Patience & Late Attacks Key as Bajrang Aims for Gold at Tokyo Olympics
Bajrang Punia is one India's top most contenders for a medal at the Tokyo Olympic Games.
One of India’s most talked about medal prospects, the experienced Bajrang Punia will look to carry on a wrestling tradition of bagging a medal at the Olympics every time since 2008.
In the years leading up to the Games, Bajrang has claimed a Silver and Bronze at the World Championships, totalling 3 medals overall at the WCs while no other Indian has won more than one. The ace wrestler also won Gold at the 2018 Asian Games and the 2019 Asian Championships.
Even in a stacked 65kg division at Tokyo, where the world number 2 is seeded third, he's one of the pre-tournament favourites.
Among the biggest strengths for the 2019 Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Awardee is that he is capable of last-ditch comebacks, showcasing great stamina to outlast his opponents.
However, there was a scare recently as Bajrang suffered a right-knee injury during a local tournament in Russia. He came off the mat following his semi-final bout limping, but Punia's Georgian coach Shako Bentinidis played down any fears of a lengthy layoff, saying the ace would be fit for the Olympics.
At his first Olympic Games, India’s most decorated wrestler has a chance to better the Silver medal Sushil Kumar won at the 2012 London Games.
The ace wrestler, who began his journey in the sport at the age of 7 and then quickly progressed to the Chhatrasal Stadium, considered one of the best schools in the world, his ability to not tire and immaculate work ethic has helped him reach where he is now.
He started out in the 60kg category, but since moving up to the 65kg event, experienced more success after his switch to 65kg. His two Asian titles, Commonwealth Games and Asian Games gold medals, a Worlds under-23 silver and three Worlds medals have come in the last four years.
In 2019, Bajrang Punia won the Bronze at the World Championships for the second time to book his place in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in the 65 KG freestyle event.
In March 2021, Bajrang came from behind in the Matteo Pellicone Ranking Series Tournament in Rome to beat Mongolia’s Tulga Tumur Ochir to win the gold medal and regain the World No 1 spot in wrestling 65 kg division.
In the last couple of years, Bajrang has always won a medal in competitions he has taken part and will be a favourite to take one of the spots on the podium in Tokyo as well. And while the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc for most athletes, Bajrang stayed busy through it competing in minor tournaments in the US, showing no signs of rustiness in 2021.
In January 2020, he defeated Jordan Oliver in the final in the 65 kg freestyle category at the Ranking Series before adding a Silver medal to his collection Asian Championships in February.
Whether it was the World U23 Championships, Commonwealth Games, Asian Games, Asian Championships or World Championships, the Indian has left his mark at every tournament he took part in and now has the chance to add the Olympic medal to his showcase. And on current form, it would be difficult to rule him out from a podium finish.
The field is well and truly stacked with close to 7-8 highly talented and skilled wrestlers in the mix for the top 3 spots. Along with Ghadzimurad Rashidov, world champion and the top seed, against whom the Indian has never competed; there is Japan’s Takuto Otoguro, against whom Bajrang has already lost a couple of times and will hope to avoid till the final rounds.
Then there are Daulet Niyazbekov of Kazakhstan, seeded third, and Iszmail Muszukajev of Hungary, the fourth seed along with fierce competitors like Haji Aliyev of Azerbaijan and John Michael Diakomihalis of the United States. Bajrang did lose to Niyazbekov at the 2019 World Championship semis, he got one back when they faced off at the Ali Aliyev tournament earlier in June.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Right from the days he began wrestling, Bajrang was known as someone who would not tire out easily. His ability to bring himself out of a spot of bother even when the clock is against him in bouts is what makes him very tough to beat. Even if there are 30 seconds remaining in the bout, Bajrang cannot be counted out and more than capable of scripting a comeback. In fact it is a ploy he has mastered over the years – wait and watch, and pounce in the nick of time to clinch the win.
Of course there have been instances when that has not worked to his advantage, but more often than it has and eventually resulted in a podium finish. His immense stamina allows him to use such a method, efficiently, and it even allows him to concede a few early points to wear his opponent out.
However, conceding points early on and letting opponents take a lead is also his weakness and that is something he has admitted. Another thing that is a concern according to Punia, is his leg defence.
Throughout his career, Punia has fallen to this weakness, allowing his opponents to take the bout away with repeated leg attacks. At Tokyo, when he comes up against the likes of reigning world top seed Gadzhimurad Rashidov of Russia and third-seed Daulet Niyazbekov of Kazakhstan, he would want to cover that aspect of his game as they will surely be aware of the chink in the armour.
Bajrang will be in action on 6 and 7 August.
(With inputs from ESPN and Sportstar)
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