Kushti Wrestling in India, Part 3
After I faced the mighty Jeetu in the kushti tournament in India, I was matched with some wrestlers whose strength and skill were of more human proportions. That allowed me to actually apply the techniques I’d learned and have a chance of winning.
A t one point, a wrestler charged me and shot a double-leg takedown. I caught his head and rolled backward, landing on top. Unfortunately, under kushti rules, when I rolled on my back, I officially pinned myself. Therefore, I lost.
The same thing happened when a wrestler attacked me with a bear hug. I trapped his hands against my body, threw myself backward and rolled on top of him — which once again counted as a pin.
After I had pinned myself five more times, I told Deepak I should be considered the most successful wrestler of the day because I had seven pins on my record. He didn’t buy it.
FINALLY, I was pitted against a wrestler who, despite being built like a piece of stone, allowed his guard to drop for a split second. Using an arm drag, I was able to get behind him and take him to the ground. Kushti wrestlers often drop to their knees rather than get thrown from behind with a suplex. Luckily, this guy didn’t realize I was incapable of suplexing him. Once on his knees, I went to his back and began the arduous process of trying to roll him over. Unfortunately for me, kushti wrestlers are good at turtling up, as well as lying on their side to prevent a pin.
I laced one of my legs under his and began working on the opposite arm, forcing it to the ground. Eventually, I had no more leverage and no more strength, but his shoulders were still centimeters off the ground. Out of desperation, I slapped a submission hold on his arm, and he had no choice but to roll to relieve the pressure.
I was proud of my success — for about a second. Then he began shouting in Hindi. Although I don’t speak the language, it sounded like he was saying, “That’s an illegal arm lock.” Then Deepak cut in: “That’s an illegal arm lock.”
So I couldn’t count the pin. The good news, however, was that I suddenly thought I could speak Hindi.
APPARENTLY, if you cheat like that in a real match, the crowd might beat you up or destroy your car. Luckily, I had neither a car nor a crowd, and the wrestlers remained incredibly nice to me. They even laughed when, out of desperation, I threw a triangle choke on someone who’d just pinned me.
My experience in Asia has been that fighters tend to be nice. When you already have 25, 50 or 200 fights behind you, you have nothing to prove by beating up the new guy. And no matter how good you are, you’ve been beaten enough times to know that, as the Chinese say, there’s always a taller mountain somewhere.
Western wrestlers have an expression: “Embrace the grind.” They say that because they recognize that wrestling is the most painful and difficult sport, combining all the cardio and strength components of other sports but then adding the fact that you get beaten up and thrown to the ground every day for your whole career.
Asian wrestlers feel similarly. In Cambodia, my coach was shocked when I wanted to pay him for subjecting me to such hardship. Here in India, I experienced the same kind
As soon as we started, I pulled him in close, secured his head, threw him to the ground and pinned him.
of fraternal bond, where even though they knew I came from a different background — primarily MMA and grappling — the wrestlers felt that we shared a common experience. In my particular case, I think there’s the added respect that comes whenever a 50-year-old university professor spends his own money to get beat up.
Later, Deepak said he believed I was the oldest person in India still training in wrestling. I certainly felt like it.
IN THE EVENING, Deepak and his son Anuj showed me kushti videos. In return, I decided to show them one of my MMA fights. In one bout, I had my opponent pinned against the cage and was punching him in the face. My hosts looked sick to their stomachs. They said it was horribly violent, and I think it made them question their decision to take me into their house.
This reminded me of another observation I’d made: Wrestlers in Asia don’t consider themselves fighters. Whereas American wrestlers know they can transition to MMA, Asian wrestlers — including kushti practitioners — regard themselves as athletes. When I asked Anuj if he knew he was a fighter, he just looked confused and said, “Wrestler, not fighter.”
The next morning while we were training in the park, my theory was confirmed. Anuj experienced what was likely his first invitation to fight. Here’s how it happened.
Every morning, people would gather to watch us train. Occasionally, young boys would try to copy our movements. This morning, however, it wasn’t little boys who were watching; it was four grown men. Although I couldn’t understand what they were saying, I knew they were up to no good.
One of the men said he wanted to test his strength by wrestling Anuj. This seemed preposterous because Anuj is a 14-year-old boy who weighs 112 pounds. Anyway, Anuj locked up with the guy, and Deepak told him to take his opponent down. For some reason, Anuj did nothing. He just stood there, head to head with the man, unmoving.
Afterward, he said he didn’t take the man down because there were small stones on the ground and he didn’t want to injure his knees. We’d already wrestled on that same ground, so the excuse seemed unlikely. My assumption was that Anuj really had no concept of fighting outside the ring.
The challenge resolved after a few minutes. The man broke his lock and started walking back to his friends, mumbling something. Always willing to lend a hand, I offered the man a chance to wrestle. Suddenly, he seemed less enthusiastic. His friends pushed him back to the center of the ring, laughing. With no other option, he locked up with me. As soon as we started, I pulled him in close, secured his head, threw him to the ground and pinned him.
As this was my only legitimate pin of the week, I decided to count it. More important, it wound up being a good learning experience for everyone.
THAT AFTERNOON, Deepak and I trained at an akhara that had a mud pit and a mat. He explained that mud wrestling is a traditional sport that practitioners use to earn a living. If they want to participate in international competitions or try to win a medal for their country, they have to compete in mat wrestling, which is part of the Olympics, Asia Games and Commonwealth Games.
As good as the mud wrestlers are, because of the rule differences, some of the most exceptional ones are only mediocre on the mat. In fact, Deepak told of a champion mud wrestler who was defeated by a novice on the mat.
I got my own taste of it when I wrestled an athlete in the mud and on the mat. While he was better than me on both, we were fairly competitive on the mat, and I was able to hold my own. In the mud, he dominated me, winning in seconds. This illustrated one of the reasons India has fared poorly in Olympic wrestling, where the nation has won only five medals. To do better, kushti wrestlers would have to dispense with the mud and dedicate all their training time to the mat. And if they did that, they’d have no way to earn a living.
ON MY PENULTIMATE day in kushti, an opponent took me down, and I heard my shoulder pop. The next morning, Deepak said he’d take me to a place where I could get the “best” medical care. Unfortunately, the veterinarian’s office was closed. Instead, we went to see the unlicensed bonesetter, the same one who repairs all the wrestlers when they’re broken.
According to the vintage drawings of musclemen he had on display, the bonesetter was also a seller of tonics and potions for bodybuilding. These “magical” liquids filled tinted bottles that were set in an old-timey wooden rack just like in a 19th-century drugstore. The examination table was outside, on the street next to a stall where tires were repaired. When we arrived, he was using a pair of giant scissors to cut bandages, which appeared to be picking up all kinds of grime from the street.
He told me to sit on the table and remove my shirt. After feeling my shoulder, he said it was only partially out of the socket, so he brushed it with smelly salve from a silver paint can, wrapped me in the dusty bandages and told me to rest for a few days.
Deepak asked him when I could wrestle again, and he said, “Eight days.” I asked when he thought I would wrestle well, but he didn’t answer. Telling the future apparently entailed a separate charge.