Going into the Olympics there’s barely any doubt that Bajrang Punia will be one of India’s primary prospects for a medal in wrestling.
The 26-year-old has been in fine form over the past few years and is showing no signs of letting his tight grip relinquish.
But, just like every other wrestler, Bajrang Punia has his weak spots.
One of which is his vulnerability against wrestlers who are quick to assert their dominance has come to the forefront.
Known as the ‘Tank’ in the wrestling circles for his undying stamina, Bajrang Punia is often seen relying upon his biggest asset to eke out wins against quality oppositions.
The Indian wrestler ensures that he squeezes the last ounce of energy from his opponent before bringing out a high-scoring move to turn the bout in his favour in the dying moments.
But this strategy has been somewhat backfiring at the biggest stages of late.
In an era where there’s hardly any dearth in technology, opponents seemed to have figured out a way to counter Bajrang Punia’s plan. And this was evident at the World Championships and the recently concluded Asian Wrestling Championships as well.
Punia's performance at World Wrestling Champs
At the 2018 World Wrestling Championships, up against Japan’s Takuto Otoguro in the 65kg freestyle final, Bajrang Punia did well to stay in the bout till the half-way mark. But the Japanese grappler was quick to switch gears and score some quick points in the initial moments of the second period to take the bout out of the Indian’s reach.
Things were no different at the 2019 Worlds as well. This time, in the semi-final against Daulet Niyazbekov of Kazakhstan, it was one move worth four points that paved the way for Bajrang Punia’s loss.
Otoguro would once again show his prowess against the Indian ace at the recently concluded Asian Wrestling Championships, by barely letting Bajrang Punia settle into a rhythm to clinch the gold by a considerable margin.
These losses have got Bajrang Punia and his team thinking. With the coronavirus pandemic disturbing his plans of training outside of India, the Indian ‘Tank’ is nowadays seen spending considerable time analysing and breaking down his opponent’s game to devise strategies to tackle them when the time comes.
“I am utilising this time by watching videos of my opponents. I am making separate strategies for each one,” he was quoted saying by the Times of India. “I know there is a cloud over the Olympics... but an athlete has to be, first of all, mentally ready for any eventuality.”
Restricted to his training base in Sonipat, Bajrang Punia has also had time to spend with his fellow Olympic medal hopefuls Deepak Punia and Ravi Dahiya. And the reigning Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games champion believes India could win a few medals at Tokyo 2020.
“In my opinion, our wrestlers are pretty much in a good space. both men and women. They have been performing well at the world stage in the last 3-4 years,” he observed.
“We will bring 2-3 medals from the Olympics this time. Vinesh (Phogat), Ravi (Dahiya) and Deepak (Punia) are top contenders,” he pointed out.
Indian wrestling has been a primary source of medals at the Olympics since 2008. And a cursory look at the quota winners’ performance in the past few years would back Bajrang Punia’s claim.
Undoubtedly Punia has the pedigree. But can he perform on the biggest stage of all?