An ankle injury he sustained in the opening round forced Deepak Punia to give a walkover to Iran’s Hassan Yazdani in the final of the 86kg freestyle division at the UWW World Wrestling Championships in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, on September 22. His silver, and Rahul Aware’s bronze in the 61kg on the last day of the competition took India’s tally to five medals, rounding off the country’s best performance at the wrestling Worlds.
Earlier in the week, Vinesh Phogat (53kg), World No. 1 Bajrang Punia (65kg) and Ravi Kumar Dahiya (57kg) won bronze medals and, in the process, earned berths for the Tokyo Olympics next year. With Deepak’s silver India won a fourth Olympic berth. Aware’s bronze came in a non-Olympic weight division.
India began the championships on a disappointing note with the Greco-Roman wrestlers failing to make it to the medal rounds. Things, as expected, took a turn for the better once the freestyle action began. Vinesh won India’s first medal at Nur-Sultan, while Aware’s bronze helped the country finish sixth in freestyle men’s rankings, earning qualification for next year’s World Cup (team competition).
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Bajrang began the championships as one of the favourites for gold. However, a tight loss in the semifinals, outwitted by a much more tactically sound opponent, put paid to his quest for the top prize. With the Olympic qualification sealed, he is free to focus on ironing out the few chinks in his armour to ensure he is as close to peak performance as possible in Tokyo.
For star wrestler Sushil Kumar it was an underwhelming return to the World Championships in the 74kg division. Back after eight years, Sushil struggled and went out in the qualifying round against Khadzhimurad Gadzhiyev of Azerbaijan.
In a way, the 2019 World Championships is a milestone indicating a change of era in Indian wrestling. The championship saw the fall of one of its greatest champions, while the progress of Deepak — a wrestler from Chhatrasal Stadium in Delhi just like Sushil — into the final seems to herald the future.
Deepak is not new to the world stage, albeit in the juniors. The 19-year-old is the reigning junior world champion and was the 2016 Cadet World Championships gold medallist.
He showed some jitters in his opening bout, the pressure accentuated by the fact that he was fighting a Kazakh in his backyard. Trailing 0-5 against Adilet Davlumbayev, Deepak clawed his way back in the second period to complete an 8-6 victory. That was the bout in which he injured his ankle, while staving off an ankle lock (phittle).
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Despite the ankle being slightly sore, the 19-year-old had enough adrenaline to keep the discomfort subdued in his subsequent bouts — a 6-0 win over Tajikistan’s Bakhodur Kodirov, a hard-fought 7-6 victory over Carlos Arturo Izquierdo Mendez of Colombia and 8-2 romp against Switzerland’s Stefan Reichmuth 8-2 in the semis.
The ankle injury, a grade 2 ligament tear according to reports, prevented him from taking on the reigning Olympic champion, Yazdani, which could have provided the youngster some valuable experience, especially since he might end up facing the Iranian in Tokyo.
It is rehab time for Deepak. The injury will keep him out of action for a couple of months after which he has promised to hit the training mats with renewed vigour to prepare for the Olympics.
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