From maidan to mat – Mahendra Gaikwad’s journey to a silver medal at the World Junior Championships

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When Mahendra Gaikwad was just a young boy, his father Babasaheb Gaikwad had certain expectations of him. There was no doubt what the young boy, who was born in the village of Shirsi in the southern Maharashtra district of Solapur, was to do in life. ” Usko pehelwan banna tha (He was going to become a wrestler) . It’s in our blood. My father was a pehelwan. Me and my brother were wrestlers. Mahendra is the third generation of our family to struggle,” says Father Babasaheb.

The direction of sound pehelwani career was also mapped out. While wrestlers in the rest of the world had long since switched to the synthetic foam mat with the dream of winning an Olympics medal, this part of Maharashtra’s wrestling heartland, it seems, was content with the old ways. Here, all the wrestlers competed on pressed earth or mitti. And while other wrestlers might struggle with grueling weight cuts, the best pehelwans, according to Babasaheb, these were the ones who competed without any weight restrictions. The reward for victory was not a medal but a mace of gold – the weapon of Hanuman, the Indian god of struggle.

While Indian wrestlers are often told they have to make a choice between the modern mat or the traditional mitti, Mahendra regularly competes in both.

While Indian wrestlers are often told they have to make a choice between the modern mat or the traditional mitti, Mahendra regularly competes in both. | Photo credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Just like his grandfather, his father and his uncle, Mahendra had to fight in a loincloth in a circle delimited on miti. If he was good, Babasaheb hoped his son would struggle in the maidan (tournament), organized in November of each year during Vetal Yatra – the feast of the patron deity of the village of Shirsi. If he was very good, he might think of traveling around the state participating in maidans as a boxer. If he was excellent, Babasaheb hoped his son might even wrestle in the Maharashtra Kesari – a statewide open weight mitti kushti competition. “If you win this competition, it means you are the greatest wrestler in Maharashtra. You get famous here,” he says.

Babasaheb’s expectations of the limit of his son’s possible fame will have to be raised. On Wednesday, the 20-year-old won a silver medal at the World Junior Championships in the men’s 125kg freestyle category. ” Hum soch rahe le yeh Maharashtra Kesari ban sakta hai by yeh toh international nikal gaya. Yeh toh sapne se bhi bahar hai,(We thought he might be able to become a Maharashtra Kesari, but he’s become an international star. It’s beyond what we dreamed of),” Babasaheb laughs heartily.

The result is not only a surprise for Babasaheb. It is also a historic first in the sport in India. While Mahendra lost 13-2 in the final to Iran’s Masoumi Valadi, he had beaten two tough opponents early on, including Turkey’s Adil Misirci, who won bronze at the European U-23 championships earlier this year. “We expected him to get a bronze medal. Reaching the final is a huge achievement. He is the first Indian in the super heavyweight category to reach this level,” former international wrestler Kaka Pawar tells the Pune academy from which Mahendra trains.

There is no shortage of medalists in the lower weight categories – India won 6 bronze medals in different weight categories (57kg, 61kg, 65kg, 70kg, 74kg and 97kg) at the world junior championships 2022 in the freestyle division. But medals in the highest weight class are rare and no Indian before Mahendra has ever reached the final. “The belief was that in India there were no heavyweight wrestlers. And if you do, they’d rather not compete on the mat,” says Pawar.

There is some truth in that. There have been more opportunities for super heavyweight wrestlers in maidan kushti, Where angels as they are called in North India, in relation to mat wrestling “If you are a heavyweight wrestler, there is a lot of money in mitti kushti. You can get 2 to 3 lakh rupees for a fight. Why would you want to train for four years for just a few chances at the Commonwealth, Asian Games, World Championships or Olympics,” Pawar asks.

Mahendra didn’t start thinking about the world championships. He started his wrestling practice under the eyes of his uncles, Kakasaheb Gaikwad and Naganath Gaikwad, in the Jay Hanuman talim – the academies known as akharas in northern India – in his village. “He trained like we did and like our dad trained. All the exercises were those he did in the mitti himself,” says Babasaheb.

Mahendra competed in local competitions, but there was little in his early performances that would set him apart from other wrestlers. His transformation happened, his father says, when he took him to Kaka Pawar Academy in Pune three years ago. Whereas maidan kushti Still draws crowds in the tens of thousands, however Pawar argues there is a place for mat wrestling. His academy in Pune –“ Antarashtriya kushti sankulan (international wrestling center) ” — is named with this belief in mind.

