Any talk on Indian men’s wrestling cannot miss ‘mention’ of the freestyle 74-kg category – this weight category has been the biggest eyeballs grabber in recent years simply because the country’s only two-time Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar is of the contenders for a berth in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. And with each passing day, the men’s freestyle 74-kg category generates plenty of anticipation as to who would represent the country in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
With wrestler Jitender Kumar winning the recent trials to earn the right to wrestle for the country in the upcoming International Ranking Tourney in Italy as well as in the Asian Championship, one thing is clear – the possibility of a grappler other than Sushil Kumar representing India in Tokyo cannot be ruled out.
This is not to suggest that all is over for Sushil, who gave the recent trials a miss owing to a hand injury and even requested the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) to postpone the trials – something the federation did not accede to. And the recent turn of events makes Jitender Kumar a likely replacement for Sushil in the Tokyo Olympics – are we jumping the gun? Not really but yes, if the former manages to convince the selectors and coaches that he is India’s best bet for the Olympic Qualifiers by dishing out creditable performances in the International Ranking Tourney in Italy as well as in the Asian Championship, it would be tough to ignore Jitender for the Tokyo Olympics.
Jitender, on his part, refuses to believe Sushil’s hand injury-induced from the trials made his job easy. “There are so many good wrestlers in the men’s freestyle 74-kg category- Parveen Rana and Amit Dhankar are very experienced and strong opponents – Gaurav Baliya is another exciting young prospect – so even without Sushil it was a tough run all the way through,” says the grappler, who had featured in the 2019 Senior Nationals at Jallandhar in the 79-kg category and won a silver after losing to Punjab’s Sandeep Singh in the final. He explains why he was not competing in the 74-kg at the 2019 Senior Nationals. “Both Parveen Rana and I are from the Railways and since both represented Railways in the 2019 Senior Nationals our team management fielded him in 74-kg and me in the 79-kg categories respectively.”
It may be important to note that Jitender has competed in both 74-kg and 79-kg in recent times. At the 2019 World Championship, he won two of his bouts against opponents from Moldova and Turkey and reaching the 79-kg quarterfinals, where he went down to Slovakia’s Tajmuraz Salkazanov. So how he thinks of Sushil – an opponent he has to overcome at some point in the future to seal his Olympic berth. The 26-year-old grappler who is serving as a Travelling Ticket Examiner (TTE) at Indian Railways since 2017, says
How does the massive reputation of Sushil work when Jitender takes to the mat? “Once you are on the mat, you do not think of a player’s reputation as your focus is to beat your opponent. Like I have said, I respect him as an opponent but if I have to wrestle with him, I will be ready to outwrestle him,” he makes his point.
Jitender is also happy to train under Bajrang Punia’s personal coach Shako Bentinidis. The grappler, who had made his senior debut in 2016, says:
Jitender had lost twice to Sushil Kumar before – at the 2018 Commonwealth Games trials and 2019 World Championship trials.“I had fought hard in the 2019 World Championship trials, but the result was not in my favour. I was not fully fit during that time as I was coming off a severe back injury that pegged me back for two months,” he recalls the recent trials.
Jitender would look to come up with a blockbuster performance in Italy and in the Asian Championship so that he does not have to feature in a trial for the Olympic Qualifiers. “The WFI has declared that the best grappler will be sent for the March Olympic Qualifiers. My job is to perform well in Italy and in the Asian Championship. If the WFI feels that I’m good enough to make it to the March Olympic Qualifiers or feels that I have to go through the trials, I’m fine. My focus is to do well in Italy and take it from there,” concludes Jitender.