Eight months back, Georgian Wrestling legend and multiple Olympian Shako Bentinidis began his association with Bajrang Punia. In these eight months, it is visible for anyone paying the slightest bit of attention that the young Indian wrestler, recently being held up as the poster boy for Indian wrestling off late, has grown into the potential that he had promised.
Back in November 2017, it had been a case of so-near-yet-so-far for Bajrang Punia as he returned with one of the two Silver medals for India in Men’s Wrestling at the World U23 Championships in Poland. It had been a rather whirlwind of a final, the end of which saw the Indian wrestler beaten 6-17 against Russian grappler Kuular. As stories suggest, this was the first time that Bentinidis met Punia even though their association did not begin right away.
The part of Bajrang’s life related to his mentor Yogeshwar Dutt is no secret to any enthusiast for Indian wrestling. The fact remains that as long as Dutt participated and competed actively in the 65kg category, Bajrang stayed in a mostly uncompetitive weight class and a non-Olympic one at that- the 61 kg category. The first primary international platform where Bajrang stepped in as the contender in the 65kg division, the Senior World Cup held in Iran in February 2017, saw him finish 8th. Three months later in March 2017, he had established his domination with the Asian Championship title.
Since Bentinidis took over, one thing has been made sufficiently clear. There has been a successful spree of fine-tuning the talent that Bajrang espouses. Potential alone is never enough to make an unassailable champion- technique and skill are essential and, if the excellent history of Georgian wrestling sets any precedent, that is precisely what Bentinidis has achieved.
For one, let us look at Bajrang’s near perfect Asian Games performance in Jakarta earlier this year. The first three bouts saw him beat he Sirojiddin Khasanov, Abdulqosim Fayziev and Batchuluuny Batmagnai by technical fall which set up a final against the mighty Japanese wrestler Daichi Takatani- a problematic tie wherein each contender resorted to any means possible to grab the Gold. An early 6-point lead by the Indian withered away amidst strong single-leg attacks by Takatani, and it was all Bajrang could do to keep his head in the game. The 11-8 victory and the subsequent Gold medal for India were made all the sweeter.
After this successful campaign, Bentinidis was quoted on his unusual methods that would eventually go on to make Bajrang a wiser wrestler. A bit more attention to detail, a desire to right the little wrongs and lots of encouragement to battle his self-doubt is all that the Indian needed to set him up as one of the most formidable wrestlers in the World in his weight category. Such was the power of this doubt that repeated encouragements from Bentinidis were in order. “I have to tell him all the time that he is very good. I have to tell him before sleeping, during training, and when he is eating that he is very good,” the Georgian coach was quoted as saying by ESPN after the Asiad Gold. This ongoing World Championship and Bajrang’s performance in it is just further proof of the marvellous influence the Georgian has had over the Indian.
Since Bentinidis took over, Bajrang has won a slew of Golds in all major international championships and is well set up for another one. The Commonwealth Games, the Tbilisi Grand Prix, Yasar Dogu and the Asian Games have all been fantastic. A win today will give him the rare distinction of winning all major titles in a single season. It will also be a magnificent landmark. India has a lone gold medal in world wrestling when Sushil Kumar won it in Moscow in 2010. And today, Punia could add his name to the elite list when he takes on Takuto Otoguro from Japan in finals.
The road to the finals was by no means easy. He fought off Cuba’s Alejandro Valdes Tobier 4-3 to enter the 65 kg Freestyle final. In a close bout, the Indian fended off a late threat from his Cuban rival who narrowed down the lead from 4-1 to 4-3. Budapest has been good to Bajrang so far. It was here that he won his first senior World Championship medal- Bronze in the 60kg category.
His opponent is by no means one to be taken lightly. Japan’s Takuto Otoguro reached the finals after knocking out a wrestler who was favourite to win the title and who had defeated two former World Champions earlier in the day. Akhmed Chakaev of Russia was tamed by Otoguro with a 10-15 scoreline.
A tough ask but not entirely impossible. 2018 has seen wonderful displays of quickness and presence of mind by Bajrang. Several factors have contributed towards him just gaining that little bit of edge in every tournament that he competes in and Shako Bentinidis has indeed played a huge role in the same. A difficult test awaits them today, and we are sure, regardless of the result, Bajrang will come away from Budapest a better wrestler.