Gurgaon: Bajrang Punia remembers the chilly morning with alarming detail where a chance meeting and a token introduction, he says, changed his life. "It was the 12th of February, a Tuesday and I was sparring with my partner in the 42 kg category when Pehelwan ji walked up to me and after that, life just changed completely," he said.
Till then, Bajrang was a callow 14-year-old boy who was consumed by the wrestling bug. In order to feed his growing obsession with the sport, his family sent him from his native village in Haryana's Jhajjar district to Delhi's famed Chhatrasal stadium.
It was here, almost a year after he started living and training at the stadium, that the life-changing meeting happened. Narender Poonia, a wrestling coach and close friend of London Olympics medallist Yogeshwar Dutt, introduced the senior grappler to Bajrang. Narender and the young Bajrang hailed from the same village and with Bajrang struggling to make friends at the Chhatrasal Akhara, the coach thought that a quick chat with the seasoned Yogeshwar would help the youngster blend in more effectively.
Work it did. Yogeshwar observed the young Bajrang in training a couple of times and decided to take over. "Pehelwan ji (Bajrang still does not call his fellow wrestler by name) took me under his wings and that was the start of a whole new journey. In the first two-three years, I wasn't allowed to train with him. It was more of observing what he did, how he approached training sessions and basically how he operated on a daily basis. Those two years laid the foundation for me as a wrestler," he says. The 21-year-old gradually earned Yogeshwar's trust and he was inducted into training sessions. "The boy always had talent. You could see that even if you watched him just for a few minutes. He is a quick learner, has strong spirit and uses his body in a very intelligent manner," says Yogeshwar.
Bajrang reposed his senior's faith in him quite quickly. He grabbed bronze on his international debut at the 2013 Asian Wrestling Championships and then in the same year clinched the prize that has eluded his mentor till date. The 2013 World Championship bronze medal brought Bajrang into the spotlight suddenly making the wrestling fraternity sit up and take notice. Silver at the 2014 Asian Games and Commonwealth Games followed before a late tactical error cost him the bronze at the 2015 World Championships.
However, come tonight, all the reverence and gratitude will be suspended, albeit only for six minutes. Bajrang, the Bengaluru Yodhas' 65 kg wrestler will battle his mentor Yogeshwar who is spearheading the Haryana Hammers' charge. The impending bout has already garnered quite some attention with most people labelling it the fight of this edition of the Pro Wrestling League.
Bajrang himself is excited for the bout but he tempers the excitement with a few cautionary words. "Haan, ladhenge toh jam ke. I am looking forward to this bout. The wrestler that I am today has been all down to Pehelwan ji's teaching and it will be an honour to wrestle him. Both of us are playing for different teams and we crave the win equally. I am going to go in and give my best. It is a very challenging bout, one that I am privileged to fight and I am going to give it my best shot," he says.
The senior pro Yogeshwar is guarded in his preview of a bout that will see perhaps two of Haryana's most decorated wrestlers locked in what will be an intense contest. "Bajrang is doing well and that is a sign of happiness. This League is doing a lot for wrestling and I hope that our contest will give everyone watching a taste of what wrestling really is and what it means to us. It will be interesting to take on Bajrang in a competitive bout. We spar a lot together but with the stakes so high, it will be something else tonight," he says.
For now though, Bajrang dutifully waits on his mentor, serving him his lunch, giving him a quick rub-down after training and strengthening a bond that was created on a chilly February morning in modern India's wrestling nursery.