Vinesh, Punia go back atop world rankings en route to Tokyo
Watching Bajrang Punia in the finals can be a nervy affair. With icy nerves and undying belief in his own abilities, Punia likes to unveil his big moves only in the dying stages of a fight.
On Sunday, in the final of the Matteo Pellicone Ranking Series in Rome, Punia’s first big event in more than a year, it was no different. Punia grabbed the gold medal in his inimitable style—a come-from-behind counter with 30 seconds left on the clock saw him level the scores 2-2 against Tomor-Ochiryn Tulga of Mongolia. Then he survived Tulga’s last charge to come out of the tense final a winner on criteria. Through the last minute or so, when Punia was desperately trying to find an opening against Tulga and equalise, his frustration was palpable. He would throw a glance at the scoreboard, then the judges, and gesture at his coach Shako Bentinidis when his attacks did not result in points. That’s typical of Punia. He has had many such tense moments on the mat, sometimes upturning big deficits. On occasions his escape acts have not worked, notably during the world championships in 2018 and 2019, when he returned with silver and bronze medals respectively.
That said, Punia, who was one of the strongest medal contenders for the original Tokyo Olympics in 2020, showed on Sunday that he retains that tag for the new, deferred Tokyo Games this year. But he will not be alone in what is regarded as the toughest freestyle category, 65kg. World champion Gadzhimurad Rashidov, 2018 world champion Takuto Otoguro, who has been Punia’s nemesis in big meets, Kazakhstan's Daulet Niyazbekov, who beat Punia in the 2019 worlds, and Tulga, who has posed a challenge for the Indian in the last two world championships, to name a few, have all booked their participation for Tokyo.
His fine run in Rome has taken him to the top of world rankings again, but Punia cannot rest easy. Punia wants to compete against all of them before going to Tokyo.
“It was a good match. I am wrestling after a year off and he is also an Olympic qualified wrestler so it was a tough bout,” Punia told United World Wrestling. “Before the Olympics, I want to wrestle every Tokyo qualified wrestler,” he said.
The Ranking Series will help Punia and his personal coach Bentinidis assess their Tokyo preparations. At the event on Sunday, Punia began with a 7-0 win over Selim Kozan of Turkey but was troubled by Joseph Christopher McKeena of USA in the semi-final, eventually winning 6-3. The Indian has been training at Cliff Kean Wrestling Club in Michigan with Bentinidis since December, immediately after getting married to Sangeeta Phogat. One of the reasons for his long stint in the US is not having quality training partners in India. Besides improving his defence and bringing variety to his attacking game, Punia has also been working on increasing his concentration during bouts. Punia last week exited from all his social media accounts to focus on the Olympics.
The other contender
Like Punia, Vinesh Phogat too climbed atop the 53kg world rankings after her gold medal run in Rome. It was her second competition in two weeks, having warmed up with a gold medal in Kiev. Vinesh cruised through her bouts and sealed it with a 4-0 win over former world bronze medalist Diana Weicker of Canada. Phogat won her previous two bouts via fall.
Still, Phogat, known to set high standards for herself, was not satisfied with her performance in the final. She scored after being warned for passivity and then increased her lead to 4-0 with another takedown in the first period. She then thwarted Weicker’s attacks and defended well in the second period.
"I am not satisfied with this performance at all. I won but I want to attack more," Phogat said. "I want my score to be more than 4-0. While my mind knows that, but my body is not allowing me to do it," she was quoted as saying in UWW.
Phogat, who contracted Covid-19 in August, preferred to train at her home in Sonepat last year. It was only in January that she ventured out with her personal coach Woller Akos of Hungary for training. She trained at the Vasas Sports Club in Budapest, Hungary and then at the Olympic Training Centre in Szczryk in Poland.
The Asian Championships in April in Kazakhstan will be another good test for both Punia and Phogat.