Nine years after he last held the title, Sushil Kumar became a national champion once again on Friday. The medal will allow him to turn the page on an acrimonious run-up to the Rio Olympics that tarnished a once-stellar career and secure his legacy with the greatness it undoubtedly deserves.
But while it marks the beginning of a second comeback after a three-year absence from competitive wrestling, the manner in which it was won was farcical in every respect. Even before Sushil stepped up on the mat for his final bout against Parveen Rana, he had already won. Rana would touch his feet as a mark of respect and concede the match. Two other wrestlers Sushil faced earlier in the day - Sachin Rathi of Uttar Pradesh and Praveen of Haryana - had done the same. The arm of the legendary wrestler wearing the red singlet was raised and just like that Sushil was a national champion.
Sushil might have had his medal but the point of it was lost. He had been denied a chance to compete at the Rio Olympics because the Indian federation felt he had been inactive. His return was ostensibly to prove his relevance in contemporary wrestling. While the three wrestlers who conceded matches to him might have felt they were offering tribute to his status in the wrestling pantheon, they denied him a chance to stake his claim in the manner he truly deserved.
The farcical series of events was not entirely unexpected.
There was little inkling of what was to come when the day's action began. Sitting in a corner of the playing area, Sushil, surrounded by an entourage of friends, coaches, physios and a perimeter of armed guards, stretched ahead of his bout. However, he was in a good mood. The guards let through children who posed for pictures with the smiling wrestler who also shook the hands of well-wishers walking by. When his guards tried to stop a mentally impaired former wrestler who is something of a mascot in Indian wrestling circles, Sushil insisted on letting him through and give him his blessings. The calm was only belied by Sushil's Georgian coach Vladimir Mestervishvilli. "I'm nervous," he confessed.
9:41 am: Bout 1 vs. Lalmalsawma
It helped that Sushil's first opponent was Lalmalsawma of Mizoram. The state was only recognized as a state federation in 1995. The 22-year-old had competed in three national championships before without winning a single match. While Sushil had flown down to Delhi just for the bout, it had taken a five-day journey by train from Kolasib district just to make it to Indore. It was the perfect sort of warm-up for the big day. Within the first 30 seconds Sushil had the Mizo wrapped in a headlock and turned him over again and again to rack up eight points in a row. The manoeuvre left the Mizo blacked out for a few seconds and although he recovered in time to stand up, he was taken down again as Sushil won by a 10-0 technical fall.
#Wrestling for the first time since 2014, #Sushil Kumar beats Mizoram's Lalmalsawma by technical fall in 48 seconds in the first round of the Indian wrestling nationals in Indore. pic.twitter.com/P31icZeNtO
- jonathan selvaraj (@jon_selvaraj) 17 November 2017
None of this mattered to the Mizo wrestler though, who received pats on his back when he returned to his teammates in the stands. "When I started wrestling, I was inspired by watching Sushil Kumar's videos," he said. "The difference between us is like this," he explained stretching his arms wide apart. "I have come from so far. Just to get a chance to wrestle against Sushil made me so happy. Yesterday I was so happy when I got to know I would get that chance," he said.
12:21pm: Bout 2 vs. Mukul Mishra
Mukul Mishra wasn't expected to be a serious challenge to Sushil either. The Varanasi-born youngster was representing Jharkhand but was treating the tournament as a form of gaining experience. Sushil undoubtedly was a hero for him too. As such in time he might recognize and appreciate the Irani daav that Sushil applied on him too. Back in the semi-finals of the 2012 Olympics, Sushil had applied the same move on the Kazakh Akhzurek Tantarov. Mishra couldn't escape and was pinned easily. He survived for a minute and 45 seconds. Only following the defeat, he would touch Sushil's feet. While he knew he was outclassed against a far superior wrestler, Mishra says he had to give his best. "My father is a Railways coach. He has always told me to never back away from a match on the mat. It doesn't matter who is on the other side. If I am on the mat, I have to wrestle," he said later.
2:50pm: Bout 3 vs. Praveen
Haryana's Praveen likely didn't share those beliefs. Perhaps Mishra's act of touching Sushil's feet had set a chain of actions in motion. Praveen followed Sushil up on stage. He touched his feet and whispered to the referee that he didn't want to compete. "Nahi pehelwan ji," he is said to have told Sushil. For the first time in the day, Sushil had his arm held aloft without actually competing.
"Aaj ki teesri jeet. Desh ke shaheedon ko samarpit," (Today's third win, dedicated to the martyrs of the country) Sushil's official handle tweeted.
Sushil rolls into the semis without a contest as Praveen of Haryana steps to the mat, touches the double Olympic medalist's feet and concedes the match. This was expected and it might not be for the first time today. On the stage Narsingh Yadav has his head stuck on a phone. pic.twitter.com/KtcCgZDjeM
- jonathan selvaraj (@jon_selvaraj) 17 November 2017
The act of conceding a match isn't unusual in wrestling. Wrestling state federations usually send two squads for the nationals, and when two wrestlers from the same body meet, the senior one or at least the one expected to travel further in the competition gets a walkover. In a sport like wrestling, where wrestlers are expected to compete in multiple bouts in a single day, this practice allows a stronger athlete to get some much needed rest. But while the practice makes sense for wrestlers from the same team, the gesture of Praveen for Haryana towards Sushil, wrestling for the Indian Railways was far more unusual.
4:41 pm: Bout 4 vs. Sachin Rathi
It happened yet again in Sushil's semi-final bout. Uttar Pradesh's Sachin Rathi waved his hands even before he reached the centre of the mat, where Sushil and the referee were standing. Sushil had his hand raised once again. Never short of a colourful turn of phrase, the emcee at the stadium played up the moment. "Yeh hai Bharat ki kushti ki parampara," (This is the tradition of Indian wrestling) he boomed into the microphone and the stands cheered approvingly. On the stage sitting with other officials was Narsingh Yadav, who might have rolled his eyes. Once the undisputed occupant of the 74kg spot in the Indian team roster, Narsingh was involved in an infamous dispute with Sushil, who claimed to benefit from the same quota.
6:40 pm: Bout 5 vs. Parveen Rana
Unlike the other dignitaries who rushed to get pictures clicked with Sushil before bouts, Yadav remained in his chair and left the stadium before Sushil's final bout. Perhaps Yadav knew what was coming. Rana was a junior of Sushil's at New Delhi's Chhatrasal akhara - the cradle of many of India's finest wrestlers. Rana, a former bronze medallist at the Asian Championships had already shown his hand when he failed to show up in the trials that saw Sushil selected to the Railways team a couple of weeks ago.
Friday was no different. His head bent low, he quickly touched Sushil's feet, turned around and walked quickly away to let Sushil soak in the applause. He might have become champion having spent less than two and a half minutes on the mat, but Sushil showed little bewilderment at the best wrestlers conceding matches to him. "It was not something I chose. From my side each time I stepped on the mat, I expected to compete. When I got onto the match, I expected to be playing a final," he said.
The only person that seemed perturbed was Mizoram's Lalmalsawma - who would lose his first repechage bout too. "I don't think it is right. You should not come to a tournament if you don't want to wrestle. It isn't as if I don't respect him. I respect him so much. But that is the reason I had to wrestle him," he said.