Amar Dhesi was an unknown quantity in Las Vegas in April, when he stepped into the wrestling ring for the final of a national tournament in the heavyweight category.
Organizers didn’t even have the 17-year-old’s surname right, spelled “Phesi” on the scorer’s table. Ringside announcers wondered about the Canadian’s heritage: “Iran, or India – India, I think.”
The 6-foot-2, 265-pound teenager from the Vancouver suburb of Surrey quickly announced himself, all muscle and quickness, lunging for the legs of Adam Coon – one of the top teenager wrestlers in the United States, and a former under-17 world champion.
Dhesi piled up a few fast points, a lead he would not cede.
On a stage few Canadians have ever succeeded, Dhesi’s attack was unrelenting. He employed his unusual speed, at the start of the second of two periods, to spin out of an attempted move by Coon and then pounded his opponent out of the ring in a driving football-style tackle, crashing down in front of the ringside announcers.
“We almost got taken out,” one said.
The other added: “I got scared there for a second.”
“I controlled him,” Dhesi said in a recent interview, after his daily two hours lifting weights at the gym. “I didn’t let him do anything he wanted. I created angles. After the first minute, I knew I had the match.”
This summer, Dhesi headed south to Oregon State University, one of the top-ranked colleges in U.S. NCAA Division I wrestling.
Unlike sports such as basketball, where dozens of Canadians are succeeding, a Canadian wrestler on American mats is a rarity. And Dhesi makes his move as wrestling itself faces uncertain, potentially cut from the Summer Olympics roster starting in 2020.
The millennia-old sport’s proposed exclusion from the Olympics reverberated far beyond the ring when the news broke earlier this year. And wrestling officials have grappled for a reprieve, with a final decision from the International Olympic Committee due this month.
Dhesi emerges as a phenom from the close-knit Indo-Canadian wrestling community in the Vancouver region. Dhesi’s father, Balbir, immigrated to the area in the mid-1970s, and not long after established a wrestling club.
Of the wrestlers who have come out of the general milieu is Arjan Bhullar of Richmond, B.C., who competed as a heavyweight at the 2012 London Olympics. Another force is Sunny Dhinsa of Abbotsford, B.C. – something of a phenom who nearly made the Olympics at 18, and recently finished his second year at wrestling-power Simon Fraser University.
“Wrestling’s a part of our culture,” Bhullar said. “It’s embedded in our culture. It tests you in every aspect, mentally, physically, spiritually.”
Dhesi’s focus is 2016, where wrestling will take place at the Games in Rio de Janeiro. He turns 18 in September, and the multi-time British Columbia and Canadian champion, for his weight class and age group, now aims to claim, as a freshman at Oregon State, the heavyweight title in Division I.
Dhesi wants to be in Rio with his brother, Parmvir, one year older, who wrestles at Douglas College in the Vancouver area.
Canada has had some success in wrestling at the Olympics, winning 16 medals, two of them gold – about 5 per cent of the Summer Olympics medals the country has won – riding the success of five medals from Tonya Verbeek and Carol Huynh at the past three Games. The men have not won a medal since Daniel Igali’s gold in 2000.
“He’ll help me accomplish my goal and I’ll help him accomplish his,” Dhesi said of his brother.
The two young men have wrestled together since they were 4 or 5. “Our whole life. We know each other’s every move. He knows what I know.”
It is in the blood. Their father, Balbir, was a successful wrestler in India, as was his father. Balbir remembers when he was 4, sitting on his father’s lap, in the Punjab in India. “I felt his ear. ‘What happened to your ear, dad?’”
It was the wrecked cartilage of a cauliflower ear, the mark of a wrestler. It is a mark grandson Amar Dhesi also carries, with pride.
Dhesi was discovered last year, when, at a Pacific Northwest regional tournament in the United States, he defeated a teenager a year older, who was a top recruit heading to Oregon State. The school’s coach, Jim Zalesky, watched it happened and was suitably impressed.
Eventually, Dhesi signed on for a full-ride scholarship, the culmination of years of Balbir bringing his sons down to small tournaments in the United States, where a somewhat-different version of wrestling from freestyle is the norm.
At Oregon State, Dhesi arrives at program that, under Zalesky, has cracked the top 10 in the nation, hitting that mark two years ago, and reaching No.8 last season. Zalesky previously coached at University of Iowa, a perennial power, and coached three successive NCAA champion teams.
“He’s the real deal,” said assistant coach Kevin Roberts, who predicted Dhesi will produce immediate results as a freshman. “He’s college ready.”
Dhesi’s high-school coach at Burnaby Central Secondary, remembers first seeing him as a young teenager. The body wasn’t quite there yet. The passion was.
“He wasn’t really a physical specimen by any means,” coach Gianni Buono said with a chuckle. “He was kind of chubby. He was a chubby little boy who had some grit and some tenacity. He loves the sport like I’ve never seen before.”
Buono was ringside in Las Vegas when Dhesi defeated Coon.
Coon, who will wrestle as a freshman at University of Michigan, later went on to win several national competitions, which he had done the year before as well, the first junior to do so. USA Wrestling picked Coon its wrestler of the week in July.
“What makes Amar different than others is he’s able to attack the legs very quickly, and drive through his opponent,” Buono said. “And change his elevation – most heavyweights cannot do that.”
It’s exactly what Dhesi did to Coon – and now is set to step in a ring few Canadians ever have, NCAA Division I.
“The way he handled him,” Buono still marvelling at the Dhesi-Coon match, “was unbelievable.”