and there is no real chink in his game. I think he has a very good chance at the Asian Games,” Singh says, as Bajrang is given a torrid time by a fellow wrestler.

His head is buried deep in the mat, and the sparring partner locks Bajrang tightly at the waist, as if squeezing the lifeblood out of him. They hold the pose, listening intently to the instructions of another coach, who points towards Bajrang’s thighs. Finally, the grip loosens and Bajrang is freed — his neck safe and spirits high.

They get back the starting position quickly. We are barely 20 minutes into the session, and the men are sweating from every pore. Bajrang makes the first move now and gets hold of his partner’s neck. He tries to pin him, but the opponent is no pushover. In a split second, like a spitting cobra, he makes a dash for Bajrang’s thigh, and grabs it.

That leg defence, according to Bajrang, is the only weakness in his game. “I think I give away way too many points through my legs. My endurance and stamina otherwise are very good, and I am working very hard to improve my leg defence,” he would say later.

Coach Jagminder though doesn’t read much into this. “That is an area he can obviously work on, but I won’t call it a weakness.”

Meanwhile, on the mat, Bajrang is struggling to find his feet, literally. His left leg is gripped by his sparring partner, who is holding it tightly to his chest, leaving the Commonwealth Games gold-medallist gasping. Bajrang finally steadies himself, and with a quick twist, does a sideways cartwheel. Incredible, considering the power he generates from his upper body twist while standing on one leg. The torque and the sudden movement are enough for his left leg to slip from the constrictor-like grip of his partner’s rippling forearms, and Bajrang is on his feet in no time.

This suppleness, he would explain later, is a result of hours of relentless sparring and minimal gym routine.

“I practice six hours a day, six times a week. We are not much into gym training, because it toughens up your muscles and eventually affects your flexibility. I go to gym once in ten days or two weeks, and as a tournament approaches, I completely forego gym. You don’t want to stand on the mat like a puffed-up robot,” he says.

“So all the physique you see of wrestlers, it’s all due to wrestling and desi bodyweight exercises such as dand (push-ups), uthak baithak (squats) etc.”

*****

Bajrang was born to Balwan Singh Punia and Ompyari on 26 February, 1994 in Khudan village of Haryana's Jhajjar district. Balwan Singh was a small-time pehelwan in his youth and a farmer by profession.

Young Bajrang was never keen on studies and used to run away to the nearest akhada to avoid school. By the time he was eight, he had started wrestling.

Kushti was big in my village and there were a lot of pehelwans around. My father believed that if I am not interested in studies, I should pursue wrestling. He was very supportive. Back then, my brother also used to visit akhada. Papa wanted that there should be at least one pehelwan in the family.”

Gradually, Bajrang’s brother stopped visiting the mud-pits, but the former’s intermittent escapes from school began to take a defining permanence.

“Initially, I was not much into kushti. Mai to bus khelne jaata tha. Pata nai chala kab interest develop hua. It all just happened.”

By the time he turned 11, Bajrang began travelling to what he calls Virender ka akhada in Chhara village, about 35 kilometres from Khudan. Wrestling thus started in right earnest for him.

“That akhada had a mat. That was the first time I wrestled on the mat. Before that, I had always wrestled on mud,” he remembers.

Bajrang’s stint at Virender ka akhada lasted two-and-a-half years, and by the time 2008 came about, he found himself in Chhatrasal Stadium, popularly known as ‘Mahabali’ Satpal ka akhada, and began training under the much-decorated master.

Not long after, a young, unassuming man with uncompromising work ethics and smouldering ambition caught Bajrang’s eye, and the youngster knew he had found his guru.

*****

Yogeshwar Dutt was still four years from his Olympic bronze — his holy grail — but the kushti fraternity held the 2006 Doha Asian Games bronze-medallist in high regard, thanks largely to his tirelessness and tenacity. Bajrang was sold.

“I liked everything about him,” he gushes.

“Just the way he prepared, the way he fought, the way he talked. I used to watch his kushti intently and realised that he could turn the bout around in dying moments or even in last 10-15 seconds.

“I decided I wanted to be like him. He became my guru.”

