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.

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