With the silver in the 65kg freestyle division at the 2018 UWW World Wrestling Championships in Budapest, Hungary, Bajrang Punia is now a two-time world medallist, an unprecedented achievement by an Indian. However, the 24-year-old, who enjoyed a great run in 2018, winning the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games (CWG) gold, could have extended his unbeaten run in majors if not for the weaknesses he has picked up of late. The irony is that the chinks seem to stem from his new-found strengths!
Punia’s two world medals came, incidentally, in the same city — he won bronze in the 2013 edition in Budapest, and five years later, he managed a silver at the László Papp Arena on October 22, losing 9-16 to Japan’s Takuto Otoguro in the final.
Between the two medals, Punia won a host of continental prizes and also endured a lull period that lasted almost three years — from 2015-17. Punia, protege of Yogeshwar Dutt, roared back to form in 2018, and looked a different wrestler at the CWG and the Asiad earlier this year.
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In the period of relative obscurity — on the global stage that is — Punia seemed to have worked hard on the physical aspect of his game, and is a power-packed package now. He trains under personal coach Shako Bentinidis from Georgia, who has drilled physicality into Punia’s grappling style, transforming it.
Such a strength-based approach can be seen in many Georgian wrestlers, and closer to home, among Iranians. While technical versatility varies from wrestler to wrestler, the base style remains the same for the grapplers from Iran. Most of Punia’s tactics also revolve around techniques that require an extremely physical style of fighting.
However Punia, whose base style was fashioned on mentor Yogeshwar Dutt’s technically versatile approach, seemed to be enduring the after effects of a lopsided merger of styles. He looked a little out of ideas, especially while taking on strong wrestlers in the latter half at the Worlds.
He almost lost in the quarterfinals against Mongolia’s Tulga Tumur Ochir (5-3), as well as the semis against Cuba’s Alejandro Enrique Valdes Tobier (4-3). Both times, the scoreline could have tilted either ways, especially in the dying seconds of the bout.
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Now, one can argue that at the Worlds or the Olympics, wrestling scorecards remain tight, and more often than not, a point or two would make the difference.
While one would love to stick to that argument, it fails to justify the fact that Punia lost by seven points to a 19-year-old Japanese wrestler in the final. Otoguro seemed to possess not just the physical strength to out-power Punia, but also the speed and tactics to dumbfound him on the mat. The Indian was 0-5 down in the opening 30 seconds, and Punia, seasoned as he is with almost a decade of international experience, should have been more alert.
But the Indian didn’t lose because he started slow or wasn’t alert enough. The bout was lost between the ears, with the Japanese wrestler — clearly having studied the Indian’s strengths and weaknesses — opting for an attacking style, wrestling the momentum away, and not allowing Punia to dictate a power-based tempo.
Punia, to counter the approach, should have tweaked his style, and tried applying holds, trying combination of techniques and transitions, taking a leaf out of Dutt’s book perhaps. But, of late, Punia seems to have lost that tactical acumen or ability to vary techniques mid-bout. In fact, the Japanese wrestler seemed more Dutt-ish in his approach, even trying Yogeshwar’s phittle (leg lace) technique after taking down Punia once.
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Punia, meanwhile, stuck to his bread-and-butter hustling style, which seemed one dimensional, and Otoguro took full advantage of that.
At some level, it is good that Punia’s weaknesses, or shortcomings, is exposed now, a good two years before the Olympic Games in Tokyo. It is evident that in the course of his evolution as a wrestler, from 2013 till now, Punia has picked up a few chinks which can be worked upon.
His coaching staff, and mentor Dutt, better work on them as Bajrang Punia is not unknown in the wrestling world any more. He is India’s spearhead at the moment and his style, movements and bouts would be deciphered. If he doesn’t add versatility, a bit of the X factor so to speak, the Olympic gold he has set his sights on could prove difficult.
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In two years time, he will also have other variables to contend with. At the Games, he would have many more elite wrestlers to deal with as unlike the worlds, there won’t be 61kg and 70kg categories. Some of the big guns from these two divisions would jump to 65kg to try their bit for Olympic glory.
Punia would not want to enter the fray with a one-dimensional style that could be deciphered, countered and beaten. With his silver and a great run in 2018, he has gained a reputation as a serious contender in his division. It is time now to take things a notch above, which could prove the difference between him and a medal on the grand stage — a point or two, in essence, when the going gets tough.
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