Fighter-poet who wants to better his London bronze

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Yogeshwar Dutt is a fighter-poet of sorts, stringing out Hindi couplets and single throwaway lines of wisdom. He is also India's most experienced wrestler going to his fourth Olympics in Rio determined, he says, to turn his London bronze to gold. But doesn't everyone say that? Dutt is, however, unafraid to put himself on the line, his statement made during one of the many send-offs members of the Indian contingent received before departing for Rio.

In the run-up to the Olympics, Dutt trained at the Indian wrestling hub in Sonepat in the hall named after him (and the double Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar) ensuring that he could shake off an injury-ridden last few years, to give himself one last go at the Games. Dutt's first appearance was stormy; winning the quota in 2004, his Olympic participation being challenged in court by rival Kripa Shankar.

Twelve years later, with Narsingh Yadav and Sushil occupying mindspace, Dutt has trained in relative peace. Sparring regularly with Narsingh, having his body looked after and his mind on alert, Dutt has made political statements, released tweets and public comments, including taking on the choice of actor Salman Khan as Olympics ambassador. He goes into Rio a man still very much tied in deep to his roots but content to remain on the edge of public notice or an open challenge.

In Rio, Dutt, having recovered from injuries and surgeries, is ready to break free, pressure or no pressure be damned. "Every competition has pressure -- in the Commonwealth Games, there was pressure because it was on our home ground. Asian Games 2014, there was different pressure. Everyone said, 'Sabki nazrein Yogeshwar par (All eyes on Yogeshwar).' That pressure just increases. And to win (Asian Games) gold after 28 years ... for a wrestling medal, that is pressure of its own."

"The real pressure is on the mat, and on the mat when I go there, then there is nothing. I forget everything." Yogeshwar Dutt

Dutt's ability to turn off the chatter and the surround sound into the real stuff cannot be denied: after the doctors sent him home without competing from the Las Vegas World Wrestling Championships in September 2015 due to injury that had not fully healed, he knew the clock was running down on his Rio chances. Next came the Olympic qualifier in Astana, Kazakhstan in March 2016 and to even get there, he had to beat his arch rival in a trial for a 65kg spot. In Astana, only the finalists would qualify for Rio. Dutt won gold and became the second Indian wrestler into the Games. "I read the papers and that 'all eyes on Yogeshwar' stuff, so you do feel it, but the point is how much can you jhelo (absorb)."

He understands even more than today how the force of pressure bears down on an athlete and, strangely in some ways, believes it frees him. "The real pressure is on the mat, and on the mat when I go there, then there is nothing," he says. "I forget everything. There is pressure on me before the moment I step on the mat. When under pressure, I perform better."

He would like to push ahead from his 60kg bronze in London 2012, and prove that he has found his best fighting weight in the 65kg category, newly created by wrestling's ruling body after it was forced to trim divisions. From May 2014, Dutt has finished on top of five out of six events he has competed in 65kg; in the sixth, the Pro Wrestling League, he was part of the losing team in the finals. His weight now drifts between 68kg and 69kg, and he says 65kg is "good for me. I don't have a problem dropping weight, am fitter than before and with more power."

Dutt has gone from 42kg in sub juniors, to 45kg, 50kg, 55kg and then his Olympic medal weight of 60kg. All the way to Rio's 65kg. "I was a tall wrestler in 60kg but in 65kg I don't think I stand out for my height and I don't think there is anyone taller than the rest of us now," he says.

The years between London and Rio have been filled with demands on his body -- Dutt has had three surgeries on his left knee in 2015 to add to the other two he had on the right in 2009. "ACL/ MCL/ meniscus," he rattles off the medical terms, saying he has recovered faster from the second set of surgeries than the first -- half the time, eight months to four. "There is still a bit of a stretch and a pull in the left knee but not pain," he said in May, "because the muscle power reduces and it will take eight months to get it all back." These eight months, by proper calculations, tie up neatly in time for Rio.

This awareness of his craft and its consequences has given Dutt, 33, insight into what he is able to work on as an older wrestler. "When you are younger, we had josh (enthusiasm) and didn't think that we had to do much other than, say, try to tire the other person out, because I didn't tire much myself. But because I didn't have experience I made mistakes, conceded points early at the start. People used to attack my legs, it was seen as my weak point and I conceded a lot of points."

In 2008, he remembers losing his Olympic quarterfinal -- and a chance to win a medal -- in the last eight seconds of his bout due to an attack on his leg. "After that I paid attention on my leg defence and trying to make it better... So that I don't commit that mistake again." A more solid defence on his legs has also made him free of any anxieties he may normally have had after surgery on his knees.

Dutt's work schedule is driven by sparring, "On the mat, I prefer practice matches to anything else from when I was very young. I focus most on bout-type practice matches." In his two to two-and-a-half hours on the mat, he stops in between bouts and power training to do technical training for about five to minutes. "Then I take a break again for a bout -- and try to do four or five a day."

This draining load of bouts and technical work has been turned routine, every wrestler's competitive energies directed towards one crazy day of competition. In Rio, Dutt will have the longest wait of all Indian athletes, his event being held on the final of the Games, from start to finish on August 21 itself. "That's how our events are held, they get over in a day," he says. "There are 20 wrestlers at an Olympics and for sure we have four bouts in a day, if not five. So keeping that in mind, I kept my focus on Olympics and world championships and did my practice around that. According to our format, I've got to be ready."

"Ours is a tough game. Tough because it is the only contact sport that begins with and is rooted into direct contact. Not like boxing or karate or taekwondo, where contestants move from mere proximity to frequent contact." Yogeshwar Dutt

In London, before the medal, he completed three repechage bouts in 45 minutes. "After the medal your tiredness disappears, you don't feel the tiredness at all. But it's not easy and you can only put that in practice, when you make it a part of your practice -- five bouts in a day and three in 45 minutes."

He's even to taking to composing a few couplets about athletic pain, his WhatsApp status once reading: "Shukr karo ki dard sahte hain, likhte nahin / Varna kaagazon pe lavzon ke janaaze uthte (Be thankful we endure pain, not pen it. Else papers would turn pall bearers for words)."

Dutt's connection to his sport appears organic, linked to the man's very soul. He is immersed in it, happy to describe it and take it to as large an audience as he can.

He says that wrestling is like no other contact sport. Other than two fighters and a fight, two contestants and a contest, wrestling needs nothing. No gear, no equipment, no protection, no field of play. Yogeshwar, his face dotted and creased by his calling, says, "Tough hai game hamaara (Ours is a tough game). Tough because it is the only contact sport that begins with and is rooted into direct contact. Not like boxing or karate or taekwondo, where contestants move from mere proximity to frequent contact. (Judokas could vehemently argue, but they need a uniform, the judogi, to start the fight with.)

"In wrestling, you can't do anything from a distance -- we start our bout by gripping the opponent, heads knocked together, your mind racing ahead of your body to force the other man into making a mistake. And prevent ourselves from making a mistake." To be, in his words, on the attack and still in defence. Always locked in contact.

In Rio, Yogeshwar Dutt will have to break free to get to a place where he has never been before.