The hesitancy of taking the mat against someone you idolise does not torment Deepak Punia’s soul anymore and if the draw at the Tokyo Olympics puts him face to face with Iranian legend Hassan Yazdani again, it will be a bout to watch, reckons his coach Virender Kumar.
Deepak, who grew up idolising the 2016 Olympic champion and two-time World champion Yazdani, first found himself up against the Iranian at the 2019 World Championship summit clash.
The bout finished in favour of Yazdani without any action with Deepak forfeiting the final due to a leg injury.
The second time he found himself pitted against Yazdani was at the Asian Championship gold medal bout in Almaty in April this year.
In awe of Yazdani, Deepak’s defence fell apart in no time as the Iranian raced to a technical superiority victory, accentuated by lightning-fast moves.
“It’s natural to be flummoxed when you have to fight with the wrestler you have idolised growing up. But that hesitancy is a thing of the past. He discussed that Asian final bout with me and already has a plan in place," Virender told PTI in an interview at his academy in Marmurpur on the outskirts of Delhi.
“Yazdani grew in stature and progressed by beating his seniors, so it’s not that he is invincible. This time if Deepak has to wrestle with him, he will be prepared," he said.
“Sushil and Sakshi were not tipped to win Olympic medals, but they did."
So what’s the plan to counter the dominant 26-year-old Iranian, who has won most of his bouts either by fall or technical superiority?
“Yazdani is tall and uses his hands well to confuse his opponent. Deepak stood in front of him and that was a mistake. Now he has to move sideways and launch the attack from there, not from the front," said Virender.
Yazdani is the top seed at the Tokyo Games in the 86kg category and 21-year-old Deepak is seeded second. So if at all they meet, it will not be before the gold medal bout.
The 50-year-old Virender has played a key part in moulding the wrestling style of Deepak, who like most Indians, began his tryst with the game at the ‘Dangals’.
About a year ago, Virender moved out of Chhatrasal stadium, where Deepak’s elder brother Sunil brought him for training when he was 14-years old.
Now Virender has set up his own training centre and Deepak, too, along with his childhood coach, shifted his base.
What sets Deepak apart from the other trainees was that he has remained disciplined since his early days and was willing to learn from kids.
“If I tell trainees that they have 600 dand-baithak (push-ups plus deep knee bends) in the task, Deepak would not only complete that, he will do some extra. I have seen him learning moves from even kids.
“He has no air that he is junior and cadet world champ and is already senior world silver medallist."
Virender said he is not surprised by the long strides Deepak has taken in quick time. He won the junior world championship in 2018 and won silver at the senior worlds next year along with Tokyo Olympics quota.
“He is fearless from the beginning. It really surprised me when he beat much stronger and taller Satywart Kadian (97kg) in one of the Nationals. He also beat Pawan Saroha, Deepak Saroha and Sombir - all heavier than him.
“So his fast progress was expected. Most of the wrestlers are from humble backgrounds. Getting out of poverty is an added motivation."
It holds true for Deepak as well as he had joined the game only to help his struggling family make ends meet. He just wanted a job with the Indian Railways.
Virender said while Deepak masters moves quickly and has stamina, the 20-year-old still lacks in the counter-attack.
The WFI also arranged for a foreign personal coach for Deepak when they got Russia’s Murad Gaidarov to train him in late 2019.
Gaidarov is the 2008 Beijing Olympics silver medallist. He had represented Belarus.
Virender though does not seem to be a fan of foreign coaches’ involvement with Indian wrestlers.
“The moves are the same. But every coach has his own style of teaching. They have reached this level (world-level medals) by training with home-grown coaches," he said.
Deepak is heading to Tokyo without much competition time. An elbow injury prevented him from competing at Poland Open last month.
He also got stuck in Warsaw for lack of travel documents when WFI arranged for a training stint in Russia and lost a few days of mat practice.