India's Bajrang Punia poses with his gold medal after winning in the Finals of men's freestyle wrestling (65kg) at Asian Games 2018.(PTI)
India's Bajrang Punia poses with his gold medal after winning in the Finals of men's freestyle wrestling (65kg) at Asian Games 2018.(PTI)

One Asian Games gold does not make me a wrestling hero, says Bajrang Punia

Bajrang Punia clinched the gold in the men’s freestyle 65 kg category even as veteran Sushil Kumar suffered a shock first-round defeat in the 74-kg category at the Asian Games 2018.
By Abhishek Paul | Hindustan Times, New Delhi
UPDATED ON AUG 27, 2018 10:22 AM IST

Bajrang Punia’s gold-medal winning feat at the Asian Games happened the same day Sushil Kumar tasted a first-round loss. To many, the baton had been passed on in Indian wrestling that day.

Despite two Olympic medals in 66kg, Sushil has struggled since shifting to 74kg category in 2013. Add to that, he will be 37 by the time the Tokyo Olympics is held in 2020, and Punia looks set to be spearheading India’s wrestling challenge in future.

Punia is not giving too much thought to it though. “One Asian Games gold medal does not make me the leader among current wrestlers. Because Sushil Kumar did not get a medal and I got it, I don’t become a hero. There are many seniors like Mausam Khatri, Sumit who I look up to. I never hesitate to ask them if I have any doubt over any technique,” Punia said over phone from SAI, Sonepat.

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The 24-year-old spent just one day at home after returning from Jakarta and is back to training. “My mother wanted me to stay longer as I rarely stay at home. But the World Championships are in October and I need to prepare as much as I can. My family wants an Olympic medal,” said Punia, who has even put a Tokyo Olympics medal as his WhatsApp display image. “I will not change it until I succeed,” he adds.

Wider gap ahead

But the gap between Asian Games and Olympics is too wide and Bajrang knows it. At the Asian Games, he won three bouts via technical superiority (a 10-point margin) but in the final he faced a tough challenge. Despite leading 6-0, his rival Japan’s Daichi Takatani equalised with an ankle tap and a single leg takedown.

“My technique is not perfect. I have huge scope of improvement. Even during the final the Japanese successfully targeted my leg and got eight points. During the breaks in the finals my coaches told me to attack him and not give him points,” said Punia, who won the final by 11-8 margin.

“I had lost to him in the Asian Championships six months ago. But I did not take pressure as it would have hampered me. There was no mental block. I am happy my strategy worked.”

Target set

Punia, who is also a 2013 World Championship bronze medallist, will travel to Azerbaijan in the first week of September. He will then return to India for a short period before flying to Budapest for the October 22-28 World Championships.

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“It will be a 15 to 20 days camp. I have been travelling with my coach, physio and one or two sparring partners. I need to perfect my technique and power,” he said.

“Such exposure trips are important. There are a lot of new techniques to be learnt ahead of bigger battles. Also my foreign coach (Shako Bentinidis) has been a great addition to my team. Since he joined me five to six months ago, my game has improved.”

A good result in the World Championships will earn Bajrang 2020 Olympics qualification. “That is the ultimate aim — an Olympic medal. By winning the Asian Games, I have got the confidence about doing well in the bigger competition. I also kept intact the golden run for India in the 65kg category, in which Yogeshwar Dutt had won gold in 2014. Now I want to emulate him at the Olympic level too,” he said.

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