Sushil vs Parveen adds spice to low-key PWL

Sushil Kumar (right) will be taking part in the PWL for the first time. AFP PHOTO / MARWAN NAAMANI

The third edition of the Pro Wrestling League (PWL) that kicks off on Tuesday evening is expected to be a relatively subdued affair. The past two seasons have seen a churn of teams. Three of the six teams exited the league after the first season. Another team, Jaipur Ninjas, pulled out at the end of the previous season too; it has been replaced by Veer Maratha. There have been few promotional events marketing the league and the competition has even had to give up the Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium in New Delhi for the smaller Siri Fort Sports Complex.

Return of Sushil

The biggest name in the PWL would have to be Sushil Kumar, who was signed by the Delhi Sultans for Rs 55 lakh. This edition of the league will be the first one featuring the double Olympic medallist. He was expected to have participated in the inaugural year but ultimately withdrew, his pull-out being a significant snub to the league. However, the decision was also one that was deemed to have cost Sushil a chance to compete at the Rio Olympics. One of the reasons given by the Wrestling Federation of India to deny Sushil the chance to have a trial for the 2016 Olympic quota was his relative inactivity, and his absence in the PWL was a key consideration. As Sushil looks to compete at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, he has decided to compete in the PWL to put any naysayers to rest.

Reduced Indian significance

Still, the latest edition of the league will find it hard to match up to the previous two seasons simply because of the current state of Indian wrestling. The 2015 and 2017 editions could feed off strong Indian performances in the international arena. The first PWL season was conducted soon after the World Championships, in which Narsingh Yadav won a bronze medal, while the 2017 league saw Olympic bronze medallist Sakshi Malik as a star player. In contrast, Indian wrestling has had a torrid past year with not a single wrestler winning more than two consecutive bouts at the 2017 World Championships. In addition, there is little incentive for an upcoming wrestler to stake their claim to a spot on the national team roster with their performances in the league -- since trials to select the Indian team for the Commonwealth Games have already been held.

Cavalcade of stars

Ever since its inception, the league has never found it difficult to lure high quality international talent. The 2018 league will feature 20 Olympic and World medallists. Among the biggest international stars is USA's Helen Maroulis, who won the gold medal at the Rio Olympics in the women's 58kg category and then claimed the World Championship title the following year. Maroulis' category is one of the hardest at the PWL. Other wrestlers include Odunayo Adekuoroye, silver medallist at the 2017 Worlds, and Marwa Amri, a bronze medallist at the 2016 Rio Games. Among the men, the most decorated wrestler would be Vladimir Khinchegashvili, who is replacing Hasan Rahimi for the Haryana Hammers. An Olympic gold (2016) and silver (2012) medallist from Georgia, Khinchegashvili also took a bronze at last year's world championships.

Difficult return

Meanwhile, Sushil won't have it easy at the PWL. When he made his return to active competition at the 2017 wrestling nationals, he was given a walkover to the gold medal by three competitors. Their decision was explained as a matter of respect to a senior athlete. That is a scenario unlikely to repeat itself at the league itself. Among Sushil's competitors are Bekzod Abdurahmanov, a fifth-place finisher at Rio, and Khetig Tsabolov, silver medallist at the 2017 World Championships. Sushil will also face a stiff challenge from Parveen Rana, a rivalry which has turned particularly ugly of late. Rana was one of the wrestlers who conceded their match to Sushil at the wrestling nationals, but he has wrestled Sushil twice since -- losing both bouts by a single-point margin. At the end of his second loss, at the selection trials for the Commonwealth Games, Rana and his brother were set upon and assaulted by spectators, who he claims were instigated by Sushil. Rana subsequently filed a police complaint while Sushil has been sent a notice by the national federation. Rana says he will best respond to Sushil on the mat for their bout, which will be on January 21. "I will now reply on the mat," he said. "I'm totally focused on the January 21 bout and am confident that I've a very good chance to beat him."