There was a fair bit of drama at the conclusion of the bout between Pooja Dhanda and Helen Maroulis in the final of the Pro Wrestling League on Friday. The score read 2-2. Maroulis' coach, though, had challenged what he felt was an unrewarded takedown by Maroulis in the dying seconds of the bout. After the challenge was denied, it was Dhanda who emerged a 3-2 winner.
The delay in announcing the verdict resulted in a rather unusual situation playing out on the mat in front of thousands of fans at the Siri Fort Stadium in New Delhi.
Unlike other sports, the nature of freestyle wrestling is such that players don't do the post-bout handshake and friendly chat across the net that're common in, say, tennis.
The bout had been hard-fought. No words had been exchanged when the two eyeballed each other ahead of the bout. Yet as the two wrestlers stood in the centre of the ring, waiting for the referees to decide the victor, the façade broke for Dhanda. "I started telling her that I was a big fan of hers," Dhanda says. "I told her that I would watch her videos when I wanted to improve my own wrestling."
Dhanda's moment of fangirling was understandable. Maroulis is perhaps the most accomplished woman's wrestler active today. She is the defending Olympic champion and a two-time world champion, winning her most recent title without conceding a single point.
Dhanda, a 24-year-old from the small town of Hisar in Haryana, had never come close to scaling those peaks. Her best international result is a Commonwealth Championship gold last November. Her career had almost come to an end after a severe knee injury. Amongst her biggest claims to fame was the fact that she had once nearly been cast in a starring role in the blockbuster sports film 'Dangal'.
On paper this was an absolute mismatch. On the mat in this year's PWL however, it's Dhanda who has been turning the script on its head.
After losing her opening bout to Marwa Amri, a silver medallist at the World Championships, Dhanda has been unbeaten. She would beat Maroulis 7-6 -- inflicting on the American only her second defeat in two-and-a-half years. She would then pin world silver medallist Odunayo Adekuoroye and then avenge her loss to Amri by pinning her in the semi-finals.
That first victory over Maroulis was massive. Yet the sheer unlikeliness of the result raised eyebrows. Dhanda knew that too. "Beating a world champion is great, but people could say it was a fluke," she says. "But you can't say that now. That's what makes me happy."
She knew that Maroulis would be smarting from the loss and raring to get her revenge on Friday. She admits it unnerved her but says she drew confidence from fellow teammate and current 125kg world champion Geno Petriashvili.
"He told me not to think that she was an Olympic champion," Dhanda says. "She had won the gold medal in 2016. He told me it is 2018 now. If you think Olympic champions can never be defeated, you will never have a chance to become a winner yourself."
The Indian certainly showed that she had the ability to learn from her mistakes. Knowing her weakness in the ground, she kept tying Maroulis. She was willing to look unglamorous, conceding a point for passivity before securing the crucial take-down.
With her spree of high-profile victories, Dhanda -- easily the highlight amongst Indian wrestlers in the PWL -- knows expectations from her have risen tremendously. "I'd like people to know that Indians can challenge and beat the best international wrestlers," she says. "This is only the start. I have the Asian Championships and the Commonwealth and Asian Games this year. But my goal is to prove myself at the Olympics."
Regardless of what the future holds for her, it is clear Dhanda has won a few fans already. "I kept on telling Helen how much I respected her and she kept telling me how much she respected me," she says. "We even got into a bit of an argument about who was a bigger fan of the other. I told her I always looked out to see her compete in competitions and she told me that it was now time for her now to look out for me from now."