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Posted at: Jan 12, 2018, 1:42 AM; last updated: Jan 12, 2018, 1:42 AM (IST)1950-2018

End of an era: Sukhchain, a true wrestling heavyweight

67-year-old Cheema, winner of bronze medals in freestyle and Greco-Roman categories in 1974 Asiad, killed in road accident
End of an era: Sukhchain, a true wrestling heavyweight
Sukhchain Cheema receives his bronze medal at the Asian Games in Tehran in 1974; gets Dronacharya Award in 2004 from the then President APJ Abdul Kalam; and with Dara Singh.

Gagan K. Teja

Tribune News Service

Patiala, January 11

Sukhchain Singh Cheema, the renowned wrestler and coach who died in a road accident last night, came from a legendary family of wrestlers and wrestling gurus who migrated to India after Partition in 1947.

Cheema, 67, met with an accident when he was driving to his farmhouse after a training session at his akhara. His car was involved in a head-on collision with a car coming from the opposite direction. Four occupants of the other car were also injured. Cheema was taken to Rajindra Hospital, where he was declared brought-dead.

Death of a legend

“For others, it might be the death of a coach and player but for Punjab’s wrestling fraternity, it is the end of a phenomenon,” said celebrated boxing coach Gurbax Singh Sandhu, a close friend of Cheema all his life. “His death is an irreparable loss to the country, and Punjab in particular.”

Cheema competed in the heavyweight category and he was a wrestling heavyweight in every sense of the word. He was born on June 21, 1950, to legendary wrestler Kesar Singh, who had migrated to India from Lyallpur after Partition.

Wrestling was in his blood. He lost his mother at birth and was brought up at his maternal uncle’s house for a few years before he returned to Patiala and started training under his father.

His akhara, now named Rustam-e-Hind Kesar Singh akhara, was earlier run by Ghulam Mohammad Baksh, more famous as Great Gama, until 1947. The akhara was handed over to Kesar Singh by Maharaja Yadavindra Singh, then the Rajpramukh of the Patiala and East Punjab States Union, after Gama moved to Pakistan.

Freestyle, Greco-Roman medals

Cheema’s feat of winning two bronze medals at the 1974 Asian Games is quite astounding. He competed in the freestyle and Greco-Roman categories in the heavyweight class (then 100kg-plus) in Tehran and won a medal in both categories. His son, Palwinder Singh, was a junior world champion and became a multiple medallist in the Asian and Commonwealth Games.

Early start

As a child, Cheema made it sure to watch all top wrestling matches in Patiala and nearby areas. One day in 1965, he learnt that his favourite Dara Singh would fight King Kong at the Yadavindra Public School grounds. Watching that bout proved to be a turning point for him. 

“I started wrestling after watching my father, and adopted the mud style wrestling,” Cheema had said in an interview. “In 1973, when I grew up, I got the opportunity to join India’s national camp at NIS Patiala. It was there that I started wrestling on mats. I went to the first Nationals in 1973, and it was then that my career moved away from mud to mat wrestling.”

Coaching

After retiring from active wrestling, Cheema started coaching seriously at his akhara, which has produced numerous national and international wrestlers, including his son. 

His death has come as a big shock not only to his family but also to the 50-odd trainees at his akhara for whom he was a father figure.

Speaking to The Tribune, a distraught Palwinder Cheema said he would make sure that his father’s legacy lives on. “This akhara has been his first priority since childhood and now that he is gone, it is the responsibility of our family to ensure that the akhara progresses by leaps and bounds,” he said. “We promise that we will not let his dream die.”


International achievements

  • Two bronze medals in the 7th Asian Games at Tehran (1974)
  • Gold medal in the Indo-Iran meet at New Delhi (1976)
  • Gold medal in the Indo-Iraq meet at Jalandhar (1977) 
  • Gold medal in the Indo-USSR meet at Moscow (1982)
As a coach

  • National coach for Junior World Wrestling Championship, held in West Germany (1988)
  • National coach for the Seoul Olympics (1988)
  •  National coach for the Athens Olympic (2004)
Awards

  • Dronacharya Award (2004)
  •  Roll of Honour (1974) 
  • Rustom-e-Europe (1983)
  • Punjab Kesari (1977)

"It is a huge loss to the country. He was a part of the legendary family that has dedicated its entire life to the wrestling. He was very sharp witted. He was once offered a Punjabi movie and he gave me that novel on which the movie was to be based. I was not convinced by his role and suggested him not to get involved in this, to which he agreed." — PR Sondhi, former national wrestling coach 

"Cheema was a great human being and his death is definitely a huge loss to the state. He has been a very hardworking player and I am shocked at his sudden death." — Kartar Singh, olympian and asian games gold medallist

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