It is no doubt a bitter loss to digest for Indian wrestling fans, and some neutrals as well. Bajrang Punia was by far the better wrestler, physically and technically, than home favourite Daulet Niyazbekov. However, the fans, and even Punia, emotional as they are after the loss, should realise that the better wrestler, a World No. 1, lost to a smarter one during the 65kg freestyle semifinal at the UWW World Championships in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, on September 19.
Punia's loss to Niyazbekov, in the tightest possible way, decided on who earned points from the highest scoring technique in the bout which ended in a 9-9 tie, shows that high-stakes wrestling bouts require something more than speed, agility, reserves of energy, technique and power — all of which were stacked in the Indian's corner. The factors that made a difference in the bout, the four-point throw by Niyazbekov, and the within-the-rules stalling and pummeling tactics used by the wily and experienced Kazakh, brought to light the mostly unappreciated role the grey matter between the cauliflowered ears play in wrestling.
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The last thing one should infer from Punia's loss is that the refereeing was biased. In fact, the loss should be used to identify and highlight one of the weak links in Punia's arsenal — the inability to improvise — along with that much talked about Achilles heel, a nasty habit of conceding points, no doubt stemming from a weak defense, especially against top contenders.
For sure, the bout has left everyone perplexed with a lot of ifs and buts. If those variables had tilted in favour of the Indian, we may never have addressed the metaphorical elephant in his wrestling mindscape — Punia's overconfidence about his attacking abilities.
The margins in wrestling are very fine. However, the four-point throw that earned Niyazbekov the bout, which was reviewed via video referral by Punia, could not have gone in the Indian's favour despite the apparent illusion that the throw was initiated by him.
The move, towards the edge of the circle, was initiated by Niyazbekov when he got into a spot of bother with Punia getting him under control using a neck lock. The scores were tied 2-2 at that point. From below, and a potentially dangerous position, the Kazakh applied a cross-leg takedown hold, grabbing Punia's inner right thigh.
Once that leg hold was in place, Punia's percentage to land a throw or takedown came down drastically. He had four options — a) go for a reversal, flipping the Kazakh backwards, b) try and hold the Kazakh down till the referee blows his whistle for a restart, c) try a pushout and earn a point, and d) step out and concede a point, especially since Niyazbekov was trying a cross-leg takedown that could possibly earn him two or more points.
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The Indian, bound by his attacking intent, predictably went for the first option, a high-risk reversal flip. When Punia exerted for the throw, the experienced Kazakh limited the Indian's leverage, narrowed the angle, and shifted the centre of gravity to his advantage by sidestepping further, while his cross-leg lock became a vice-like grip. Punia landed on his back, conceding the four points.
Of course, if Punia could squeeze a small fraction more of force, he would have gotten the four points, but the credit for the World No.1's failure to complete the move goes to Niyazbekov's presence of mind to trap Punia's legs.
As it played out, the sequence began with Punia starting with a strong and possibly point-scoring hold, and ended with him attempting a counter and failing. In hindsight, if Punia had opted to step out (conceding a point), or even attempted a pushout of his own, the damage would have been limited.
Of course, Punia didn't have the luxury of hindsight or the time to analyze options. Having said that, the World No. 1 cannot justify getting caught flat footed by a lesser wrestler's guile. A wrestler at that level is expected to make decisions in split seconds, and if Punia is serious about gunning for gold at the Tokyo Olympics in less than a year's time, he better be ready to make such calls, especially those that involve going against the very essence of his wrestling style — attacking instinct.
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There is an age-old saying in wrestling that not every point, or rather every bout, is won by the ability to attack relentlessly. That was proven right again in the latter stages of the bout when Niyazbekov, visibly winded, realised his only option was to try and defend Punia's relentless attacks, and started stalling. The Kazakh managed to slow and alter Punia's tempo, while the Indian, miffed, started losing a bit of composure and was seen complaining to the referees when the most logical thing to do was to go about grappling.
Niyazbekov was penalised for his negative tactics but in his defensive attempts, the Kazakh again showed signs that he possessed a far sharper wrestling mind than Punia. In one of the restarts, with less than a minute to go in the bout and leading by three points, Niyazbekov shot at Punia's legs, attempting a takedown. Attack, at this point, turned out to be the best form of defense, and the Kazakh's ability to improvise and flip tactic, did catch Punia by surprise. The Indian almost conceded two points in that move.
He managed to stave off Niyazbekov, but the Kazkh's purpose for that attack was never to earn points. That whole sequence ran down almost 30 seconds of the clock. With time winding down, Niyazbekov again showed the presence of mind to not concede a four-point throw, nor let Punia take the lead.
The loss for Punia was indeed fair and square. He has now earned a qualifying berth for India for the Tokyo Games [two other Indians — Vinesh Phogat in 53kg and Ravi Kumar in 57 kg freestyle have sealed berths so far at the Worlds]. Regardless of whether he wins bronze or not at the Worlds, the focus should now be to chip and tweak to overcome the shortcomings that have surfaced over the course of this tight loss, and keep focus on the larger goal he has set himself. And yes, work on a bit of tactical versatility too. Maybe his mentor, Yogeshwar Dutt, one of the best tactical wrestlers India has ever seen, could help him in that department, along with his personal coach, Emzarios 'Shako' Bentinidis.
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