Bajrang Punia has been to Budapest before. Back when he was still 19 and new to the international arena, the wrestler was at his first senior world championship in 2013 in the city. He remembers where he went out for sight-seeing and where he practiced. Five years isn’t a long time, especially when you win your first world championship medal in that city.
The 24-year-old is back in Budapest for his fifth championships but for the first time as a genuine gold medal contender in 65kg weight category. The 2018 world championship kicked off on Saturday at the Papp Laszlo Budapest Sports Arena and Punia will be on the mat on Sunday, aiming for his second world championship medal, a feat no Indian has achieved before.
“When I was here in 2013, I had no experience. I enjoyed simply being at the World Championships. But when I won the medal, it felt great and it was really unexpected. Now I have experience and this year has been excellent for me so I am more confident about this tournament. A Gold medal is more important and I will try to win it,” Bajrang tells Scroll.in from Budapest.
Gold has been the benchmark for Punia since February this year. He suffered a loss to Daichi Takatani at the Asian Championships and settled for bronze but since then he has picked up gold medal at Tbilisi Grand Prix, Commonwealth Games, Yasar Dogu tournament and at the Asian Games, where he avenged his loss to Takatani.
In the last five years since that bronze, Bajrang also has a Under-23 world championship silver medal in 65 kg and is a two-time medallist at the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games. In 2017, he became the Asian champion as well.
Together these results make for an impressive bio for Punia heading into another big tournament but he knows the competition will be difficult. There will be wrestlers he has never faced before, World and Olympic champions eyeing another medal. But Punia derives his motivation from his opponents.
“Earlier I could have said that this is very difficult but now it’s different. I see them wrestling and I get confidence that I can wrestle and even beat them. I have trained with some of the best wrestlers in the past six months which make me confident against them. If I wrestle for six minutes, the match is mine. Sometimes it’s unfortunate that we get stuck in a move and lose the bout,” he says.
A similar trend could be seen in the Asian Games final as well. Punia won the final 10-8 against Takatani but he had a difficult last minute where he saw off a comeback from the Japanese. An year back, he admits, he may have lost a bout like that.
“You see my record and most of my bouts are losses in the final few seconds. My mat awareness was really low and I gave away points which were ridiculous. I lost the 2015 world bronze medal bout in the last five seconds. Now I think about how important these things are. No one tells you these things. You have to learn them,” he recalls.
Against Takatani, he saw off a series of leg attacks from the Japanese which he says has been a gaping hole in his defence for a long time. At the Worlds, he may not have a chance to defend such attacks.
“I am still working on my defence and I know that I need to survive. I cannot lose bouts in the last few seconds like I used to in the past. It’s a big tournament and a medal here would be a great for me and my career,” he says.
The upswing in his career is also because of another person. Shako Bentinidis joined Punia’s team as a coach in February and since then has only managed to make him better, competition after competition. He is happy that Punia did not win 10-0 in Jakarta.
“I am very happy he did not win 10-0. The 8-10 win is a difficult one and I want him to learn from that. Had he won that bout 10-0, he may have thought he is a professor of wrestling but now it’s amazing. Difficult wins make you work harder,” Shako says.
Shako is still getting used to the ways in which India functions but he reckons that there is scope to improve the system. When he arrived in India, he knew he could help improve Punia but he did not think he could achieve things so quickly.
“I am happy because I can say it’s like a world record. Five tournament and five gold medals so I am happy. Bajrang is a very professional wrestler and he is very talented. You can have talent but if you don’t work hard, that is nothing. But here I have a wrestler who is too good and is number one in everything,” Shako says.
Since he joined Punia as the coach, Shako has been trying to chart a plan for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The World Championships is one of the many small tournaments that Shako has earmarked for Bajrang in the run up to the Olympics. The coach doesn’t insist on Bajrang winning the bout, but that he follow the techniques and moves that were discussed in training.
“For Bajrang it’s a big tournament and we all expect him to medal. Even if he doesn’t win gold, there is time for the Olympics and that is the tournament that we need to focus on. We are starting from zero. I need him to improve psychologically. I studied him before I began his coaching and there were no ‘attacks’ in his wrestling. Now he is evolving and we will soon have the gold,” says Shako.
Punia, meanwhile, knows how important a gold will be in Budapest. Only Sushil Kumar has won a World Championship for India. Punia may become the second.
“When I arrived in Budapest, it was a strange feeling. Previously, I was a free wrestler with no pressure when I won the biggest medal of my career till date. Now I have so many people with expectations. Things have changed and I hope I can change the colour of my medal as well,” he says.
Indian wrestlers in action on Sunday: Sandeep Tomar (57kg), Bajrang Punia (65kg), Sachin Rathi (79kg) and Deepak Saroha (92kg).