The other Punia, in line for gold
On Saturday evening, the 20-year-old Punia left his coach beaming as he secured a 8-2 win over Switzerland’s Stefan Reichmuth in the World Wrestling Championship semi-final (86kg) in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan.Updated: Sep 21, 2019 23:03 IST
For all the rapid strides that Deepak Punia has been making on the mat, his coach Virender was unhappy with one particular trait of his ward’s—the 20-year-old just would not go on the offensive and seize the initiative.
On Saturday evening, however, the 20-year-old Punia left his coach beaming. His 8-2 win over Switzerland’s Stefan Reichmuth in the World Wrestling Championship semi-final (86kg) in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, gave him enough reasons to be happy. That commanding performance will now see Punia fight for the gold medal with Iran’s Hassan Yazdani, 2016 Olympic gold medallist and 2017 world champion, on Sunday.
Punia has the opportunity to match the feat of Sushil Kumar, who is the only Indian wrestler to become a world champion (in 2010). Three others Bishambar Singh (1967), Amit Kumar Dahiya (2013) and Bajrang Punia (2018) entered the final, only to return with silver. He has also earned India a quota for the 2020 Olympics.
This will also be the first time that an Indian will return home with a World Championship medal from the higher weight categories. Traditionally, Indian wrestlers have been more prevalent in the lighter weights, with no medals coming from the 74kg-plus categories. Punia has broken that trend.
Punia’s latest tryst with a world title comes just over a month after he ended India’s 18-year wait for a gold medal at the World Junior Wrestling Championship.
It has been a remarkable few months for the young wrestler.
For someone who was crowned ‘Bal Kesari’ at 12 in his debut dangal, Punia’s rise has been unhindered on the mat too. He joined Chhatrasal in 2015 and the very next year he won the world cadet title.
“His focus earlier would always be on disbalancing the opponent and wear him down. Then he would go for the points. He just would not attack,” said Virender, who has seen Punia come up the ranks at the Chhatrasal Stadium – the cradle of Indian wrestling, that has produced Olympic medallists like Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt.
“In all the matches so far, he not only wore down his opponents, but also went for the attack and counter attack. That is his biggest gain in this championship.”
Punia’s attacking streak was visible right from the opening round against home wrestler Adilet Davlumbayev where he trailed 0-5 in the first period. Buoyed by the home crowd, Davlumbayev took things a bit too far as he was cautioned for poking Punia.
Unaffected by the mounting pressure, Punia snatched two points with a superb leg sweep. He reduced the gap further when the Kazakh conceded a caution point.
Now it was Punia’s turn to be aggressive as he restored parity right at the beginning of the second period with a takedown. It was a battle to gain supremacy from there on, and in the dying seconds Punia converted an opportunity, but also conceded a throw. The scoreboard read 7-7. The hosts challenged the call and lost. Punia got a point while the Kazakh lost one, sending the former to the next round.
“In the first round he got a bit nervous in the beginning because he was facing a local wrestler. He was even poked in the right eye. But he handled it well and came out with a brave fight in the latter period. The swelling is still there in his eye but I have asked him to not think about the injury,” Virender said.
Punia eased past Tajikistan’s Bakhodur Kodirov 6-0 next to move to the quarter-finals.
Knowing that another win would ensure India an Olympic quota, Punia took to the mat against Colombia’s Carlos Arturo Mendez. And yet again, he found himself trailing 3-6 with one minute to go for the final whistle. He pulled off a takedown and then an expose to edge past 7-6.
With the victory, Punia sealed India’s fourth quota spot for the Tokyo Olympics at the World Championships, after Vinesh Phogat, Bajrang Punia and Ravi Dahiya. The three finished with bronze.
Most had expected Bajrang Punia to be India’s best bet for a gold medal in this edition, but the other Punia – Deepak—has now emerged as the prime hope.
In the semi-final bout against Reichmuth, Punia controlled the pace of the game and took a 1-0 lead on activity clock. In the second period, Punia first pushed out Reichmuth and then took him down for a 4-0 lead. He conceded two points but another takedown and expose move clinched a final spot for Punia.
“Everyone at the Chhatrasal Stadium will be watching Deepak’s fight tomorrow. He has a tough opponent but he should not think about those things,” Virender said.
In other bouts of the day, Jitender lost his 79kg quarter-final while Mausam Khatri lost his first round in 97kg to reigning Olympic champion Kyle Frederick Snyder. In the 61kg, Ravi Aware has a chance to win bronze in the 61kg category, a non-Olympic section.
First Published: Sep 21, 2019 23:01 IST