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Thursday, Dec 08, 2022

Bajrang silences doubters with bronze

Wrestler makes light of dodgy ankle defence to secure another Worlds medal.

In scoring a come-from-0-6 behind victory, Bajrang collected his fourth Worlds medal, and third bronze (he also has a silver). (File)

The trouble with fixating on Achilles’ heel – or Bajrang Punia’s ankle, as Puerto Rican Sebastian Rivera will confirm sometime in the future – is that the rest of the warrior’s body tends to be a rumbling barrel with fierce brawny limbs, intent on quelling an opponent. There is a whole armour tank and sideways snipes of agitated anatomy to counter, beyond the obvious weakness of the heel.

Rivera, a Pan-Am upstart, kept going across for the Indian veteran’s right ankle for a series of picks, with an aim to throw. But once Bajrang made his much-publicised, much- maligned piece of weakness (the shambolic leg defence) neatly elusive by pedalling the leg back, Rivera ran out of ideas, going down 11-9 in the bronze playoff of the Wrestling World Championships at Belgrade.

In scoring a come-from-0-6 behind victory, Bajrang collected his fourth Worlds medal, and third bronze (he also has a silver). The 28-year-old added another ring of halo to his legendary status in Indian wrestling, though a World title like Sushil Kumar eludes him. Still, for all the criticism he has copped in the last few months, for being washed out, dubbed being replaceable by a bunch of new domestic names that routinely get thrown into the ring and by being reminded rudely he’s headed downhill, Bajrang showed up to grab his bronze, with much the same frenzy he had shown at the Olympics with a last-gasp bronze medal at stake.

For someone who has his heels snapped at by domestic challengers in a perennially stacked 65 kg category, and whose ankle was on Rivera’s radar like a guided missile, throughout the two periods of the bronze playoff, the rest of Bajrang’s fighting body, a big brave heart and an astute brain, more than made up for the ‘leg weakness’.

Of course, as has been the story of this World Championships, and his entire career even, Bajrang conceded a bulk of his points on that pick-able leg. But when one’s weakness is so glaring, leaking vulnerable positions so prolifically and so easy to pick points off, opponents make the folly of not even ideating on a Plan B. Rivera accumulated the predictable points, but couldn’t stem the multi-pronged poking and peppering of Bajrang’s own attacks, scored off the literal edge, that saw him bleed points off step-outs and a monster takedown with 23 seconds left on the clock at 8-9 down, to leapfrog the Central American.

The timing of Bajrang’s accelerated bulldozing was as crucial and canny as the experienced manner in which he made up the deficit and then went past Rivera. From start to end, Rivera kept pinging for the same ankle from the exact ditto angle. But twice – with seconds to go for the first period to end, and with the clock ticking down in the second period, Bajrang made his moves to chomp into the points margins.

Gas tanks, as Indian wrestlers are known to be – something that gets mocked as non-useful when their defences let through rival attacks – was what injected the dying-seconds fuel for the fuselage to cut through the Puerto Rican’s challenge. It is fairly well known that Bajrang is a second-period wrestler, takes his time to gain traction spatially around his opponent, is slow to take off and there’s the leg business. But just how much of a second-period monster savage he can be was showcased in winning his rear-guard medal for India.

Customary comeback

To think that Bajrang got tech’d on Saturday by American Yianni Diakomihalis – a 0-10 scoreline he had to sleep on, and stew over, before he readied for the repechage. Even against Armenian Yazgen Tevanyan in the repechage, it was one kill move in the fading seconds that gave him the rallying win to earn the bronze playoff. That was a pummelling neck-hold, with Tevanyan’s right leg clasped into numbing with a neat little scissor and points-hogging rolls that overcame the by-now-routine deficit.

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They say Bajrang leaves it too late. It often comes back to bite him. But he went in with such confidence at Belgrade – not unlike the Olympics on the last day at Tokyo – of pulling off the destruction as the seconds bore down on Rivera, that the pressure, the metaphorical snapping of heels, was always on Rivera, feeling Bajrang clipping his wings.

Rivera had the first points on board within seconds – ankle nibbled at, no variation. Bajrang, attacking from the inside, would use the clock and relative complacency by dismissing the leg points as nothing, and ramming Rivera on the side edges, after forcing him to back up. It was a strange scenario where though Bajrang trailed, he was always seen hounding Rivera into tight corners chipping away at the lead.

In this high-scoring relentless action, Rivera was tripped inside, backing up for 4-6 to Bajrang, and with a series of doubles and a locks at the side, with Rivera following up with a lightning quick n-th ankle pounce, the score read 6-8. One ankle-pick stood out for Bajrang hopping about, not losing balance, with his leg raised, flying even though he held on. But it was with 24 seconds to go, that Bajrang launched a takedown of his own and a challenge in the end gave him the 11-9 cushioning.

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It’s been a tense lead-up for Bajrang, with his weaknesses magnified under the spotlight of younger, snappier, 65 kg contenders in India. His own self-doubts about waning capabilities, not much coaching expertise to raise his game and his edginess in not believing that the body was steamrolling like it used to at his peak before 2019, meant he’s had to overcome his own demons. But on Sunday, Bajrang Punia, who won the India trials, proved he’s made of something else, when fighting internationally. They know Achilles has a weak heel, but then there’s the rest of Achilles that is far more intimidating.

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Bajrang would say as much, telling UWW: “I gave away six points at the start. And the leg defence that I thought would work, just didn’t come off. I need to sit and analyse why it’s not working. It didn’t work in matches I lost, and it didn’t work today when I won as well. It’s a huge weakness and I’ll have to work a lot. The leg defence had been a huge problem since the knee injury (at the Olympics). It doesn’t eat into my confidence, because otherwise I wouldn’t have recovered points. Earlier, I didn’t give so much leg (concede points on leg defence). I always fight till the last second because we work hard as wrestlers. I’ll have to figure out if I need more hard work or smart work on the leg defence.”

First published on: 18-09-2022 at 11:33:22 pm
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