Bajrang with his mentor Yogeshwar Dutt upon returning from his gold-winning performance from Yasar Dogu International in Istanbul, Turkey last month. Image credit: Twitter/ @BajrangPunia

Bajrang with his mentor Yogeshwar Dutt upon returning from his gold-winning performance from Yasar Dogu International in Istanbul, Turkey last month. Image credit: Twitter/ @BajrangPunia

The admiration was mutual, and gradually, words of encouragement and advice began to flow freely from Yogeshwar. Bajrang is not so sure what endeared him to ‘Yogi bhai’, but it’s not hard to guess. The then 14-year-old already had a six-year wrestling experience under his belt, and it is not entirely preposterous to presume that the restlessness that had landed Bajrang in his third wrestling school in six years resonated with the man who had won his first Asian Games medal on the back of his father’s death.

Aap kar sakte ho (You can do it),” Yogeshwar would often tell Bajrang, and it soon became a recurring leitmotif in their conversations.

“His style of fighting and mindset are an education. He motivates me a lot. When a wrestler of his stature is constantly in your ear, telling you aap kar sakte ho, you start believing.”

In an akhada where the guru-shishya lore of Satpal and Sushil is recited with sacred intonation, Yogeshwar and Bajrang soon forged a unique bond of their own. In Chhatrasal and beyond, Bajrang was now Yogeshwar’s chela. Yogi’s protege; his shisya.

The year 2008 was seminal in Indian sports, more so in Indian wrestling. At the Beijing Olympics, Abhinav Bindra gave India their first individual gold medal, while Sushil Kumar ended the 56-year wait for a wrestling medal with a bronze-winning effort.

Four years later, at the London Olympics, Sushil went on to bag silver, while Yogeshwar, in his third dig at the quadrennial event, finally won a bronze. It remains the best year in Indian wrestling by some distance, and back in Chhatrasal, Bajrang began to dream.

“I started to believe that if Sushil and Yogeshwar can win medals at such grand stage, I can do it too. I started working extra hard. Bhut zor lagaya.”

Yogeshwar eventually left Chhatrasal in 2012, and three years later, Bajrang followed suit.

“Even when I was at Chhatrasal, all my training was effectively under Yogeshwar. Gradually, Yogi bhai’s stay there became increasingly shorter as he had to report to national camps frequently. Post 2012, I became a regular at senior camps as well and visited Chhatrasal for only one-two months a year. From 2015, I left Chhatrsal permanently and started training under Yogi bhai at Madhuban Police academy in Karnal.”

Medals began to arrive for Bajrang, and with it, the assurance that he belonged. He won bronze at the Asian and World Wrestling Championships (60 kg) in 2013. Both those results, especially the World Championships bronze, brought him in the national spotlight.

“That World Championships medal was really special. I was just 19 then, and I had got a chance to participate only after Yogi bhai pulled out due to an injury. We used to play in the same weight category then. He told me, aap final kheloge. Now, even Yogi bhai had never won a World Championships medal, and here he was, telling me before every bout that I will win it.

“He believed in me when not even I believed in myself.”

Friend, philosopher, guide, bhai, Yogeshwar Dutt's role in Bajrang's life is in line with the finest teacher-disciple tradition of Indian akhadas. Image courtesy: Twitter/ @BajrangPunia

Friend, philosopher, guide, bhai... Yogeshwar Dutt's role in Bajrang's life is in line with the finest teacher-disciple tradition of Indian akhadas. Image courtesy: Twitter/ @BajrangPunia

Towards the end of 2013, the Fédération Internationale des Luttes Associées (FILA) rejigged weight categories. The 60 and 66 kg categories were replaced with 61 and 65 kgs respectively, and Yogeshwar chose to leave the 61 kg class for his young disciple. It gave Bajrang a chance to compete in the 2014 Asian and Commonwealth Games, and he responded by winning silver medals at both those events.

Fir to career aage hi badhta gaya.”

“Before Rio Olympics, Yogi bhai told me that it would be his last Olympics, and he asked me to step up to 65 kg category because 61 kg is not an Olympics category. It was his dream to win an Olympic gold, but sadly he couldn’t realise it. He wants me to fulfil his dream; his dream is my dream too.”

