From street fighting to medal bouts
Narender Grewal, one of India's exponents of martial art wushu, talks about his life in the ring
Narender Grewal is used to conversations that go like this:
“So what do you do?"
“I do wushu."
The two-time Asian Games bronze-medallist, in the men’s sanda 60 and 65kg categories in 2014 and 2018, respectively, says this with a straight face because he is not embarrassed of the sport that’s given him this life and is happy to explain his day job to people. “I tell them it’s just like fighting on the streets—if you were to randomly pick up a fight with someone. You use your hands, feet and whatever works—this is a combination of boxing, wrestling and taekwondo," says the 25-year-old.
He likes to call himself a “slightly crazy person"—you have to be, if you are in the business of hitting and getting hit, he says—but is pleased with the way his career has progressed. After being laid low due to a jaw injury in 2015 that threatened his career, Grewal is just relieved to be back fighting—the bronze at Jakarta in August was a reiteration of his ability to compete like before.
In Hisar, Haryana, where he hails from, everyone likes to fight, says the slightly built Grewal as he takes off his jacket. He was in Mumbai recently to attend nutrition company Glanbia’s Fit India Conclave at the JW Marriott near the airport and formal wear is not his thing.
It’s just the culture in villages, he explains, to pit boys against boys so as to find out who is stronger. This can happen at any street corner, he says, or in a ring or akhara—some of India’s best-known boxers and wrestlers are from Haryana. He did the same, he wrestled, before a wrist injury ended any future he might have had in the sport.
Sent to Delhi to study, it turned out to be a nightmare for Grewal. He hated academia, everything “went above my head" and English medium didn’t help much either. “Sport is in my blood, academics used to scare me," he says. He would then spend most of his time playing sport—any sport—before the school’s sports instructor noticed and encouraged him to get into martial arts. Wushu was then the natural progression because the Indian Olympic Association recognized it, which meant being able to represent the country in international competitions. The International Wushu Federation describes it as “the collective term for the martial art practices which originated and developed in China".
“No one understood what I did (when he started). My family thought wushu is like wrestling," he adds. “Then they saw me (practise) boxing, they thought I was mad. Few people even now know what it (wushu) is. No one likes street fights, though it’s the easiest way to describe it."
Grewal calls YouTube his best friend for the video aggregator helped him hone his skills. He would spend hours watching fights online, emulate what he had seen both in terms of technique and training. His quick rise in the sport and the medal at Incheon, South Korea, in 2014 gave Grewal the purpose he was looking for.
However, those aspirations developed serious cracks when, soon after the first Asian Games medal, during a bout in the trials for the world championships in 2015, Grewal broke his jaw. The three fractures meant three plates, 18 screws and a long rehabilitation programme before he could go back into the ring—against medical advice.
“Rehabilitation is everything because injuries happen. Once the stitches came off, that was the most painful part of my life. My weight had dropped, I was just bones because I had not consumed anything but liquids for three months. No one can become a pehelwan pulling from a straw."
During this time he got married, moved to Delhi, worked as a gym instructor while building up the muscles he had lost.
He realized that his jaw would remain a weakness which opponents would want to exploit, but he feels nothing now when he takes a punch. “You do something repetitively, you get used to it. Our job is to hit and get hit," he adds. When he won a second Asian Games bronze, he was neither happy nor sad, but relieved to be back fighting. Later, he felt he could have done better, but it was a lesson learnt.
He wishes for the sport to get inducted into the Olympics—the only way its practitioners would get due recognition. “Sport will give you (a career) up to a point. I don’t know when I will be injured next. But then, who would have thought I would come this far?
“Till recently, I was just the other guy fighting in a gully (lane) in Hisar, the maar dhaad wala (fighter)."