For Bajrang Punia, it’s never over till it’s over
World No 1 wrestler in 65kg, Bajrang Punia’s frenetic explosion of action on the mat will be crucial in his bid to win a medal in Tokyo.
Bajrang Punia swoops down on Daichi Takatani like a hawk on its prey. It’s the title contest at the 2018 Asian Games. The clock has only 30 seconds on it since the start of the bout but Takatani finds himself under siege.
In one swift move, Punia pulls him to his right, twirls around holding the Japanese by his waist, and brings him down. Takatani is now stretched out flat on the mat and Punia’s muscular arms and legs are choking the Japanese, trying to move him sideways. Takatani somehow survives the pin, conceding four more points. Punia leads 6-0 but the contest is far from over.
The young Japanese is no slouch—as fast and aggressive as Punia, he now goes into an attacking frenzy. With two minutes left on the clock, the scores are level.
The next two minutes are a blur of attacks and counter-attacks, but in the end, it’s Punia who runs away with the match 10-8. A slender gap, but enough to hand Punia his first Asiad gold—the beginning of a tremendous run of form that will see him win two world championship medals and become the world’s No 1 wrestler in the 65kg category. He will go into Tokyo holding that rank.
That Asiad title fight is how Punia lives on the mat. A frenetic, hold-your-breath explosion of action from start to finish. If the tables are turned and Punia finds himself trailing by a heap, he will continue to try and win—no opponent is safe till the buzzer goes.
There is rarely a dull moment when the world No.1 is on the mat.
You may think it’s par for the course, but actually, there aren’t many in world wrestling who can keep the energy and pace as high as Punia does for the entirety of a six-minute bout. That alone makes him a standout wrestler and a strong medal contender at Tokyo, let alone his technical prowess and his sheer strength.
“(Mera game bout ko six minutes lagatar chalane ka hai). My game is to last for six minutes and give it all,” Punia said on a Zoom call from his training base at Inspire Institute of Sports (IIS) in Bellary, Karnataka. “I want the bout to run the way I want but it can’t be that I will be in control for the full six minutes. My opponents come prepared with their tactics. So, whenever I go for an attack, my attempt is to apply it at the right time. For me, the best technique is the one that helps me win the bout.”
Punia’s relentless pursuit for supremacy began before the Asian Games in fact—that gold was part of an exceptional run during the four-year period that saw him win five straight medals at the Asian Championships (2017-2021), including two gold medals, gold at the Commonwealth Games and a silver and bronze at successive world championships (2018, 19).
“Every time he is on the mat, he is expected to win (a) gold medal,” said Punia’s coach Emzarios Bentinidis, who is from Georgia. “That’s how it has been for him.”
Bentinidis is currently not only Punia’s coach but also his sparring partner at IIS. “It’s a good place to train. I also need good training partners. In India, I don’t have many,” Punia said.
In his category, Punia has no match in the country. Jitender Kinha in 74kg was his training partner last year and they sparred together at IIS. But after an injury to Kinha, Punia made plans to shift outside of India for the rest of his training, hopefully in Europe till the Tokyo Olympics begins on July 23. In the coming weeks, he will be competing in the ranking series in Poland and another possible tournament in Turkey.
“The situation is fluid with this second Covid-19 wave we are going through. We can’t go outside and train at this moment. But I need to go abroad and spar with quality partners,” he said.
Punia is not a stranger to fluid situations and training abroad—as one of the top wrestlers in the world, Punia has been living out of hotel rooms, competing across the world in tournaments both big and small.
Grounded for 8 months
The pandemic grounded him for eight months last year, till he managed to move to the US in December to train at the Cliff Kean Wrestling Club in Michigan.
Before Punia returned on the mat in a Flo wrestling invitational event in Austin, USA, in December, he had wrestled 67 times—the most by any freestyle wrestler—with 61 wins since the beginning of 2018, according to Flo Wrestling, an American sports series.
He has since won gold medals at the Rome Ranking Series and silver at the Asian Championships last month where he forfeited the final against Japanese Takuto Otoguro due to an injury scare.
Through these tournaments, Punia has constantly evolved as a fighter, improving his defence, particularly to attacks to the legs, and even slowing down things when needed.
“I have worked very hard on my leg defence during my training in the USA and Italy and I think it has improved somewhat,” Punia said modestly.
At the Asian Championships, there was a new version of Punia on the mat, one who took his time and kept faith in his defence and yielded no points to his opponents.
“He hasn’t given points on his leg and that was the big difference,” said coach Bentinidis. “I don’t think the opponents were stronger earlier but Bajrang had given many points to a similar level of wrestlers. This time he was more focused.
“I tell Bajrang that he must have focus and concentration and a little bit more control. For me, it is more important that you win 2-0 but don’t give away points. Wining 11-3 is not important. Take a little bit less but don’t give anything.”
The Olympics will demand nothing short of perfection from Punia. Every bout will be against a world-class opponent in one of the toughest categories in the sport. The men’s 65kg will be headed by world champion Gadzhimurad Rashidov of Russia, against whom Punia is yet to fight. Then there is 2018 world champion Takuto Otoguro (Japan), and Daulet Niyazbekov (Kazakhstan)—Punia’s nemesis in successive world championships, and three-time world champion and Rio Olympics bronze medallist Haji Aliyev (Azerbaijan), who has shifted to the upper weight division.
“Not only this, there are new names coming,” Bentinidis said. “We have tactics against everyone. Bajrang is a hard worker and he must attack every time. Yes, he has to defend also but he is better in attack than anyone.”
For someone who won his first world championships medal way back in 2013 as a 19-year-old—a bronze—Punia has waited patiently to make his first Olympic appearance.
After his mentor and London Olympics bronze medallist Yogeshwar Dutt retired in Rio, Punia knew his moment had arrived.
Punia was Dutt’s shadow and training partner since coming to Chhatrasal Stadium in 2008.
“I liked his will power to change the bout at the last second,” Punia said about learning from Dutt. “But we are different wrestlers. He was technical and I am more about wrestling for six minutes with stamina and power. I have learnt from everyone. That’s how you become the best.”