Guruji stood anxiously in the warm-up hall, engaging in small talks with whoever passed by and trying to keep himself distracted. His ‘shishya’ appeared to be calm on the surface but after every couple of minutes, he would close his eyes, look heaven-wards and mumble a small prayer. The wait was killing them both. But they could do nothing but wait for the gold-medal bout.
Yogeshwar Dutt has never looked so nervous even for his own matches. But there was reputation at stake here. Bajrang Punia is the most experienced wrestler of the current lot. But he had never won a gold medal in his career. As his mentor, Yogeshwar knew Bajrang wouldn’t get a better opportunity than Saturday. “Gold se he pehchan banti hai. Warna koi nahi poochta bahar (You are identified with your gold medal. Else, no one cares about you at a global stage),” Yogeshwar says.
Bajrang had had a perfect morning, beating tough opponents from Uzbekistan, Iran and North Korea to enter the 65kg category final at the Asian Championships here. As he waited for his turn, Bajrang saw Sarita Mor lose her 58kg final to Kyrgyzstan’s Aisuluu Tynybekova. Since Friday, four Indians had lost in the finals and the possibility of the hosts ending with a gold medal was looming large.
Everyone – from federation officials to players, past and present, and even spectators – had a ‘strategy’ for Bajrang and they made sure he heard them. To not appear rude, he did listen to them, or at least pretended too. But the last word was for Yogeshwar. “I told him to stay aggressive and go for the ankles. Whenever he gets defensive, he loses,” says Yogeshwar, who was so animated that the referee had to stop the semifinal and warn him.
With those words ringing in his ears, Bajrang stepped on the mat to face South Korea’s Seungchul Lee. Bajrang had defeated Lee once before, in 2013. But that was a junior tournament. In the opening exchanges on Saturday, Lee looked stronger and more aggressive. Within a few opening seconds, he’d taken a two-point lead.
But as he had done all day long, Bajrang fought back relying solely on his pace during the attacks. Bajrang was so relentless that Lee eventually broke down and lost the match 6-2. Six minutes later, Bajrang jogged around the arena with the tricolor draped over his shoulders. “Finally, I am the Asian champion. The title sounds nice,” he sighs, as he walks up to Yogeshwar and touches his feet. “This wouldn’t have been possible without him. None of this.”
How much Bajrang reveres Yogeshwar is apparent in the way he talks about him. He was just 14 when Yogeshwar had taken him under his wings. Now 23, he still looks up to the Olympic bronze medallist with same admiration. Bajrang trains like Yogeshwar, eats like Yogeshwar and, nowadays, even tweets like Yogeshwar. “Bhai hai mera,” Yogeshwar once said of Bajrang, who sees it more as a ‘guru-shishya’ relationship.
But in trying to be like him, Bajrang ended up making a lot of sacrifices. He competed in the same weight category (60kg) as Yogeshwar so for important tournaments, Bajrang would willingly take a step back and let his mentor compete.
Later, when the categories were re-jigged by the international federation, Yogeshwar moved to 65kg and Bajrang went up by a kilo to 61. But it wasn’t his preferred category. Whenever Yogeshwar would opt out of a tournament, Bajrang would compete in the 65kg – but that was primarily at the Commonwealth Championships, which lacks competition.
At the international level, this was Bajrang’s second major tournament in the 65kg category. At the World Cup in February this year, he suffered a few embarrassing defeats, which led many to believe that he would never win anything big despite having the potential.
It’s not just here that Bajrang has been living in someone else’s shadows. In 2013, he won a bronze medal at the World Championships in Budapest. But a day before, Amit Dahiya had won a medal of a better colour. Even at the Asian Games the following year, his silver medal was overshadowed by Yogeshwar’s gold.
On Saturday, the limelight was on Bajrang for once. And for the first time in the day, Yogeshwar wasn’t anxious. “He’s opened his account. Now the medals will start coming, just wait and watch,” he says.