That India would win an Olympic quota at the World Wrestling Championship in Astana, Kazakhstan, on Thursday was a given. But few would have imagined that Ravi Dahiya, the 20-year-old 57kg freestyle wrestler who was making his debut at this stage, would get there before Bajrang Punia, the 65kg world number one who is also India s biggest medal hope in Tokyo. But Dahiya, as the world learnt, has a reputation of stoking curiosity and being the unlikely man .
Belying his years and wrestling like a veteran, he commanded the fraternity s unpided attention with his ability to script comebacks, launch powerful attacks and seamlessly adjust to different match situations as he came within a whisker of making the final, before the clock not so much his much-vaunted opponent stopped him. He would now fight for the bronze medal on Friday.
Before Dahiya announced himself to the world in that fashion, he had done the same during the selection trials in July, where he emerged as the improbable winner in what is arguably the most competitive weight category in the country.
If you ignore the general chaos that surrounds it, not many domestic tournaments in India can match up to the selection trials for a major international wrestling championship. There is a genuine buzz around it and the emotions, on the mat and in the stands, are raw; so much so that a fight, free-for-all, is never too far away.
The trials for the World Championships were no different. The spotlight was as usual on the established names Sushil Kumar, Bajrang et al but some anticipation was reserved for Dahiya as well.
After all, he had been hyped up as the next big thing from the assembly line that is Delhi s Chhatrasal Stadium. Sushil, the two-time Olympic medalist and Chhatrasal s most famous alumnus, called Dahiya a wrestler with plenty of jigar (courage). And the medals at junior level only added to his reputation.
But not many had expected him to straight away dominate a weight class that boasts of established wrestlers such as Uttar Pradesh s Sandeep Tomar, who competed in the Rio Olympics, and Utkarsh Kale of Maharashtra.
Dahiya who spends hours watching videos of his idol Hasan Yazdani, the Olympic champion from Iran himself was pleasantly surprised. The call-up to the national camp, a first for him, was more exciting to him because that meant, in addition to watching Yazdani s clips, he could discuss it with India s foreign coach Hossein Karimi, who is from Iran. An Olympic quota, or a shot at a World Championships medal, hadn t crossed his mind yet.
Few, in fact, gave the rookie a chance. India s projection was to return from the World Championships with two Olympic quotas one from Vinesh Phogat in women s 53kg and another from Bajrang.
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The script was playing out just like that. Until Thursday, when Dahiya finally took to the mat. An outsider in the category, he won his first two bouts by technical superiority (beating the opponents by a 10-point margin).
In the round of 16, he was up against the 61kg European champion Arsen Harutyunyan. The Armenian started strongly to race to a six-point lead, strangling the Indian wrestler with his powerful grip. But Dahiya did not get flustered and the moment he found a gap in Harutunyan s defence, he logged 17 points in a row to win the bout 17-6.
In the quarterfinals, Dahiya was up against Japan s Yuki Takahashi. After the trials, Dahiya had singled out the 2017 world champion as the trickiest opponent because of the unpredictability in attack and upper-body strength. Takahashi had defeated Dahiya once before in the Asian Championship. This time, though, he didn t let the Japanese world number 3 get comfortable on the mat, confusing him with some smart movement to eke out a 6-1 win. He ultimately lost 6-4 to reigning world champion Zaur Uguev of Russia in the semifinals.
Friday will give him a chance to further cement his position as the new number 1 for India in a weight category where it has under-performed despite all the talent.