THE ANCIENT SPORT OF WRESTLING is all set to get a modern makeover when the Pro Wrestling League (PWL) starts at the Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium in Delhi on Thursday.
Featuring top wrestlers from around the world, the tournament will see six teams compete for top honours in the inaugural year -- Dilli Veers, Haryana Hammers, Punjab Royals, Uttar Pradesh Warriors, Bengaluru Yodhas and Mumbai Garuda.
The PWL boasts of a total prize money of RS.15 crore with the winners bagging Rs.3 crore.
The first contest will see Delhi Veers take on Punjab Royals on Thursday. Mumbai will start their campaign againt the Warriors in the capital on Friday while Haryana and Bengaluru will clash on Saturday.
One of the biggest stars in the Haryana Hammers squad, Olympic bronze medalist Yogeshwar Dutt is making a comeback from injury and asserted that the tournament will help him and other Indian wrestlers prepare for the Rio Olympics in 2016.
"It will help us before the Olympics. We will be able to identify and rectify our weaknesses. Every big wrestlers plays at least one preparatory tournament before major events," Dutt said on the eve of the tournament in Delhi on Wednesday.
"Every wrestler will get at least five bouts in the PWL, that too against the top wrestlers from around the world. So the chances of more Indians qualifying for the Olympics will increase. After the PWL ends, we will get another two and a half months before the next Olympic qualifier to take care of our weak points," he added.
The Hammers boast several formidable grapplers in their squad including Cuban veteran Livan Lopez Azcuy (74kg) -- who bagged bronze medals at the 2012 London Olympics and the World Championships last year -- 2014 South American champion Yuri Maier (97kg) of Argentina, 2013 World Championship silver medalist and former Asian champion Amit Kumar Dahiya (57kg) and reigning World Champion and current World No.1 in the women's section Oksana Herhel (58kg) of Ukraine.
Punjab also has a strong sqaud including reigning World Champion Vladimir Khinchegashvili of Georgia. Former Asian Games silver medalist Jargalsaikhan Chuluunbat (125kg) of Mongolia and former Commonwealth Games champion Mausam Khatri (97kg).
Mumbai have three-time world women's champion Adeline Gray (69kg) of the US. Among the men, their most notable namens include former Asian and Commenwealth champion Amit Dhankar (65kg), promising youngster Rahul Aware (57kg) and the Georgian duo of Odikadze Elizbar (97kg) and Levan Berianidze (125kg).
Bengaluru will also consider themselves among the favourites. They have a strong Indian contingent in Narsingh Yadav, Bajrang Punia (65kg) and Navjot Kaur (women's 69kg).
They also have a formidable foreign contingent in former European Champion Pavlo Oliynik (97kg) of Ukraine and 2012 London Olympics silver medallist Davit Modzmanashvili (125kg) of Georgia.
In the women's draw, five-time World Championship medallist Yuliya Ratkevich (58kg) and USA's Alyssa Lampe 48kg) and of Azerbaijan are the two foreign faces.
But a confident Dutt asserted that his team is one of the favourites for the title and wants to win the tournament in its inaugural year.
"We have three World Champions. We also have a strong Indian component in Amit, (2013 Asian championship bronze medalist) Hitender and Geetika Jakhar. We want to win the first season," he said.
"Whatever the competition, we have to give our 100 percent, whether we are representing our village, state or country," he added.
Maier hoped that the PWL will inspire other top nations to come up with similar tournaments.
"We have Olympic and World medalists in this tournament. This is a very exciting competition. "I think the PWL will open the eyes of other countries. I hope they follow India's example because this is what our sport needs," he told IANS.
Livan, who has been training in India for around a month, is excited about taking part in the PWL.
"I never trained in India. This is the first time for me here. The training in Cuba is really tough. I am excited to train with Indian wrestlers and get to know how they prepare here," the Cuban told IANS.
"We don't take too much budget in our country for preparatory tournaments before major events like the Olympics. So this tournament will give me crucial exposure before the Rio Olympics," he added.
Bengaluru coach Kuldeep Malik also asserted that his team is ready for the challenge.
"Over the last 10 days, we have ensured that we have sparred with good opponents, worked on our fitness and I am confident that Bengaluru Yodhas will put up a strong show once the tournament begins," he said.