India’s Greco-Roman wrestlers rise to the top

As a young aspirant at Pratap Sports School, Kharkhoda in Haryana, Sajan Bhanwala was not considered suitable for freestyle wrestling. We saw that he lacked the confidence to tackle stronger children. It was then that the trainers decided to try it in the Greco-Roman style. Bhanwala was also unimpressive initially but showed such transformation that he left the coaches in awe.

Now 23, he has made a big impact in international age group tournaments winning medals at the sub-junior and junior world championships. Bhanwala’s exploits had ceased to surprise his trainer Rajbir Chhikara long before he became the first Indian wrestler to win a Greco-Roman medal at the U-23 World Championships in Spain last week, an event considered to be on the heels of the encounter world senior. He only lived up to expectations, although Indian wrestlers are best known for their excellence in freestyle.

After the feat of Bhanwala (77 kg), Nitesh (97 kg) and Vikash (72 kg) also obtained bronze medals. The success in Spain comes after three Greco-Roman wrestlers – Sunil Kumar, Arjun Halakurki and Neeraj – won medals at the Asian Championships earlier this year.

These are encouraging signs for the Greco-Roman style that has long been overlooked in India’s freestyle-dominated wrestling space.

Freestyle wrestling is rooted in Indian epics, and these bouts invariably attract most wrestlers, parents, and coaches. It brings fame and medals followed by jobs and prize money. Greco-Roman wrestling has long been mostly occupied by wrestlers who either gave up freestyle due to intense competition or sought career renewal after knee injuries.

In technique and execution, the skills required to excel in Greco-Roman are different from freestyle. Movements in Greco-Roman are limited to the upper body. Under-the-waist holds are not permitted; the wrestler must use the upper body to execute moves and throws to score points or pin their opponent.

The style is however one of the oldest in the Olympics, dating back to the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896. However, in India most wrestlers graduate from mud (pit) akhadas which are ideal for honing skills free style.

“You need good upper body strength, back flexibility, grip and the ability to grasp and learn technical Greco-Roman skills,” says Chhikara.

“Mud wrestling is not ideal for learning the basics of Greco-Roman. This can only be learned when you practice on the mat from the start. Most of the time, parents and kids choose freestyle because that’s where you get the prizes and rewards. It’s also a natural progression from mud wrestling and they will naturally be inclined towards freestyle,” said the former international.

That seems to be starting to change now with the Greco style gaining popularity among domestic wrestlers. Yet, there are only a handful of academies that specifically train Greco-Roman wrestlers from an early age. The Pratap sports school is one of them. It currently has about thirty wrestlers training in Greco-Roman. Two of the U-23 World Cup bronze medalists, Bhanwala and Nitesh, are the academy trainees.

“We judge kids on different metrics based on their athletic strength and wrestling moves as they grow, and then turn them into Greco-Roman. From 13 to 17 years old when they develop specific skills, we divide their stream into either freestyle or Greco-Roman. There are dedicated coaches who are ancient Greco-Roman wrestlers,” says Chhikara.

More national competitions, international exposure and regular national camps helped Greco-Roman wrestling grow in India. The Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) wants to give equal priority to this style and is aiming for an Olympic medal by the 2028 Olympics.

“We are improving in the discipline,” said longtime national head coach Hargobind Singh. “A lot of things have helped. The most important thing is that children are now starting early in Greco-Roman. The federation is also pushing it to the fore. There are more national competitions in each age group. We also participate in more international competitions,” he says.

This year, the Greco-Roman wrestlers were in the camps for seven to eight months and the federation also launched a series of rankings. “It is very important to have long camps for the Greco-Romans. When they return to their academies or akhadas, they cannot train properly. They don’t have the opportunity to train or have coaches to help them with the specific skills needed for this discipline,” he says.

Bhanwala was able to mold himself as he only trained with Greco-Roman wrestlers, including Chhikara, from an early age. He was 12 when he made the switch; early enough to master the basics.

“He wasn’t very strong with his legs but we noticed he just kept getting better in the Greco-Roman moves. He had good upper body strength and had the explosive power you need to fast throws from an early age. He built on that and became a completely different Greco-Roman wrestler,” says Chhikara.

How Greco-Roman, Freestyle Differ

In Greco-Roman, it is illegal to grab the opponent below the belt line, trip them, or actively use the legs for movement.

In freestyle, it is permissible to grab the opponent’s leg(s), trip them, and actively use the legs for movement.

In Greco-Roman, wrestlers rely more on headlocks, body locks, and arm drags. An offensive technique called a suplex is used where the rival is lifted into a high arch as they fall backwards

Since the legs cannot be used on the mat, Greco-Roman wrestlers use techniques such as gut wrenches and body wrenches to turn the opponent’s shoulders towards the mat and get the pin.

Position of the parterre (on the carpet): Plays an important role in Greco-Roman. A passive wrestler is penalized with a “parterre position”. He must lie on his stomach in the center of the mat while his opponent takes advantage of a hold to score points.

Using a throw, freestyle wrestlers can throw the opponent and re-contact them when they are on the canvas to secure a favorable position. In Greco-Roman, contact must be maintained with opponents throughout the takedown.

Robert J. King