Nur-Sultan: “People sympathise with you for a couple of days and then, they forget it. What stands in the record which is that I won a bronze medal.”
Bajrang Punia is still getting medical treatment for a nail-scratch around his neck. There are more marks on his face but less severe. He cannot help but think about what happened in the 65 kg semi-final bout of the World Championships against Daulet Niyazbekov of Kazakhstan.
“I don’t mind losing because it’s wrestling,” he said. “I am an athlete and I cannot describe how it feels to lose like that. I was helpless on that mat. It’s not an excuse but how do you stop something like that.”
Punia felt the referees were favouring the home favourite Niyazbekov. The bout ended 9-9 in favour of the Kazak but Punia was not happy with some of the calls that were went Niyazbekov’s way.
A loss in the semi-final meant that he had to wrestle for a bronze medal and cannot better his silver-medal finish from a year ago at the World Championships in Budapest. But to wrestle in bronze medal, there was no motivation.
“I had no motivation to wrestle for the bronze medal,” he said. “You cannot ever prepare yourself for that. I did not even know what was the reason was but I did not want to wrestle. It was only the next day when I woke up and everyone said that you have qualified for the Olympics, which was the main objective, that I got my focus back a bit.”
Punia became the second wrestler from India to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics in men’s freestyle from Nursultan. Ravi Dahiya qualified in the 57 kg category to make a successful one. But Punia wanted to do more than just qualify.
“If I win a medal, I qualify,” he said. “A medal was the aim always. But it was not to stop at the bronze medal. The only thing about the bronze is that when you end up winning a silver you lose the final while in bronze you still have to win the bout. So I wrestled and won it.”
‘Train in technique’
Vladimir Khinchegashvili is involved in an intense conversation with his coaches while watching the bronze medal bout between Punia and Tumir Tulga Ochir of Mongolia. A couple of minutes into the bout, Ochir gets Punia in a chest wrap position and tosses him for a four-point throw. The grip is so strong that the Mongolian almost pins Punia. But the Indian’s strength bails him out. Khinchegashvili throws up his hand in despair.
“Bajrang has amazing power to win matches from any position,” he said. “The power is everything for a wrestler. But it is hard to see him give up early points.”
Punia makes a comeback in the second period to cover up the lead and beat Ochir to win the bronze medal 8-7. This is his third medal at the senior World Championships. No other Indian wrestler has even two. But he is not satisfied with his performance.
“I was so nervous for this bout,” he said. “I don’t even know what was happening in the first two minutes. The semi-final was still playing on my mind. I did not want to wrestle on Friday.”
Thankfully, it was his endurance that bailed him out. The 25-year-old has made a name for himself with his never-ending stamina. For six minutes, for every second of those six minutes, Punia tires opponents out like no other wrestler in the world. Khinchegashvili praises that aspect but he also adds that Bajrang’s stamina is no longer a surprise to anyone.
“You need a surprise attack,” he said. “I watch your bouts and videos so I know you have good stamina. I also know you are going to attack my legs. You have done this for one year. You need to surprise your opponents now with some head attack or any new attack. They are ready for your leg attacks. I can defend my legs all day. Then, he gives up easy points early in the bout because he is thinking only about legs.”
It happened in the semi-final bout as well as Niyazbekov took a 9-2 in the second period. Despite all his efforts, Punia could only make it 9-9 and lost on criteria. But it was a lead too big to cover for him as well.
“He has some good time to prepare before the Olympics. If you can get up every day and train hard, you are always going to win,” Khinchegashvili said. “But he needs to train more technically and improve his attacks. He cannot give away four easy points every time.”
A couple of former Olympic champions have a friendly chat with him and ask him to use his power and score some early points. They also warn him that it will be difficult to cover a big lead.
“I know what they mean and I made a mistake in the semi-final,” he said. “But I have to forget this and work on myself. The Olympics is 11 months away.”
Tokyo will be Punia’s first Olympics. It is surprising that he has not wrestled at the Olympics before. Three years ago, his mentor Yogeshwar Dutt of India wrestled in Rio while he was still in the 61 kg category.
“I don’t think the review was a missed opportunity,” he said. “It’s crazy when people tell me this. I never thought about it and it still isn’t because now there is no point thinking.”
Back in the hotel room after winning the bronze medal bout, Punia goes for another round of medication for his scratch marks.
“These will go away. I have a very nice medicine from the USA,” he said. “But the loss won’t go away from my heart. This is what I mean when I say after two days no one will sympathise with me.
“I cannot really explain how it feels to lose when you have worked so hard and lose like that. You feel bad because everyone has feelings and it’s natural. I am hurt. But I am not making a fuss about it.”