THE DANGAL IN THE JUNGLE, PART 1
Black Belt|April/May 2021
YOU KNOW YOU’RE SOMEBODY WHEN YOU’VE APPEARED ON AN INDIAN DANGAL POSTER — IN OTHER WORDS, IN A WRESTLING ADVERTISEMENT.
ANTONIO GRACEFFO, PH.D.

The site of my first dangal was Seoni, India, the birthplace of Rudyard Kipling’s character Mowgli, and the fight forever will be known as the “dangal in the jungle.”

I began the adventure with Zhengtong, my wrestling teammate from Shanghai University of Sport, when we embarked on a 30-hour jaunt from Shandong, China, to Delhi, India. The three-and-a-halfhour time difference between the two nations only added to our fatigue. We arrived in Delhi, slept three hours, then got up and drove eight hours to Chandigarh for training.

Our coach Deepak Pehlwan explained that constant, lengthy, cheap and uncomfortable travel like this is a fact of life for Indian wrestlers. During dangal season, they try to compete as much as possible to earn money. That often entails wrestling one day and traveling to their next bout the following day. A wrestler who’s just starting out makes between 500 rupees and 1,500 rupees ($7 to $20) per bout — which explains why they have to travel and sleep as cheaply as possible.

The fact that Zhengtong and I were in a car with our coach, rather than riding on trains and buses in the worst seats available, was considered a huge luxury.

After training on that second day, we drove eight hours back to Delhi, slept three hours, then drove an hour to the airport so we could take a two-hour flight and a three-hour drive to Seoni. From the moment I arrived in India, I longed for a chance to unpack, take a shower, do laundry and sleep — but it was one obligation after another. And they all involved long, uncomfortable travel with as many as four people crammed in the back seat of a compact car.

When we finally arrived in Seoni, it was 11 a.m. on the day before the fight. I had hoped we would just check into the hotel and be able to rest. Instead, we had to drive to a meeting with the dangal committee, followed by lunch.

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