Will Greco-Roman wrestling always be the poor cousin of the Freestyle category?

Overshadowed by the glamor of freestyle wrestling, Greco-Roman wrestling has long struggled with an identity crisis as a poor cousin of its popular counterpart. The poor performance over the years has not helped to boost its image in the country unlike the appeal of Freestyle wrestlers. Precisely, the Greco-Roman style of wrestling didn’t make much headway in improving its image, which would likely only come after a victory at a big-ticket event.

Greco-Roman wrestling, a story of success and failure

Wrestling has been in the news in the country since 2008, when Sushil Kumar won the bronze medal at the Beijing Olympics. Since then, India has maintained its medal count steadily at all major events in freestyle wrestling. There is no doubt that freestyle wrestling has been India’s backbone at the Olympics. However, despite the presence of Greco-Roman style Indian wrestlers at the Olympics, their outings were nominal in nature. The Greco-Roman category is popular in Eastern European countries, and India’s rendezvous with this category has been the story of success and failure.

Sandeep Tulsi Yadav won bronze in 66kg at wrestling world championships

It was not until the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi that India collected maximum medals with four gold, one silver and two bronze. The greatest moment of glory in Greco-Roman wrestling came in 2013 when Sandeep Tulsi Yadav won a bronze medal in the 66kg at the world wrestling championships. He went on to compete in the Asian Games in 2014, but had to retire due to a shoulder injury. In 2015, at the senior national championships, he won a bronze medal. Tragedy struck in 2016 when his name appeared alongside wrestler Narsingh Yadav in doping charges for which he also faced a four-year suspension. “It was a setback for me; however, I trained rigorously to organize a comeback in 2020 ”, said Tulsi.

Sandeep Tulsi Yadav at the 2013 World Wrestling Championship
Sandeep Tulsi Yadav at the 2013 World Wrestling Championship

With rare world-class silverware, the Greco-Roman wrestling is desperate for a grand medal for a complete overhaul of its stature in India. Despite a vibrant wrestling culture in rural India across akharas and regular dangals, only freestyle wrestling flourished with a mass of followers in the north and west region of the country which produced many formidable competitors of the sport at the Olympics for India. Tulsi adds:

The Greco-Roman style of wrestling has never been so popular in India, it has always been popular in European countries. I have traveled through 20-25 countries in the world, where I have seen that Greco-Roman is followed more religiously than Freestyle, which has a high concentration in India only.

Where is the advantage missing?

Greco-Roman wrestling, which prohibits a wrestler from using their legs during a bout, arrived late in India and is limited to a few Sports Authority India (SAI) centers and a few schools and universities, while Indian wrestling tradition and the upbringing of a wrestler is still based on freestyle, which strongly dominates the Akharas in India. A trend that has been observed for some time is that acrobatic wrestlers switch categories to Greco-Roman when they are not doing well at the senior level. Freestyle is more about strength and endurance than speed, which is more required in the latter category.

    Harpreet Singh won a silver medal at the Asian World Championship in 2019
Harpreet Singh (82kg) won a silver medal at the Asian wrestling championship in 2019

It took a Sushil Kumar to win an Olympic medal and give freestyle wrestling a big punch. Unless and until the same happens with the Greco-Roman, things won’t change for good. Although Greco-Roman is adapted in many schools and universities, to gain traction it requires a lot more attention than the way it is currently treated. While freestyle wrestling takes on new impetus thanks to the Pro Wrestling League which started out like many other sports leagues in the country, Greco-Roman wrestling has also remained out of action in the league. Due to its dynamics, freestyle wrestling is popular with spectators as it allows grapplers to be more offensive using both arms and legs, while Greco-Roman wrestlers only use the upper body, which is actually an endurance test for athletes. Tulsi says:

Today we have a lot of popular players like Sushil Kumar, Bajrang Punia, Vinesh Phogat who have become well known names in India. Although WFI has done a tremendous amount for us, I think there is a lack of media attention towards the Greco-Roman category, which should be changed. My bronze medal in 2013 had a good impact in India which resulted in the opening of many avenues for wrestlers.

A bright future?

Despite a series of bad shows at the World Championships each year, there has been some development that may chart the future course of Greco-Roman wrestling. With special emphasis on this category, training schools were established and also participated in wrestling competitions in schools.

The Indian Wrestling Federation brought in a foreign trainer, Temo Kasarashvili from Georgia, who helped the wrestlers improve their technique. All of these positive changes have started to pay off as well. India won the most medals at the Asian Wrestling Championships this year with three silver medals for Gurpreet Singh (77 kg), Sunil Kumar (87 kg) and Harpreet Singh (82 kg) and a bronze medal solitary Gyanender (60 kg). The upcoming World Wrestling Championship may also be a game-changer for Greco-Roman wrestlers if they can get the maximum number of Olympic quotas at this tournament, for which they have held camps in Georgia, Armenia and Kazakhstan.

Gurpreet Singh (77kg) won a silver medal at the Asian wrestling championship in 2019
Gurpreet Singh (77kg) won a silver medal at the Asian wrestling championship in 2019

Harpreet Singh, from Sangrur district in Punjab, is touted as the wrestler who can channel a change in the Greco-Roman category like Sushil did for the Freestyle category. He went from freestyle to Greco-Roman a decade ago. Another big change that India has noticed is the increase in the number of coaches in this category compared to the previous days. Although the number, unlike freestyle coaches, is much less, it can give a big boost to athletes pursuing this category.

Tulsi Yadav concludes, “We have some good wrestlers competing like Harpreet and Gurpreet, and this world championship can be a defining moment for Greco-Roman wrestlers in India.”

Robert J. King