“Anyone who is not here to wrestle, go to the stands.”

Wrestling Federation of India president Brij Bhusan Saran Singh wasn’t taking any chances this time. After all the controversy a Sushil Kumar bout attracts in India, it is safe to say that even the WFI doesn’t want to take chance again. While Singh did his best to keep the crowd away, he could not manage to keep away the controversy.

The two wrestlers on the mat, Sushil and Jitender, were involved in a fiery bout. Sushil is good at scoring quick points and had a chance to pin Jitender as well but it wasn’t the case on Tuesday. Sushil was happy keeping it slow. By the end of the first period, he led 4-0.

It was the start of the second period when things took an ugly turn. Sushil’s thumb entered Jitender’s left eye and he lay on the mat in pain. The referee thought it was unintentional and Sushil apologised immediately. But the incident had rattled Jitender.

A minute later, Jitender’s arm stuck in an awkward move, which called for another break. There was also some finger twisting that the referee ignored. The clock ticked down and Jitender desperately tried to score points, but Sushil managed to hold on for a 4-2 win.

While the were crowd cheering for Sushil, there were foul cries from Jitender’s corner. “Look at his eye, it’s turned black,” Jaiveer, Jitender’s coach said. “It was a rough bout only by Sushil. He does this deliberately and has been doing for years now. Referees are also involved.”

Sushil’s camp has dealt with such allegations before. On his way to the stadium, it was something that had bothered him all along.

“We had just left home and there were 2-3 cars and people said, ‘hum bhi aa rahe hain’ [We are also coming with you],” Sushil said. “After a while, we met more people who said that they would tag along with us.”

“So, we had 25-30 cars following us. Main baithe baithe soch raha tha, abbey yaar… kis kis ki zimmedaari lun [I was sitting and thinking, ‘oh man, how many people should I responsible for,’” he said.

But after the trial, Sushil did not have to bother with his past, where he has had his fair bit of controversies at trials.

Last year, his supporters clashed with Praveen Rana’s entourage at the Commonwealth Games trials. A year before that, Sushil was at the centre of the walkover controversy when three wrestlers, including Rana, conceded bouts and allowed Sushil to win gold at Nationals without any fight.

And then this was the trial for World Championships which can get you a ticket for the Tokyo Olympics. So all the precautions put in place by WFI, the overwhelming support for Sushil, and the roughhousing was understood.

“I have been away from the system,” Sushil said. “It’s very difficult for a wrestler to step on the mat after four years. No one in the world does it. When I was in Russia, everyone asked why are you returning? I told them that I enjoy wrestling.”

Surely, there will be more asking the same question in Nur-Sultan when the 36-year-old competes at the World Championships after a gap of eight years. While a medal still looks a long shot and an Olympic one even longer, Sushil still retains a lot of qualities that once made him a wrestler’s dream in India.

That he still remains the best in his category even after 18 years is astonishing; Sushil has not lost at the national level for this long.

Of course, he looked slow, tired and trying to survive rather than dominate. Take the move where he moved between Jitender’s leg and lift him on his back, just like he did in the London Olympics semi-final. Over here, though, he lacked strength and could not complete the move.

“I was told to play it slow and just win,” he said. “My style is different. It was how I wrestled in the first period. I could have won 10-0 or pinned him but I was not told to do that.”

The instructions came from Kamal Malikov, the Russian coach who joined Sushil in March. Sushil says in the little time, he has helped him a great deal.

Kismat hai ki ye mile hai [It’s my good fortune that he is here],” he said. “We may have had only 40 sessions together but he is experienced and helped me. We may fly out soon for more practice.”

The first glimpse of some of the changes was seen in Belarus two weeks ago when Sushil was wrestling for the bronze medal bout at the Medved International tournament. After a humiliating 0-10 loss to Bekzod Abdurakhamonov, Sushil was pulled back in the repechage.

Sushil lost 7-8 in the bronze medal bout against Russia’s but shows that he has still got it. He moved swiftly, got himself in better positions and even pulled off his khame (headlock) move.

“You see the improvement with every bout,” Sushil’s coach Vinod Kumar said. “Now, in the World Championships you will see how he dominates. It’s a process and nothing is going to stop for him. He has nothing to prove to anyone.”