The walk from the tunnel to the mat was the only time Bajrang Punia was on his feet. For the rest of the time, he either lay flat on his backside or hopped around the mat, trying to evade Takuto Otoguro’s quick, firm grasp. There were a fleeting few moments when the Indian had been the aggressor. But against an opponent unlike any he’d faced thus far at the World Championship in Budapest, Bajrang couldn’t hold his defence and lost 16-9 to settle for a silver medal in the 65kg category.
It’s an improvement from five years ago, when he’d won a bronze medal in his maiden World Championship appearance, coincidentally in the same city. Yet, the silver will leave a sour taste, considering Bajrang’s form going into the gold medal bout.
The road to the final had been rather smooth for the Asian champion – the only time he was actually tested was in the semifinal by Valdes Tobier. Against the Cuban, Bajrang used his upper-body strength to make up for his vulnerability in the legs. If the plan was to try something similar against Otoguro, it failed spectacularly.
Like most Japanese wrestlers, Otoguro doesn’t have any intimidating features. Instead, he has the look of a man who’ll burst into tears at the slightest of provocations while the jittery body language gives an impression he’s in a hurry to get off the mat. His appearance can be deceptive, though.
Otoguro is strong – which was apparent every time he caught hold of Bajrang’s legs, pushing him out of bounds or toppling him to the mat. And he has speed; so quick was he on his feet that Bajrang’s leg attacks were easily dealt with.
Bajrang often wins his bouts by outlasting opponents. He fancies his chances if the bout goes the distance. “If I wrestle for six minutes, the match is mine,” he’d recently said. But there’s a gaping hole in his game, and he’s well aware of it – a weak defence, especially in the final few seconds. Most of the bouts he’s lost are because of him conceding points in the closing moments, much like the Indian hockey team.
On Monday, though, it was the opening minute that cost him the gold. Bajrang’s coach Shako Bentinidis had been instructing him to take the initiative from the first second. But there wasn’t a lot Bajrang could do.
Within moments of the final getting underway, Otoguro attacked Bajrang’s right leg and pushed him out of bounds to open the scoring. Immediately after the restart, the Japanese once again caught hold of Bajrang’s right leg and this time executed a four-point move to take a commanding lead within the first 30 seconds.
The strategy was a throwback to the Asian Games final in many ways. Back then, Otoguro’s compatriot Daichi Takatani launched a series of leg attacks towards the end of the bout that put Bajrang under immense pressure. The Indian somehow managed to hang on to the early lead, and won the gold.
But he didn’t have such a cushion on Monday. After falling behind by five points in 30 seconds, Bajrang was only playing catch-up. He made a valiant attempt to stage a comeback. But every point he scored was negated by Otoguro, who escaped from several dangerous positions with his speed.
The Japanese indulged in some gamesmanship too. With the momentum in Bajrang’s favour at the start of the second round, he halted play twice, clutching his knee. It frustrated Bajrang and attracted boos from the crowd. Eventually, the referee and medical officers urged him to play on. If there was indeed any pain, Otoguro did not let it impact his game.
He held on to win his maiden world title. For Bajrang, the quest for gold gets longer.
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