Prediction: Bajrang Punia's steep climb to win a gold medal at Tokyo Olympics
Wrestler Bajrang Punia is one of the best competitors in 65kg weight category. However, he has a steep hill to climb to win the gold medal at Tokyo Olympics.
Wrestling has been one of the most successful sports for India at the Olympics. With a haul of five medals so far, Indians wrestlers would be looking forward to continuing their legacy at the Games when they hit the mat at the Tokyo Olympics. A total of seven wrestlers from India would be participating in the grand event, which starts on July 23.
Hopes will be stacked on Bajrang Punia and Vinesh Phogat, who have been deemed as the best medal prospects for India in the sports.
For Punia, who fights in the highly competitive 65kg men's freestyle category, the Tokyo Olympics could be the summit point of his career for which he had been dreaming for over a decade—meticulously training under the 2012 Olympic bronze medallist Yogeshwar Dutt.
A student at the Chhatrasal Stadium in Delhi, Punia idolises his mentor and developed a special relationship with him. He even withdrew from the 65kg competition in 2016 to give Yogeshwar a chance to go to his second successive Olympics.
Hailing from the Khudan village in the Jhajjar district of Haryana, Punia picked up wrestling at the age of seven. He was born in the family of pehelwans who would fight in akharas. In 2005, Bajrang decided to take his game to the next level by shifting to the Sports Authority of India's centre at Sonepat. In 2008, he was shifted to Delhi to train at the Chhatrasal stadium.
He then started to train under Dutt. After Bajrang won silver at the 2011 cadet world championship in the 55kg category, Dutt asked Bajrang to switch his weight category, even if he doesn't win a medal. It paid off, Bajrang won a medal at the 2013 World Championships.
Soon after Yogeshwar Dutt retired, Bajrang picked up the baton as a deserving successor. In 2018, Bajrang became the only male wrestler to win gold at the Commonwealth Games (2018) and Asian Games (2018).
He has also bagged silver and two bronze medals at the World Championships.
The build-up to the Olympics amid the lockdown in COVID-19 situation put a long break in Bajrang's competition and sparring partner. He made a strong comeback in 2021 when he won the gold medal at the Matteo Pellicone Ranking Series 2021, held in Rome in March.
Things were looking positive ahead when the second wave of COVID broke in India. Bajrang was again left without competition. However, in a month's time, he could shift his base to Vladikavkaz, Russia, with his coach Shako Bentinidis. In one of the local tournaments, Bajrang injured his knee; however, he has been able to recover well from his injury.
A look at Bajrang's chances at Tokyo Olympics
Bajrang, wrestling in the 65kg category, is seeded second behind Russia's world champion Gadhzimurad Rashidov, feels the seeding will play an important role at the Tokyo Olympics. Besides, Daulet Niyazbekov of Kazakhstan, Ismail Muszukajev of Hungary, and Takuto Otoguro of Japan are seeded 3rd, 4th, and 5th in his category, which makes it a highly-competitive weight division.
Despite being a top contender, Bajrang is known to go on his prowl for points slowly, waiting for the opponent's weak moment. However, at times, it gets too late. He cannot afford to give away too many points at the start of the bout at an important tournament like the Olympics. In 2020, he lost to 19-year-old Takuto Otoguro in the gold medal match at the Asian Championships. He had, in fact, lost to the same Japanese wrestler at the 2018 Worlds. He lost to Daulet Niyazbekov in the semifinals of the last Worlds Championships.
The likes of Otoguro, Gadzhimurad Rashidov, Niyazbekov and Iszmail Muszukajev among others have it in them to clinch gold medal. Bajrang has to keep in mind; he should not give away too many points, which could be difficult to compensate.
Bajrang's brilliance lies in his stamina. Despite trailing, he can make quick recoveries and bring added thrust against his opponents when they have lost their power. His waited games are revered by many of his compatriots.
As far as the seedings are concerned, Bajrang will evade Rashidov till the final. Though the Kazakh had defeated Bajrang in Worlds semifinal, the Indian had the last laugh when they met for the last time at the Ali Aliyev tournament in June. Bajrang's biggest threat would still be Otoguro and will try to evade the Japanese in the draw.
Bajrang is one of the finest wrestlers in his category, and his opponents will also be wanting to evade the Indian wrestler. It would be difficult to predict if he can bring the gold home. However, a medal seems pretty much on the card for him.