The second edition of the Pro Wrestling League (PWL) has had its share of trouble even before it got underway. Initially scheduled to be held in December, uncertainty in the Indian economic climate caused it to be postponed until the new year. To save costs, the league will be limited to New Delhi as opposed to being a pan-Indian affair.
There have also been issues owing to management. Only two of the teams from the first edition - Haryana Hammers and Punjab Royals - are back this season. After being bought at the player auction, two Cuban wrestlers pulled out as well. Despite the gloom, there is still plenty to look forward to from the mat at least, when the League begins on January 2 at the KD Jadhav Stadium.
Sakshi Malik, India's first woman wrestler to medal at the Olympics, will compete for the first time since her historic win at Rio. Sakshi will have fond memories of the first edition of the PWL - in which she was part of the winning Mumbai franchise. In her first bout of the tournament, she upset Geeta Phogat, who was then considered the premier wrestler in the 58kg women's division in India.
The only two bouts Sakshi lost were to world champion Oksana Herhel - with the total score reading 8-6 in Herhel's favour. While Geeta is competing for UP Dangal, it is Sakshi who must be considered the favourite this time around, even if fellow Olympic bronze medalist Marwa Amri also features in her bracket.
Can Ritu step up?
22-year-old Ritu Phogat was the highest-priced Indian woman at the PWL auction and is considered the next big prospect from the Phogat stable. She has the pedigree in the juniors with a silver and bronze medal at the World Championships and a gold at the Asian juniors. She has begun to come into her own at the seniors too. Ritu defended her gold in the 48kg category at the nationals in October this year, and won the Commonwealth Championships in November.
Despite her success, Ritu has been in the shadow of her cousin Vinesh. Of the five matches Ritu wrestled at the 2015 Pro Wrestling League, she lost just one - an 8-0 blowout to Vinesh. With Vinesh still recovering from a knee injury picked up at the Rio Olympics, this is Ritu's chance to stake a strong claim to the division. Ritu, wrestling for the Jaipur Ninjas, doesn't have much competition from the Indians. Her task will be made stiffer by the two international players - Elitsa Yankova and Mariya Stadnik - in her division. Yankova is a bronze medalist from the Rio Olympics. Stadnik won a silver there, to add to her silver from London and bronze from Beijing.
Asgarov vs Bajrang
Bajrang Punia was the highest-paid Indian wrestler at the PWL auction, probably because the two biggest names in Indian men's wrestling - Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt - weren't part of the auction. Narsingh Yadav is serving a doping ban as well. Wrestling in the 65kg category in the absence of his mentor Yogeshwar, Bajrang has the chance to claim the Olympic division for his own. The highlight of the tournament, provided there are no blocks (Each team in the PWL is allowed to block one weight category) will be Bajrang's bout against Togrul Asgarov of Punjab Royals. Asgarov is one of the strongest wrestler in the men's segment of the pro league with a gold at the London Olympics and a silver in Rio.
Face-off of sisters
Considering the number of high-quality wrestlers produced in one family, it is inevitable that some of the Phogat girls would eventually have to wrestle each other on the mat. In the last edition, Ritu Phogat wrestled her cousin Vinesh in the 48kg divison. This time around, it is the turn of sisters Babita and Sangeeta to step onto the mat together in the 53kg divison. Representing UP Dangal, 27-year-old Babita is the far more experienced and accomplished wrestler in comparison to Delhi Sultan's Sangeeta, who, at 17, is the youngest wrestler in the competition.
Packed 57kg class
The 57kg category is among the most keenly-contested categories in India, with several wrestlers capable of beating the other at any point of time. The PWL will see that rivalry renewed once again. Amit Kumar Dahiya, didn't feature in the 2015 edition and the wrestler who once won silver at the 2011 World Championships will be keen to make up for lost time.
He, however, seems to have slipped in the pecking order, having been beaten by Utkarsh Kale in the semifinals of the Nationals. Kale, who will turn out for Jaipur in the PWL, was then beaten by Sandeep Tomar, who will now wrestle for Haryana. While the Indians will fight for bragging rights, the man to beat in the 57kg division will be Vladimir Khinchegashvili. The Georgian is the highest paid wrestler at the PWL, having been sold at the auction to Punjab for Rs 48 lakh. That payout is justified, considering Khinchegashvili was unbeaten in the previous edition of the league. Khinchegashvili, who was an Olympic silver medalist at the time of the league last year, has since added to his medal haul with a gold at the Rio Olympics.
Weibe's one-sided show in 75kg?
While most categories were closely-fought affairs, the women's 75kg divison was witness to a number of one-sided contests in the previous edition. Adeline Gray, the then world champion, dropped just two points in seven bouts. While Gray isn't participating in this edition, it remains to be seen if Erica Weibe, incidentally also from the Mumbai franchise, will take up those responsibilities. The Canadian was the gold medal winner at the Rio Olympics and on paper has competition in Delhi. Jenny Fransson won bronze in Rio, while Mariya Mamashuk has a silver.
However, both those medals came in lower weight divisions (Fransson in 69kg and Mamashuk in 63kg). The only competitor possibly in the way of a sweep will be Vasilisa Marzaliuk, who represents Punjab. Marzaliuk is no stranger to upsets. She took one of the two points Gray conceded in the previous edition and then stunned the American at the Olympics. Weibe though would know what to expect considering she defeated Marzaliuk.