Big appetite for success fast-tracks Deepak Punia to senior stardom

Deepak Punia acknowledges his supporters after defeating Switzerland's Stefan Reichmuth in the 86kg freestyle semifinals of the World Wrestling Championships. PTI Photo

In kushti tradition, wrestlers often go by nicknames. They could be flattering or mean, straightforward or cryptic. But they usually speak some truth about the bearer. Indian freestyle wrestler Deepak Punia has one too. This is a name that goes a long way back, coined from even before the days when he would hitch rides on bicycles from one dangal competition to the other. "They called him Ketli," laughs his first coach Virender Chhara.

There are a couple of theories as to how Punia got his rather unique moniker, which means 'kettle'. One says this was because of Punia's squat appearance. When you see him, this makes sense -- on competition days, he's about 86 kilos of muscle packed into a 5 foot, 8 inch frame. But it's unlikely this is the answer for he was once a lot smaller and he has been Ketli for a very long time. The more likely story is one his friends insist is true. It goes like this.

When Deepak was a five-year-old child playing with his friends in his village, a familiar group of men offered the children a drink of sweet milk. Little Deepak was offered a small glass that he gulped down and then asked for more. When the cup was filled, he drained it again. The sequence kept repeating and eventually the pot of milk was drained. The man offering the milk apparently remarked, "Yeh Ketli hai (This boy is a kettle)."

Deepak's always had an appetite for prizes much bigger than might be expected of him.

At the World Championships in Nur Sultan, he might have been expected to let the big boys of the sport -- four-time medallist Ali Shabanau, world silver medallist Fatih Erdin and world bronze medallist Teimuraz Friev, among others -- fight for the big medals. Yet when final whistle blew on Saturday's matches, the 20-year-old, who was playing in the junior category only a couple of months back, pushed his way to the front to become the youngest Indian to medal at the World Championships in the 86kg freestyle division. Having won an Olympic quota by reaching the final of his division, on Sunday evening he will have the chance to match the only Indian wrestler -- Sushil Kumar -- to have won a World Championship gold medal.

Wrestling was always going to be an option for Deepak as a child growing up in Chhara village in Haryana's Jhajhar district. "Wrestling is a passion here. I used to take him for dangals," says his father Subash, a dairy farmer. There is an akhara in the village, run by former Arjuna Award winner Virender Singh Chhara and that's where Deepak started his career, at the age of five.

He stood out there too. At first because of -- what else -- his appetite. "At the end of training, when we would eat, he'd always be the one who would ask if there was more vegetable or roti," says Chhara. But Deepak also stood out because of his passion for wrestling. "Even though his father's farm is right next to the akhara, he decided he was going to stay here all the time instead of going home."

Deepak's early wrestling training was largely for the mud-wrestling competition known as dangal. Even at a young age, he was different. "He was always willing to take on boys even 20 or 30 kilos heavier than him. Because he was so good, he would go around the state and take part in these dangals and make money," says Chhara. Deepak also took part in competitions on the synthetic mat, but these were relatively few.

It was at one of these competitions -- a school nationals -- that Deepak caught the eye of Virender Singh, coach at New Delhi's Chhatrasal Akhara. "He stood out because of his movements, speed and strength," recalls Virender. Offered the chance to come and train at Chhatrasal Akhara -- which had produced a factory line of talent in Sushil Kumar, Yogeshwar Dutt, Bajrang Punia and Amit Dahiya -- both 13-year-old Deepak and his first coach accepted immediately. "He wouldn't get far being a wrestler at a village akhara. He needed to go to Delhi to be something," says Chhara.

In Chhatrasal, his appetite was noticed once again, although this time it was for work. "The vast majority of children who come to Chhatrasal look to train just as much as you tell them to. When a child says what more work can I do, you know he has the drive to succeed," says coach Singh.

There were a few bad habits, caused by a near-universal training for dangals, to overcome, which Singh got started with immediately. "Deepak was a dangalli wrestler. The problem with mitti ki kushti (mud wrestling) is that it leaves wrestlers with very poor balance. But it's difficult to convince young wrestlers to give it up because they can make money off dangal wrestling while there are few rewards in mat wrestling early on," says Singh. The same held true for Deepak too. "I told him that if you wrestle in dangals you can fill your stomach. If you wrestle on the mat, you can achieve something even bigger," says Singh.

His mind set on a bigger prize, Deepak changed his training and approach to wrestling. "It took him just one year to make the shift, which is remarkable," says coach Singh. The results for Deepak on the mat were rapid and impressive. A gold medal at the Junior Asian Championships were followed by another at the Cadet Worlds in 2016. A silver at the Junior Asian Championships was matched with a silver at the Junior Worlds in 2018. Last month, he became the first Indian in 18 years to win a gold at the world juniors too.

But while he might have left dangal wrestling behind, he has kept lessons from them. What's most notable is a certain gameness to push himself beyond what others might expect. A month before competing at the Junior World Championships this year, he had injured the thumb on his left hand. "Doctors said that he would have to get surgery on it. But he insisted he had to train and compete at the World Championships. When it was too painful to use his thumb, he trained his lower body but he kept going," says Singh.

Even as he won gold at the junior world championships, Deepak injured his shoulder -- something Singh reckons was because he was trying to protect his thumb. And while there were doubts over how he would compete at the senior World Championships, Deepak managed to push through.

At the Worlds, Deepak admittedly benefited from a favourable draw. The draw was a lopsided one, and the two opponents who were expected to be his biggest threats -- world silver medallist Efdin Fateh and world bronze medallist Teimuraz Friev -- were eliminated before the semi-finals. But this didn't mean Deepak didn't have to work for his win. He had drawn Kazakh wrestler Adilet Davlumbayev in the opening bout and had to be careful, especially since another of his compatriots -- Bajrang Punia -- was at the receiving end of some hometown refereeing the day before.

Indeed, Deepak was trailing 5-0 within the first minute of the bout before quickly adapting his game. "Deepak's best quality is his intelligence. He's very quick to figure out what his opponent is doing. He understood very quickly that the Kazakh wrestler had one move, which was to go for his legs. So he found a way to defend that move. He tired out his opponent and that's how he was able to win," says coach Singh. That first bout was his toughest of the tournament, with Deepak growing steadily with confidence over the course of his four matches.

On Sunday evening, he will wrestle against Hassan Yazdani. The Iranian is an Olympic and world gold medalist -- a veritable legend of the mat. His nicknamed, penned by adoring fans, is commensurate with his status: Bozorgtarin (The Greatest).

Even coach Singh admits the excellence of the Iranian who won his semi-final by technical superiority and pinned two of his other three opponents (the last was beaten by superiority too). "He's stronger, has better technique and has more experience than Deepak. If Deepak overthinks the match, he will do badly. But if he plays with a free mind, he can do something special," he says.

It's a challenge as big as they come. But if Deepak Punia is anything like his nickname, it's one he can't wait to sink his teeth into.