Shako Bentinidis is unprecedentedly vocal while sitting in Bajrang Punia’s corner during his final bout of the World Championships. The shouts of “attack, attack” and “no stop, no stop” are heard over and over again during the six-minute bout. The only problem is – Bajrang isn’t following.
The Indian wrestler is panicking on the mat while figuring ways to defend attacks from his opponent, the 19-year-old Takuto Otoguro. The coach’s instructions are heard but executing them against the Japanese is a herculean task as he finds out while failing at another double leg attack.
In a high-octane and pacy 65kg final at the World Championships in Budapest, Bajrang comes up short. Not only he is outplayed, he is nowhere close to his dominating style that he showed in the last 10 months while wrestling around the world and winning four gold medals at international tournaments. The 9-16 loss to Otoguro gives him a silver, his second medal at the Worlds, making him the only Indian wrestler to achieve this feat.
Bentinidis hates this. When he is yelling instructions from the corner, he wants Bajrang to follow them. Bentinidis says that if Bajrang wrestles the way he asks him to, there is no way he won’t reach his destination. But Monday was different.
“What do you do when you are lost while finding a place?” Bentinidis says. “You search the destination on GPS on your phone and follow the path. Bajrang was in a jungle. He knows the destination but doesn’t know the path to reach it. So I am the GPS for him.”
The GPS navigation was perfect until Monday. Bajrang had become the fourth Indian wrestler ever to reach a World Championships final, winning bouts with control and composure. The only time he was put under pressure, he panicked.
“There is so much stress of the final,” Benitinidis tells Scroll.in from Budapest. “Pressure from everywhere to win the gold medal. He failed to handle it and panicked. This is not acceptable. He should have attacked from the beginning. Once you give up a four-point throw there is little chance you will cover it up. After that Bajrang was only trying to close the gap which was not possible as the Japan wrestler is strong and will be a problem for a lot of wrestlers in the coming years. He was better on the mat today.”
Otoguro was indeed a strong wrestler. A former cadet world champion opened the scoring with a pushout and followed that up with a four-point throw. Bajrang was surprised by the attacks but Benitinidis calmed him down and asked him to focus again. Bajrang did focus and brought down the gap to one point, making the score 6-7 at the end of the first period. However, his problems did not cease in the second period.
Otoguro would keep attacking Bajrang’s leg, a vulnerability in his game, and rack up points with ease. Even when the Indian tried attacking, he was met with a lot of strength. He fell flat, either on his back or his stomach. As the lead increased, so did Bajrang’s problems. By the end of the bout, Otogoru had attacked Bajrang’s right leg a staggering 12 times, and managed to complete seven of those attacks.
Just two months back, he was in a similar situation. At the Asian Games final in August, Bajrang had taken a 6-0 lead over another Japanese Daichi Takatani. He sat on the lead and Takatani almost pulled off a miracle before losing 8-10, all points scored on Bajrang’s right leg.
But this is no Asian Games. Otoguro had this bout and Bajrang’s legs under control.
For Benitinidis, it’s an area that Bajrang has improved little. “I think I will get one of his legs removed,” he says, jokingly. “He makes the same mistake in defence and gives up his leg. Can I make him wrestle on one leg? May be I should. This problem will take some time before we can solve it. But we have time.”
Back to drawing board
For the next two months, Bajrang will hardly participate in any competition and for Benitinidis, that is the time he needs to work on the flaws. Yogeshwar Dutt, the original mentor of Bajrang, is of the same opinion.
“He needs to work on that leg defence,” Dutt says. “He has strength and there are ways to tackle upper body attacks but once the opponent grabs the leg, it’s very difficult to defend. The off season is beginning so I want to see him work on that.”
Despite Monday’s defeat, Budapest was not a failure for Bajrang. The Haryana wrestler had wins over wrestlers from Hungary, South Korea, Mongolia and Cuba. On Sunday, Bajrang was in sublime touch and made wrestling look easy. He would perform his favourite sweep single many-a-times throughout the competition. His coach too is impressed by his run at the tournament.
“His semi-final win over Cuba was the best and the final was good as well,” says Benitinidis. “It’s okay he did not win the gold because that is not the end of the world. We will have chances. But a silver here means there is a lot to improve. We are not perfect. I want him to wrestle as much as he can so he can check different situations. It’s all in the mindset which should be strong.”
Bajrang’s silver medal is India’s eighth medal in men’s freestyle at the senior Worlds but two-time Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar says it may be the most important one.“Bajrang is a great performer for India and this will help the whole Indian team and also the younger kids,” he says. “With the Olympics two years away, this medal will create a wave about wrestling. Till the Olympics, everyone will talk about his medal.”
The Tokyo Olympics is still a couple of years to away but Bentinidis wants to make the most of the time and work with match practice, putting Bajrang in situations where he needs to adjust.
“We will rest for some time now and then head to practice later in November,” he says. “I want him to practice and be in different situations so he learns to tackle every situation. Today’s final was a new situation and he knows that now. Next year we will eye new tournaments.”
Next year will also see the first qualifying event for the Olympics. Astana will host he World Championships and it will serve as the Olympics qualifiers. Benitinidis vows to return stronger and finished the unfinished work.
“I had won gold medals before this and this is the first loss in the final,” he says. “I’ll take and come back stronger. I know this is the most important time for us. The journey isn’t complete yet.”