Nursultan: In an anti-climactic turn of events, Deepak Punia will finish his debut Senior World Championships with a silver medal. After an impressive run to the final of 86 kg men’s freestyle on Saturday in Kazakhstan that saw him book an Olympic quota for next year, an ankle injury forced the youngster to pull out of the Sunday final.
But in the last two months, the Haryana wrestler has exceeded expectations by winning the junior world title, climbing up to the fourth rank in the world and reaching the senior-level final in his first attempt.
Soon after his semi-final bout, Punia was barely able to walk. The physios had put three packs of ice around his left ankle which was swollen quite badly. His right eye was also almost swollen shut. The impact of a full day of wrestling evident at a glance. Both the injuries he suffered were during his first bout of the day. But both did not deter him as he kept moving closer to his dream at the Wrestling World Championships in Nursultan.
India’s two-time Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar was thereto give some perspective to Punia after he became only the fifth Indian to reach the final at the senior World Championships on Saturday and qualified for the Tokyo Olympics.
“Ek to medal aata hai aur ek inury hone ke baad medal aata hai [There is a medal you win and then there is a medal you win after getting injured],” Kumar said. “When the medal comes when you are injured, you enjoy it more.”
Punia nodded his head and sported a beaming smile in reply. He knew the words from Kumar were gold.
“He has always been there at the stadium and now he is here,” Punia said. “His experience will always help me because he has won a world title.”
And Punia already has a world title. In fact, two of them – at the cadet and junior levels. He won a junior world championships gold medal for India after 18 years. It was his fourth attempt to win the world title at that age level and after he won it, he was quick to reveal his next goal.
“The junior is done, now I want to be senior world champion,” Punia had said then.
The 20-year-old was a step away from fulfilling that aspiration before injuries came in his way ahead of the final against Rio Olympics 74 kg champion Hassan Yazdanicharati of Iran.
Iranian legend Yazdanicharati won his four bouts on Saturday through technical superiority, pin, pin and technical superiority respectively. The Iranian made it to the finals for the second time in the 86 kg category. He won the title in 2017 but had to settle for bronze in 2018.
“He is a freak of a wrestler,” Punia said. “Everything about him is perfect and we all idolise him. I have watched his videos on Youtube and always tried to copy him.”
Learning his lessons
Facing an Iranian wrestler has always been a tough thing for Punia at the senior level. Earlier this year at the Asian Championships, Punia lost to Kamran Ghasempour, another Iranian, by technical superiority.
But since that loss, Punia has enjoyed a good streak of wins in international competitions. Before travelling to the World Championships, he won the silver medal in Yasar Dogu tournament in Turkey. According to Punia, it was a game-changing experience to win a medal at the prestigious tournament.
“That tournament gave me confidence that I can win a medal in World Championships,” he said. “I defeated wrestlers from USA, Turkey and I was in a good mind space.”
That confidence resulted in him going to Estonia for the Junior World Championships with the aim of becoming India’s first junior world champ in nearly 20 years. He had won a silver in 2018 after losing a close final.
“I should not have competed there,” he said. “But I was so focussed and confident that I wanted to win the gold medal. Maybe the silver last year hurt me and I wanted to better it.”
He did that with a 2-1 win in the final and added to his cadet world title from three years ago. Before that, he had already booked his place for the senior team to participate in the senior World Championships.
Too much travel
But all the travel took its toll on him. He travelled from Turkey to New Delhi to Estonia and back to New Delhi before arriving in Nursultan. The process of cutting weight also affected him badly.
“I am a vegetarian but when I travel I am not able to eat much,” he said. “Then, I have to travel so the power inside the body was lost by the time I came to Nursultan. I still have not recovered because I do not have a proper diet here.”
The Chhatrasal stadium product was part of the camp that was organised in the Kazakhstan capital before the competition. Punia would wrestle some of the foreign wrestlers and assess his training every day.
“They are slightly more powerful than me,” he had said. “I have to match them in positioning and not let them score points but if they trap me in a technical move, it may become difficult.”
Punia’s ground wrestling isn’t his strongest suit especially since he has little parterre defence. He, however, has a standing defence (his position to put his hands under the arms of his opponents is really great) that few can match.
But he generally needs some motivation from his peers and coaches to help him stay focussed.
“When you have world titles and then you win medals at the senior level, it helps a lot,” he said. “I am not someone who will self-motivate myself. The pep talks are very important to me.”
Like the one before his World Championships bouts on Saturday. Bajrang Punia, who won a bronze medal in 65 kg and qualified for the 2020 Olympics, came up to the youngster and gave him a boost.
“Everything is in your favour and you have had some good results,” the world No 1 told Deepak Punia. “These chances do not come for the second time in life. You will become a star but more than that you will be known as a wrestler who achieved something. Life will change. It’s all about one bout.”
In Deepak Punia’s case, however, that one bout was not destined to be the final of the World Championships. But who knows, it might just be the Olympics instead. For now, he has a silver in his bag and his eyes set on a bright future.