Arms crossed tightly across his torso, Sushil Kumar slunk into his bucket seat. Sitting amongst the mortals in the spectator gallery at the Jakarta Convention centre, he watched the gladiators grappling on the mat below. His eyes were fixated on the creaking figure of Adam Batirov, willing him onwards against Yuki Takahashi.
Sushil's motivation was selfish but justified -- he was hoping for repechage. A rescue. The quirk by which wrestlers who have lost early in the competition can fight for a bronze medal if the opponent they lost to reached the finals. An honour-redeeming medal.
For Sushil, Batirov had to reach the finals. Batirov had to win. Eight years ago, Sushil had taught a generation of Indians what the French word 'rescue' meant. Back when he had recovered from an early defeat at the 2008 Olympics to win an Olympic medal.
Within the first couple of minutes, it was clear that Sushil would be left grasping at straws. Against Japan's Yuhi Fujinama, a man nine years younger than him, Batirov seemed to be moving in slow motion. His shots seemed telegraphed, his attempts at takedowns clumsy. As Batirov went down 8-2, Sushil seemed to sink even deeper in his chair, his eyebrows furrowed even deeper.
Batirov, a 33-year-old, a Dagestani, had been an elite contemporary of the Indian many years back, winning the European championship for Russia at his peak, a year before Sushil had won the World Championships in 2010. Now he was representing Bahrain as the lights dimmed in his own career. Batirov didn't just lose. He struggled.
"Victories and defeats are part of the game. When I am tired after a defeat, I will decide to stop" Sushil Kumar
It put 35-year-old Sushil's own 5-3 loss to Batirov earlier in the day in even harsher light. He couldn't blame fatigue for it was his first match of the Asian Games. The first in 12 years. In that gap he has claimed to being considered the greatest Indian wrestler in history through his two Olympic medals and the World Championships gold. He had gone through bad days too, where his motives and ability had been questioned.
"I'm not done," Sushil said after Batirov lost. "Victories and defeats are part of the game. When I am tired after a defeat, I will decide to stop," he said. He blamed tactics, starting aggressively rather than counter-attacking Batirov. For Jakarta, Sushil had trained harder than he had in the past four years. The curly hair of his youth may have thinned around the crown, his knee might be strapped tighter than in the past and his fingers not as quick to wrap around unwary feet as before. But he certainly believed he could roll back the years.
The spirit was there, the nerves weren't. For the Indian had looked even more ill at ease, even slower than Batirov. There was an early moment - a half a minute into the match -- that gave his supporters in Jakarta cause to cheer. He had slid forward and pulled his opponent down for two points. But it quickly went downhill from there.
This Sushil was a shadow of his former self. His legendary stamina was absent. His footwork used to be quicksilver, dancing out of the reach of his opponents. Now his shoes seemed to be sucking mud as he failed to evade a takedown that saw him concede the lead for the first time in the match. Towards the end, even his ticking brain seemed to run out of ideas. He almost seemed content for the clock to run out.
He talked about meeting Japan's 2017 World Champion Yuki Takahashi after latter had also been upset in his opening bout at the Asian Games. "He asked me what happened. I said I just lost. He said 'don't worry, even I lost,'" smiled Sushil. It was a disarming tale, trademark Sushil. It was meant to elicit both sympathy from the listener as well as suggest he still had plenty in the tank. That the loss was just a temporary setback. There was of course just one difference. Sushil's best days are behind him. Takahashi on the other hand is just 22, with many years left to reclaim his position in wrestling's hierarchy. On Sunday, he too made way for the bronze medal match.
There would be no such fortune for Sushil. In the twilight of his own career, here in Jakarta there would be no repechage for him.