Bajrang’s surrender to Yogi bhai borders on the devotional. Yogeshwar’s framed photograph sits next to Bajrang’s in the living room of the SAI flat where we are meeting, and the young man makes no pretence of his reverence.

“The best part about Yogeshwar is that there’s always a feedback from him. Recently, after I returned from winning gold in Turkey, he identified areas where I could have done better and made me train. He has taught me his signature fitelle (leg-lace move), and a number of other techniques. But besides wrestling, there is so much to learn from him. His humility, for instance.

“You know, it’s my dream to be like Yogeshwar Dutt someday.”

Bajrang has an innocent and sweeping theory: The more you study, the further you get from your roots.

“It (academics) may teach you a lot about the world, but of what I have seen, it creates differences between people.”

So, does his lack of schooling keep him grounded? Bajrang probably has no certain answers, but the only certainty in his life, apart from the mat, is his mentor, of whom he never stops talking.

“I believe no player is bigger than his/her guru. No athlete has ever succeeded after insulting or demeaning his guru. Besides being a good player, one must also be a good human being.”

2018 has been a phenomenal year for Bajrang, who has won three gold medals and a bronze from the four events he has participated in so far. The third-place finish came at the Asian Wrestling Championships in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, while he has topped the podium at the Commonwealth Games, Tbilisi Grand Prix, and Yasar Dogu International in Istanbul.

The Istanbul title was sweet revenge for Bajrang, as he defeated local favourite Mustafa Kaya 8-3 in the final — Kaya had beaten him twice in 2017, at the World Championships by an identical 3-8 margin, and served him a 0-10 hammering at the World Cup.

“I was better prepared for Mustafa this time. I fought him once in a practice bout before the main event, and we shared points. So the confidence was there.

“And when a wrestler of Yogeshwar’s class tells me that I am good, it doesn't matter ki saamne Olympic champion khada hai ya world champion. The belief is always there.”

It’s not surprising why every reference and every story of Bajrang’s life somehow finds its way to Yogi bhai. The youngest member of the family unwittingly grew up — khel khel me, as he says — to become their primary breadwinner. There was never enough time or money to let the hair down. By his own admission, Bajrang has not once been to a movie theatre in 24 years of his life. Yogi bhai thus became the only support system that supported the support system.

“Who doesn’t want to go out? But if I go for a drive or a movie, when will my body recover? If it doesn’t recover, it will be prone to injury, and that’s the last thing a khiladi wants,” he reasons.

The one movie he ever wanted to watch was Bahubali, but then, Yogi bhai (who else) threw a fit.

“He said you’ve got entire life to watch movies. Get an Olympic medal first.”

An Olympic medal for a movie?

Bajrang though has no complaints. The earnestness with which he talks of Yogi bhai almost implores you to believe what he believes in, that Yogi is actually a bhai to him.

For someone who never bothered with schooling, Bajrang has got three English words right, and he has pasted them at the back of his SUV. They read: Wrestling My Life. Read them without context, and the absence of a comma tells you that Bajrang Punia’s life has been a perpetual struggle; the end unknown, the purpose unclear.

The boy in the crowd in Khudan village who once wanted to see and touch Yogeshwar Dutt is living his life by Yogeshwar’s rules and dreams. He looks back at his short life and affords a fleeting whiff of pride.

“It feels nice when I look back. Badi normal family se aaye thy. Ghar me kuch bhi nai tha. If not for wrestling, pata nahi aj kaha hote.

“Nobody had a job and a steady income at home. Papa kheti karte the. My elder brother doesn’t have a job. This sport has given me everything. I feel very nice that I have changed the condition of my family.”

Bajrang’s family has now relocated to Sonipat, near the SAI Centre where he trains. The heat, dust and oblivion of Khudan are behind him, but whenever he does visit his village, he meets his childhood.

“They love me, the kids especially. Kal tak hum bhi unme se thy. All I tell them is that there is a Sushil, Yogeshwar and Bajrang among you.

Bus zor lagao. Aap kar sakte ho.”


Updated Date: Aug 18, 2018 16:30 PM

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