Backed by two-time Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar, Deepak Punia’s wrestling career has been on the right track.
Indian wrestling’s latest star Deepak Punia first showed glimpses of his talent with a title-winning run at the 2016 Cadet World Wrestling Championships in Tbilisi, Georgia. But it wasn’t until the 2019 season that the youngster exploded on to the international stage.
Banking on some fine performances in the domestic circuit, Deepak Punia came into his own at the 2019 World Wrestling Championships (Junior) where he became the first Indian wrestler in 18 years to win a gold medal.
Deepak Punia (86kg freestyle category) was at his best as he waded past some quality competition to beat Russian Alik Shebzukhov in the final.
What made the title sweeter was the fact that Deepak had to struggle through a shoulder injury he suffered in the semi-final as Shebzukhov spared no room and tested the Indian wrestler before conceding a loss on criteria.
“The junior is done, now I want to be senior world champion,” Punia told Scroll.in after his win.
And surprisingly enough, the youngster who trains at the Chhatrasal Stadium under the guidance of Sushil Kumar would come close to realising his dream a month later.
At the 2019 World Wrestling Championships in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, Deepak Punia raced through a relatively easier draw to make his way into the final of the 86kg freestyle division. However, the Indian wrestler was a step away from going for gold when a leg injury stopped him in his tracks.
Though Deepak Punia had to return home with the silver medal and a quota place for Tokyo Olympics, the youngster was left discontent, especially after missing a chance to fight one of Iran’s finest wrestlers and reigning Olympic and world champion Hassan Yazdani.
“He is a freak of a wrestler,” Punia said later. “Everything about him is perfect and we all idolise him. I have watched his videos on YouTube and always tried to copy him.
“I would have learned something. He is also an Olympic champion, so it would have been a good experience to compete. But then, there was the risk of aggravating my injury,” the world championships silver medallist told the Hindustan Times.
It’s little wonder that he was named the ‘Junior Wrestler of the year’ by United World Wrestling for 2019.
Coming from a humble background in Chhara, a village in Jhajjar district of Haryana, Deepak Punia grew up watching local dangal (mud wrestling) in and around his village.
His father and grandfather were local wrestlers in their younger years, so it was no surprise that Deepak was introduced to the sport as a four-year-old.
After initially travelling with his cousin Sunil Kumar, who was well-known in the local circuit, Deepak Punia too paved his way through the dangals earning his family some much-needed income.
The steady source of money proved to be of help for his father -- a milkman -- who often found it hard to make ends meet. However, Sunil Kumar believed that the dangal circuit wouldn’t be enough for Deepak to realise his potential.
Consequently, a young Deepak Punia relocated to New Delhi in 2015 to join the famed wrestling academy at the Chhatrasal Stadium to further his career.
At the Chhatrasal Stadium, a place that’s been home to Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt, the gifted Deepak Punia thrived, finetuning his skills under the tutelage of experienced coaches and accepted Sushil Kumar as his mentor.
While his wrestling was taken care off, Sushil Kumar -- whom Deepak Punia called guruji (teacher) -- also ensured that the youngster got a few sponsors on board. The two-time Olympic medallist even prevented Deepak from taking up a sepoy’s posting (entry-level) in the Indian Army and advised him to focus on sharpening his wrestling skills.
While Deepak focused on his overall game, what made him stand out was his standing defence -- his position to put his hands under the arms of his opponents to force them on to the mat -- which very few could match.
Although Deepak Punia’s wrestling acumen is similar to Bajrang Punia, the two are not related. Deepak’s Chhara village is about 30km-odd from Bajrang’s Khudan village.
He may not be a natural ground wrestler as his parterre defence -- the ability to skip behind the opponent in an attempt to gut wrench -- is limited but Deepak’s constant need to perfect his strengths has driven his wrestling career so far.
“You need four things -- brain, power, luck and flexibility on the mat. Deepak has it all. He is a disciplined wrestler -- he would constantly grapple with a new technique for days until he gets it,” his former coach Vladimir Mestvirishvili told the Times of India.
Having proven his mettle at the world championships level, the young Deepak Punia is now focused on delivering India a medal at the biggest stage of all -- the Olympic Games.
So much so that when the entire world was dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, the Olympic-bound wrestler moved to an akhara (mud pit) in Narela -- a settlement on the Delhi-Haryana border -- to continue his training.
“I didn’t miss out on the training part in the lockdown period. I was following my schedule as in normal times,” Deepak, whose only success in 2020 came at the Asian Championships in New Delhi, told the Times of India.
“I have worked a lot in some areas. I didn't go out with friends. I was focusing on my training. I was also in touch with Sushil bhaisaab, My main target is the Olympics,” Deepak Punia stressed.
His performance at the Individual World Cup might not inspire much, but if the hunger he’s shown throughout his career is anything to go by, one can expect Deepak Punia to come back stronger when wrestling resumes in the Olympic year.