Bajrang Punia, the World No. 1, will represent India in the 65kg freestyle division at the 2019 UWW World Championships in Kazakhstan along with Ravi Dahiya (57kg), Deepak Punia (86), Mausam Khatri (97) and Sumit Malik (125).
The Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) conducted selection trials on July 26 to pick grapplers who will represent the country in five of the six Olympic weight divisions at the 2019 UWW World Championships scheduled for September.
From the start, though, the whole exercise seemed staged to fulfill some academic obligation. Picking India’s side for wrestling’s premier global meet took on added significance this year as the championships also act as qualifiers for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Taking that into consideration, one imagined the trials, held at the KD Jadhav Wrestling Hall in New Delhi, would see cut-throat competition. Much more than that, more significantly for Indian wrestling, one was hoping to catch some high-quality action. After all, we are talking about the trials of a country which often boasts of its pedigree in the sport, and is seen knocking on the doors of the elite club of wrestling nations.
Albeit, India have been knocking on that elusive big boys’ club with just a handful of champions, a wrestler or two max per generation. This generation’s big hope, Bajrang Punia, was on the mat for the trials, after he had decided not to ask for an exemption. India has a tradition of not allowing junior wrestlers fight the best for national selection, you see. At least, that precedent is slowly changing.
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Bajrang’s bout would have been a saving grace for the trials had it lasted the distance. The world’s top grappler in the 65kg freestyle division won his bout after his opponent Harphool Gulia pulled out in the second period following a knee injury. Bajrang was most probably just getting warmed up, he built a 7-0 lead, when injury struck Gulia, the national champion in the division, and, at 27, a constant bridesmaid to India’s best bet for a medal at the Olympics next year.
Bajrang’s stint outside the mat, obliging the selfie requests and meeting officials took up significantly more of his time than the mat. That, perhaps, was expected, as he is currently a league above the rest of the Indians, across divisions. We have our undisputed and unchallenged champion for the era now.
This is not a good sign for Indian wrestling, for its depth is, arguably, more shallow than what it was during the Sushil Kumar-Yogeshwar Dutt era. The math is simple, two is better than one!
Bajrang’s personal coach, Shako Bentinidis, explained why Bajrang stands out.
“Bajrang is different [from the rest of Indian wrestlers]. His approach towards wrestling is something else,” said Shako Bentinidis. “I come from Georgia which has produced some great wrestlers and world beaters over the years. I have seen many in my time too. But I am telling you that Bajrang is special. I have never seen anyone with so much of dedication to wrestling like he has. And, when you look at his focus, I don’t see it in anyone here in India, and I very rarely see it in wrestlers abroad.”
Shako, retracted, and clarified “focus” though, elaborating that he is working on making his ward not lose focus midbout, where he has a, now infamous, tendency to let the opponents score, confident to the point of overconfidence that he can fight back. “One can’t do that at the Olympics or the World Championships,” Shako added. “Well, in theory, you can fight back, but it doesn’t always happen at that level.”
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It was heartening to hear a wrestler, and his coach, talk about facing and winning against the world. We are so much used to most Indian wrestlers worry, fret or be annoyingly verbose over what happened at the nationals, and take on the articulately challenged Indian wrestler avatar when asked about the plans for the World Championships, Olympic qualification and beyond. The standard line being, “we will train and give our best shot.”
Ravi Dahiya, just like Bajrang, stood out in that regard, from the other wrestlers who won the day and earned spots in the national side.
Ravi, a Under-23 World Championship silver medallist and a prodigiously technical wrestler, won the 57kg division, which saw quite a few upsets, the giantkiller being another youngster, Rahul from Delhi. Rahul beat Sandeep Tomar, who represented India at the Rio Olympics in 2016, and veteran Utkarsh Kale, to reach the final. Ravi’s technical guile saw him ease past Rahul 12-2.
The rest of the bouts saw the ever-repulsive pushout scoring employed generously by many — wrestlers pushing each other to the edge of the mat to score points, something that coaches at this level should not encourage, even if it meant forsaking a safe result.
More fireworks were expected by the way.
That was the reason why the authorities shifted the selection trials from the Sports Authority of India centre in Sonepat to the wrestling hall in New Delhi. Double Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar is in the fray in the 74kg category and his much-anticipated bout against Praveen Rana, which had spilt quite a lot of bad blood and violence outside the mat the last time they met, needed a secure and spacious venue, felt the WFI officials.
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However, Rana requested an extension to recover from an injury and the Indian wrestling officials obliged. Their bout never materialised, which brought the excitement considerably down. After all, this bout threatened to offer what none of the others on the day could.
No, not necessarily quality. The bout between a now declined world class wrestler out for a last hurrah, and a young and fast not-quite-elite wrestler out to prove a point, can only boil towards one direction…
Now for the academic notions... Ravi won the 57kg division, Bajrang will represent India in 65kg, while Deepak Punia will take part in the 86kg category at the World Championships, scheduled to be held at Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, from September 14 to 22. India will have two veterans in the big men divisions. Mausam Khatri beat Satyawart Kadiyan to earn his ticket for the 97kg event while Sumit Malik will try his might in the 125kg category.
The trials for the 74 kg and non-Olympic weight categories – 61 kg, 70 kg, 79 kg, 92 kg – will be held in the second week of August while the women’s trial will be held in Lucknow on July 28.
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