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I treat every bout as a final: Bajrang Punia

Men's freestyle wrestler Bajrang Punia would 'achieve something no Indian has attained before' – become the first Indian wrestler to win an Olympic gold medal.

I treat every bout as a final: Bajrang Punia

Suhrid Barua

Updated: 21 July 2021 2:34 PM GMT

He is India's best medal hope at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and it is not difficult to fathom why? A spate of stellar performances at high-profile international tourneys over the last year or so has triggered soaring expectations that men's freestyle wrestler Bajrang Punia would 'achieve something no Indian has attained before' – become the first Indian wrestler to win an Olympic gold medal and surpass the feats of Sushil Kumar (silver and bronze medallist at the 2012 and 2008 Olympics), Khashaba Dadasaheb Jadhav (who won India's Olympic wrestling medal – a bronze at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics in 54-kg category and Yogeshwar Dutt (bronze medallist at the 2012 Olympics).

The 26-year-old Haryana lad is enjoying a purple patch – his wave of success started with winning the 65-kg gold medal at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, following up with a 65-kg gold medal effort at the 2018 Asian Games, besides scooping up a silver medal in the 65-kg category at the 2018 World Championship in Budapest – the same city where he had won his first World Championship medal – a bronze in the 2013 edition. Bajrang continued his great run in 2019 winning the 65-kg gold medal at the 2019 Asian Championship in China. He literally turned the 2019 World Championship selection trials into a no-contest with a lop-sided performance over national champion Harphool Singh – a bout which was cut short owing to the latter sustaining an injury.

"My job was to qualify for the World Championship and I'm glad that I achieved it without much fuss. It is unfortunate that my opponent got injured as all wrestlers are coming have come into the trials with a lot of hard work behind them," says Bajrang exuding a sorry feeling for his injured opponent.

The Indian Railway pehelwan is focused on using the 2019 World Championship platform to seal his Olympic berth in the 65-kg category. "The top six qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and I'm going to leave no stone unturned in attaining my Olympic qualifying goal. This will be my sixth World Championship and I now have a lot of experience under my belt – this will surely help," quipped the demure wrestler, who had arrived on the Indian wrestling scene at the 2013 Asian Championship in New Delhi, where he had filled in a last-minute replacement for injured Yogeshwar Dutt and went on to bag a bronze medal on his international debut.

Bajrang Punia

The mere mention of Yogeshwar Dutt gets him excited. "I always wanted to be a wrestler like Yogi bhai – he has mentored me for so many years now and is my role model. Nowadays Yogi bhai is very busy with his Haryana Police job as well as with his wrestling academy. I try to catch up with him over phone or in person whenever possible and he always offers his words of wisdom for my betterment," one can sense his respect for his mentor.

Probe him about whether this is the best phase of his wrestler career, Bajrang comes up with a self-effacing riposte.

"I never think I'm the best or whether this is my best run. I treat every bout as the final bout. I never think this opponent is strong or weak. Wrestling is a sport where anyone can be beaten on any given day – you just need a bad period of thirty seconds to fall. Watching videos of my opponents help me to learn from my earlier mistakes and improving my game - not repeating them is the key as they can cost you dearly," he says with a tinge of maturity.

Humble to the core, Bajrang lavishes praise on his Georgian personal coach Emzarios 'Shako' Bentinidis for his consistent run on the international mat. "Shako's presence has marked a big improvement in my performance. He has been of big help not much in terms of technique as it is more or less the same Indian coaches taught us but more in terms of training, speed, identifying your mistakes and working on them."

The star Indian wrestler offered a perspective of how the presence of a personal coach can be a big plus. "Look, a personal coach can take care of small, small things that can be missed out if one coach is handling a complete batch of grapplers. For example in a camp six to seven coaches handle 50-60 wrestlers and in such cases too much of individual attention is not possible. This is where Shako has been hugely beneficial for me," he noted.

Every grappler has room for improvement and Bajrang precisely knows the areas to focus on. "I'm working on my leg defence and my coach is also focussing on this aspect of my game. I'm always looking to raise the improvement bar," the soft-spoken Haryanvi fires his parting shot.

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