“There is a wrestler in every house here in Mudhol. But this is not the case of Ninga, he has no house.
In these two sentences, Arun Kumakale, a local wrestling trainer, captures the story of the wrestling-mad town of North Karnataka, and the journey of its new sensation and prodigy, 17-year-old Ningappa Genannavar.
On Thursday, Ningappa, whose strong defense and powerful leg attacks are gaining a reputation, defeated Iranian Amirmohammad Saleh in the 45kg freestyle final at the Asian Under-17 Championship in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. His medal contributed to India’s 1st place finish at the junior continental event and also shone a light on a wrestling hub that has remained in the shadow of traditional homes in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Punjab.
“The place is best known for the Mudhol Hound, the dogs are known all over India,” says Ram Budaki, Wrestling Coach, Sports Authority of India (SAI). “The second best product in town is its wrestlers,” he adds.
“It’s a quaint little place. The Krishna River runs through the town, most of the inhabitants are farmers and almost every household has a wrestler. It’s a matter of pride. Every morning you will see dozens of young boys and girls at the garadis (akhadas),” says NR Narasimha, secretary of the Karnataka Wrestling Federation.
Rarely do wrestlers from outside the three northern states – led by Haryana – and Maharashtra make it into the Indian squad; even rarer that they win medals. But little by little, wrestlers from Karnataka — especially from the northern part of the state, from the Bagalkot district where Mudhol is located to Dharwad and Belgaum — are trying to break the hegemony.
In 2016, Sandeep Kate won a silver medal at the Commonwealth Championship. Three years later, Arjun Halakurki became the first wrestler from the state since 1995 to win national championship gold. Earlier this year, the Greco-Roman wrestler won a bronze medal at the Asian Championship.
Narsingh Patil won the bronze medal at the Asian U-17 Championship on Thursday, but Ningappa’s gold medal, according to Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) assistant secretary Vinod Tomar, was the first time that a wrestler from Karnataka finished on the top step of the podium in the continental championship. championship.
“Previously, we selected our teams, especially the age group teams, based on their performance in the national championship. This time, we’ve changed the criteria and run multiple events so we can select a wrestler who performs consistently, rather than doing well in a single tournament. Ningappa showed his strength and skills throughout,” says Tomar.
He’s been doing this since he first entered a garadi. Ningappa’s father, Ramesh, a daily bet, hoped his son would become a wrestler. The family didn’t have a home of their own and struggled to make ends meet, but Ramesh had seen the respect given to wrestlers.
However, when he first took Ningappa to a vyayamshala (gymnasium), the boy was sent away because he was too frail, underdeveloped and underweight. Ningappa then began training at a garadi run by ex-wrestlers, before Kumakale, a former national-level grappler, spotted the 10-year-old and enrolled him in his academy.
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Every morning, Ningappa cycled 4 km to the Jai Hanuman Vyayamshala in Kumakale, which became a supply center for the larger akhadas in the rest of the country. It is said that over the past few years, about 50 wrestlers from this center have joined advanced academies across India, including two at Sonepat National Center of Excellence – Ningappa being one of them.
“Sir did not take any charges from Ninga. In fact, if his family needed money, Sir would help them,” says 18-year-old Datta Tarpade, Ningappa’s former training partner. “Ninga repaid the confidence by working incredibly hard – I’ve never seen anyone train harder than him. He never got tired and never took a day off,” he recalled.
Ningappa says there have been times when Kumakale has even paid for expenses incurred while participating in a tournament. At other times, his father would take out a loan to fund his travels, as he did when Ningappa was called up to Sonepat’s National Center of Excellence three years ago.
“In 2019, Ningappa won the bronze medal at the national under-15 championship in Kota and was later called up to join the NCoE in Sonepat,” said Ram Budaki, the coach of SAI Center in Dharwad. “His family had two concerns: they were worried that Ningappa would have to go to a state where Hindi is the primary language because he did not understand Hindi. But they were more worried about not having enough money to send it.
Thus, Ningappa’s father, whose annual income is around Rs 90,000, took out a loan of Rs 8,000 to send him to Sonepat. “He’s on a proper diet and has good housing, so the family is a bit relieved,” Budaki says.
Not Ningappa, however. He hopes the fight will help clear his family’s debts. “My dad had to borrow money to support my career,” he says, adding that he also hopes “to build a house one day.”