Sushil's World trials turn ugly amid eye pokes and twisted arms

Sushil Kumar in action during the 74kg wrestling trials for the World Championships PTI Photo/Ravi Choudhary

As things stand Sushil Kumar will be a part of the Indian side that will travel to the 2019 Wrestling World Championships in Kazakhstan. At the 74kg selection trials at the KD Jadhav Stadium on Tuesday, the double Olympic medallist beat Jitender 4-2 to earn his spot on the squad.

It's a remarkable achievement for the 36-year-old, who will be competing at the Worlds for the first time in eight years, but it was shrouded in controversy. The bout was stopped at multiple points with the vanquished Jitender felled by multiple eye pokes and having his arm twisted more than once. It was a grimy result, but that seems to be the nature of nearly everything involving Sushil over the past few years.

Just before Sushil's final bout, the 200-odd spectators around the mat were asked to clear out the area. "Everyone get out from around the mat and go upstairs. Shut the doors behind you," Wrestling Federation President Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh yelled. The mix of wrestlers and fans sullenly walked away towards the stands, filled with hundreds more spectators several meters above the mat.

The caution was justifiable. Given his last few wrestling matches in India had proved to be a magnet for controversy, no one was leaving anything to chance as Sushil bid to qualify for the Worlds, on the road to his unshakable quest to participate in the 2020 Olympics.

The last time Sushil had competed at the selection trials for the Commonwealth Games last year, his supporters in the crowd had beaten up his opponent Parveen Rana after the contest. The year before that, during the 2017 Wrestling Nationals in Indore, Rana joined two other wrestlers in conceding their match to the double Olympic medallist - after rather dubiously claiming to be injured. The biggest controversy of course came in the trials that were never eventually held -- between Sushil and Narsingh Yadav for a place in the 2016 Olympics.

But preparations were made to avoid a recurrence of trouble. Rana had said he was injured ahead of these trials as well but the federation postponed trials to avoid a recurrence of that scenario. Rana would opt out anyway. If things were not already dubious enough, WFI president Brij Bhushan Sharan said the loser of the 74kg final would have another chance to compete against the winner of the 79kg trials.

Sushil had two bouts on Tuesday and won the first 3-0 against former U-23 world medallist Vinod. His next was against national champion Jitender. In terms of sporting pedigree, the 25-year-old Jitender can hardly hope to match Sushil. But the odds were more even than they have been for many years now.

Age has taken a definite toll on the senior wrestler. He's slower and nowhere as explosive as he once was. He's tried to roll back the years, training with former Russian international Kamal Malikov but the once effortless swagger is gone. The long periods he's spent outside competitive wrestling have left him vulnerable when he does return to the mat. He finished 14th at the Asian Games last year and didn't wrestle again until the Medved Tournament in Bulgaria this month. In his first match there he was blasted out 10-0 inside two minutes by Worlds bronze medallist Bekzhod Abdurrahmanov.

"For the first time in a long time he was a little nervous today. He's not anywhere near 100 percent either physically or in terms of match practice. His movements are not good enough right now," one of Sushil's compatriots told ESPN.

He is confident that Sushil will improve in the three weeks he has to the World Championships but to get there he needed to beat Jitender. Coach Kamal had reminded Sushil of that too. He didn't need the win to look pretty. He simply needed to get it done.

It certainly wasn't pretty. After a mid-period takedown, Sushil was breathing heavily at the break. He got the break he needed after a finger entered Jitender's right eye, as the latter collapsed in pain on the mat. Sushil apologised immediately but he would have been grateful for the break with his opponent rolling on the mat. When Jitender got up and the bout resumed, it was Sushil's turn to take another break with what he said was an injury to his knee. As the seconds ticked on, Jitender's right arm got trapped awkwardly and was twisted behind his back. He cried out in pain as the bout was stopped once more, but then insisted on competing. He managed a pushout to close the score to 4-2 and had a chance to take down Sushil in the final seconds too but the senior wrestler was able to block the attempt until the final whistle.

Jitender's coach Jaiveer called out the result. He called out Sushil for fighting dirty. Apart from the two visible injuries to his wrestler, he also claimed Sushil hooked Jitender's jaw with his thumb while hidden in a clinch. "He did it on purpose. He has been doing it for years. He employed same tactics in the 2012 Olympics. It was definitely deliberate. The referees were also hand in glove. They don't want any other win against Sushil," alleged Jaiveer.

Jitender also hinted the fight was not a fair one. "If we were both playing rough then why was I the only one who got a thumb to my eye? That's because I was wrestling and he was....," he said.

Sushil though chose to dismiss those claims. "Jitender is like my younger brother. These things are not done deliberately," he said. He denied the charge that he was a rough fighter. "If you see all my bouts, I try to win by technical superiority (scoring ten points more than the opponent) or by pinning him. This close bout is not the kind of win that I try to win by," he said.

But there was a cryptic postscript to that statement. "Today my coaches only told me to win. Sometimes winning is an art as well," he said