Feature | Wrestling

Deepak Punia’s journey from dusty dangal rings to Tokyo’s bright lights

Only intervention from the legendary Sushil Kumar prevented the Junior World Wrestling Championship gold medallist from giving up on the sport.

By Andre Pitts ·

No longer just an unknown junior freestyle wrestler and primed for success at the 2020 Olympics, young Deepak Punia has the world at his feet right now.

The 20-year-old won a silver medal at the Junior World Championship in 2018 before enjoying a breathtaking 2019 that saw him become the first Indian in 18 years to win a gold medal at the Junior World Wrestling Championship last August.

He demonstrated the heart of a champion to beat Russian Alik Shebzukov in the final while battling through a shoulder injury that he had picked up in the semi-final.

Deepak Punia was among three Indian wrestlers to test COVID-positive

A semi-final appearance in the 86kg category men’s freestyle at the Senior World Wrestling Championships a month later helped him book a quota place for Tokyo 2020, joining the likes of Bajrang Punia and Vinesh Phogat in India’s Olympic-bound wrestling contingent.

His performances were even recognised outside India with the United World Wrestling naming him their junior wrestler of the year for 2019.

However, things could have been very different for the two-time Asian Championships bronze medallist from the Chhara village in Jhajjar, Haryana had it not been for the support of his family and backing from the legendary Sushil Kumar.

Deepak Punia’s humble beginnings

Coming from a humble background, Punia grew up watching wrestlers competing in the local dangal (wrestling) circuits in his village.

His father and grandfather both were involved with wrestling as youngsters, so it wasn’t much of a surprise to anyone when Deepak Punia was introduced to the sport as a four-year-old.

After initially travelling with his elder cousin Sunil Kumar, who was well-known in the dangal circuit, Deepak Punia began going to neighbouring villages and fighting in earthen pits.

His talent for wrestling quickly shone through and soon the fights became a steady source of income for him to help his father - a milkman.

However, his cousin Sunil Kumar’s belief that the dangal circuit would limit Deepak Punia’s talent led to the young Indian wrestler relocating to Delhi in 2015 to join the Chhatrasal Stadium.

Chhatrasal Stadium - the school for wrestling excellence

As it turned out, Sunil Kumar’s assessment that the Chhatrasal Stadium – the same wrestling school that gave India its two Olympic medallists in wrestling Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt – would be ideal for Deepak Punia’s development, was spot on.

The gifted youngster thrived in his new surroundings, finetuning his skills under the tutelage of experienced coaches and two-time Olympic medal winner Sushil Kumar.

Deepak Punia beat Stefan Reichmuth in the freestyle 86kg semi-finals at the 2019 World Wrestling Championships in Nur-Sultan (photo courtesy United World Wrestling)

That said at some point in their career, every successful athlete comes to a crossroads that defines the rest of their journey and for Punia this moment of truth happened in 2016.

Having just been offered the prestigious post of sepoy in the Indian army, it was only natural for Deepak Punia to be tempted by an offer with such a steady source of income.

Lest we forget, he came from a family of limited means, a family that made a lot of sacrifices for his dreams.

A family with a father that travelled 60km to Deepak Punia’s training centre every day to deliver milk and fruits to him.

Sushil Kumar’s guidance key to Deepak Punia’s emergence

His mentor, though, wasn’t prepared for him to pack it in so early. Recognising his talent, Sushil Kumar, whom Deepak Punia calls ‘Guruji’ (teacher), wouldn’t let such a star of the future slip away with his full potential not being realised.

Instead, Sushil Kumar urged Deepak Punia to focus on wrestling, which he insisted would bring the youngster plenty of jobs in the future.

Indian wrestler Deepak Punia pins his opponent down on the mat during the Senior Asian Wrestling Championship qualifiers

When a wrestler of Sushil Kumar’s pedigree talks, you listen and that’s just what Deepak Punia did en-route to gold at the cadet world championship (for ages 16-17) in 2016.

The rest, as they say, is history and rest assured that creating more history is what occupies most of the junior world champion’s thoughts right now as he looks to follow in his mentor’s footsteps.

Olympic gold now Deepak Punia’s sole focus

“The only thing that matters to me right now is the Tokyo Olympics... 100 per cent. I have given my all to make it through. I will do whatever is required to win a medal in Tokyo,” he told the Hindustan Times last month.

When focused on something, Deepak Punia generally tends to achieve it as seen in the past and judging by his words, an Olympic medal has turned into an obsession for him.

With history beckoning in Tokyo, a switched on and fully focused Punia will be striving to join a select few - including his mentor - who have won individual medals for India at the Olympics.

He already got a taste of what it’s like to create history when he became the first Indian in 18 years to win a Junior World Wrestling Championship.

And come the Olympics, a focused Deepak Punia will be gunning for more glory as one of India’s biggest medal hopes - a far cry from the dangal circuits of Haryana or the Indian army.