There are days when Bajrang Punia justifies all the adjectives used to describe him. And there quite a few. The Americans refer to him as a ‘motor’. Some others prefer ‘tank’. Indians feel ‘tractor’ is a more appropriate description. His coach Shako Bentinidis, meanwhile, chooses to call him an ‘atom bomb’ – and on the mat, the Georgian wants Bajrang to explode like one.
All these are in reference to Bajrang’s raw power and endurance. Arguably, there’s not a wrestler in the 65kg class who can tire out the Indian in the six-minute bouts. The latest example of this was Friday’s World Championship bronze medal bout against Mongolia’s Tumur Ochir, where Bajrang scripted another second-round rally to come back from 6-0 down and win the playoff 8-7.
Here’s the thing, though. Bajrang’s greatest strength is also turning out to be his biggest weakness, which has resulted in his undoing for a second consecutive World Championship. The bronze in Nur Sultan is a step down from the silver he won in the 2018 Worlds.
The colour of the medal, though, may not matter much given the world number 1’s priority was to secure a quota for next year’s Olympics and that he managed without having to work hard. And neither does it make Bajrang a lesser favourite for a medal at what will be his debut Games.
But in the larger scheme of things, keeping Tokyo in sight, the World Championships would be a sobering experience for the high-flying Indian.
Acutely aware of his supreme fitness, combined with the confidence of knowing he can force a turnaround within seconds, Bajrang likes taking his bouts to the very last minute; ready to punt on his stamina to get the better of the opponent’s skill.
At times, he leaves it till too late, like he did against Ochir on Friday or in the final of Asian Championship in March where he wiped off the advantage Kazakhstan’s Sayatbek Okassov had in the final minute of the bout. In fact, at the World Championships last year, his quarterfinal against Ochir followed similar pattern like Friday, with Bajrang leaving it late to overturn the deficit and win the bout 5-3. Even in the semis, he scored points in dying seconds to beat Cuba’s Alejandro Enrique Valdes Tobier 4-3.
Bentinidis has previously said this habit of Bajrang makes his head ‘explode’ on the sidelines. The high risk, high reward strategy makes him look spectacular when it ends well. On the occasions it does not, it makes Bajrang look miserable.
“It is almost like he starts the bout with a score of -3 or -4 because he gives so many early points. Against top opponents, it becomes difficult,” Bentinidis said.
It can’t be a coincidence that Bajrang has lost two crucial bouts at consecutive World Championships like that. Against Japan’s Takuto Otoguro in the 2018 final, Bajrang conceded five points in the opening 30 seconds and was always playing catch up. Otoguro, one of the best in this weight class, did not give Bajrang any opening and was extra careful in the closing stages of the bout to deny the 25-year-old Indian a chance to make a comeback.
On Thursday, Bajrang once again let Daulat Niyazbekov take a 7-point lead and even though Bajrang did his thing and leveled the score to make it 9-9, the wrestler from Kazakhstan – despite looking knackered towards the end – did just enough to deny his rival a chance to complete his fight back.
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Even at Beat the Streets – a high-profile invitational tournament in New York – USA’s Yianni Diakomihalis took an 8-4 lead early in the second period. And even though Bajrang lived up to the expectations and made it 8-8, Diakomihalis – who can be one of the contenders in Tokyo – had the skill and stamina to nick a couple of points late in the match to win 10-8.
In all the above-mentioned cases, Bajrang could not pull off his trademark late surges against wrestlers who are technically solid, a point that has kept Bentinidis up at nights. “Olympics is a serious competition. You must give everything. One poor bout or 30 bad seconds, and it is goodbye Olympics,” he said. “It’s not good to leave it so late always. He needs to start attacking earlier in a bout.”
The World Championship was also a platform to see where Bajrang stood in comparison to other medal contenders, given he hasn’t competed against them in a high-intensity tournament since the previous Worlds. His continental title came in absence of Otoguro and Niyazbekov – the only two wrestlers who have beaten him in the last one year in official international competitions.
In Nur Sultan, the luck of the draw favoured him as all his key rivals were in the other half. So it remains a mystery where Bajrang stands vis-à-vis wrestlers like Russia’s Gadzhimurad Rashidov, who won the gold on Friday, Haji Aliyev of Azerbaijan or even Otoguro.
One thing, though, will be high on his agenda – to reverse the habit of leaving it late. “If you give 6-7 points, comeback is possible. But at the Olympics, it will be very, very difficult,” Bentinidis said. “We will have to improve that.”