Mahendra is a third generation wrestler.  His father Babasaheb (R), his uncles and his grandfather struggled before him.  In fact, Mahendra started practicing kushti under her uncles – Kakasaheb Gaikwad and Naganath Gaikwad.

Mahendra is a third generation wrestler. His father Babasaheb (R), his uncles and his grandfather struggled before him. In fact, Mahendra started practicing kushti under her uncles – Kakasaheb Gaikwad and Naganath Gaikwad. | Photo credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Mahendra hated it at first. 250 km from home, he couldn’t stand the loneliness and the exhausting diet. “He ran away from the academy the first time. I had to bring him back and stay with him until he got used to it. I had to. Kaka Pawar Academy is very famous and if he wanted to become a good wrestler, he had to train here,” says Babasaheb.

While Mahendra didn’t like Pawar’s academy, Pawar also didn’t think much of the 16-year-old. Babasaheb is a fairly wealthy farmer with an orchard on several acres of land and over 40 cows, and Mahendra never lacked good nutrition as a child. Kaka Pawar says it even more bluntly. “He was really big. He was only five-eight because he hadn’t finished growing but weighed around 100 kilos. You know how when you churn curd and that first sphere of butter forms. He was like that — lone ka gola (ball of butter). But when you keep churning it and adding a little heat to it, it becomes like ghee. That’s what it is now,” says Pawar.

If Pawar was willing to put time and effort into the youngster, it’s because he thought he had something special. “He was naturally very strong. And as he adapted to our training techniques, he lost a lot of fat and gained muscle. He doesn’t wear any fat on him now. Now he is six feet tall and weighs around 126 or 127 kilos. He still loses about 1 or 2 kilos before a competition but he is in very good shape. He is also very disciplined and hardworking. But above all, he has a lot of self-confidence. Before the world championships, when most of us weren’t quite sure what he would do, he kept saying he would come back victorious,” says Pawar.

It also helped Mahendra that his arrival at Kaka Pawar talim coincided with a resurgence in heavyweight wrestling in Maharashtra. While Haryana of northern India dominates wrestling in most weight classes (out of India’s 6 freestyle bronze medalists at the 2022 World Championships, five are from Haryana while one is from UP), Maharashtra wrestlers are increasingly competitive in the open weight class. In 2019, Abhijit Kakte became the first from the state to reach the final of the national championships, followed by Shivraj Rakshe who won gold at the same championships in 2021. Both train in Pawar, by the way. talim.

With a difficult practice pool to cross, Mahendra also improved. Mahendra won gold at the National Junior Championships last year and although he failed in his attempt to qualify for Team India at the Commonwealth Games, he qualified for his first international tour at the Junior Championships. Asian junior in Kyrgyzstan last month where he won a silver medal.

Thanks to her ascent, Mahendra has not lost touch with the mitti kushti with which he began his career. He still participates in these tournaments. At Maharashtra Kesari this year, he almost fulfilled his father’s early ambitions for him before losing in the semi-finals. Kaka Pawar also sees no harm in participating in these contests. “There are people who say you should focus entirely on the mat. But that’s our parampara (inheritance). We must also maintain it. Every week at our talim we spend a day training in mitti. Since pushing opponents is much harder, you need to have a better grip on the mitti. It also helps wrestlers strengthen their legs,” he says.

There is an even more fundamental benefit. “One of the reasons why we now have many good wrestlers in the freeweight category in Maharashtra is that there are a lot of incentives for families to encourage their children to enter mitti kushti”, Pawar said. “And if they’re playing on the mat, it makes people more interested in seeing them,” says Pawar.

This is also the case for Mahendra. Although his silver medal at the world junior championships will see him become a major contender in the Indian mat wrestling scene over the next few years, it should boost his profile in the mitti kushti circuit too – aficionados sometimes complain about his wrestling style which features few spectacular throws but the safety first approach translates well to the mat. Mahendra will probably continue to participate in these competitions, maybe even fulfill his father’s hopes and win Maharashtra Kesari next time.

For Kaka Pawar, the medal is more important than what it can immediately bring to Mahendra. “This is a very important medal for wrestling and especially Maharashtra wrestling. So many young wrestlers who normally just compete in mitti kushti now know that it is also possible to win medals at international level. Their ambitions will also grow,” he says.

Babasaheb’s ambitions certainly were. Where he would once have been happy for Mahendra to participate in Maharashtra Kesari, he is seeing bigger now. ” Maidan kushti aata rahega. Abhi toh isko olympics jana hai. (the maidan struggle will continue. Now he has to go to the Olympics),” says Babasaheb.


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