As soon as Yuki Takahashi lost his quarter-final to India’s Ravi Kumar Dahiya, the Japanese media rushed to the mixed zone. Not only did they want to know about the loss from Takahashi, the more important question that lingered in their minds was about the Indian wrestler who had toppled the former silver medallist at World Championships.
“He was wrestling so good,” Abe, a journalist from Japan said. “He did not let Takahashi take a shot and it turned out to be the difference.”
India finished the Wrestling World Championships with their best haul of five medals – four in men’s freestyle and one in women’s wrestling. Apart from Dahiya’s bronze in 57 kg, Bajrang Punia won a bronze medal in 65 kg, Deepak Punia finished with a silver medal in 86 kg, Rahul Aware won a bronze in 61 kg and Vinesh Phogat finished with a bronze in women’s 53 kg.
India's medallists at Nursultan 2019
|Deepak Punia||Freestyle||86||2 (SILVER, OLYMPIC QUOTA)|
|Ravi Kumar Dahiya||Freestyle||57||3 (BRONZE, OLYMPIC QUOTA)|
|Rahul Aware||Freestyle||61||3 (BRONZE, NON-OLYMPIC CAT)|
|Bajrang Punia||Freestyle||65||3 (BRONZE, OLYMPIC QUOTA)|
|Vinesh Phogat||Female wrestling||53||3 (BRONZE, OLYMPIC QUOTA)|
“India has improved so much in wrestling,” a Russia coach who did not want to be named said. “I am not talking only about freestyle wrestling and Bajrang Punia. They have done well in women’s wrestling and it is good to see.”
When a coach from Russia says that, you know it is serious business. Russia won medals in all but one of the 10 freestyle categories, including five gold.
“Overall, Indian wrestling seems to be doing so well. Sushil Kumar was the guy everyone knew. Now, it’s more than just him,” the coach added.
Kumar, the two-time Olympic medallist, is popular in Nursultan, the venue of the World Championships. He won the world title in Moscow in 2010 and earned a lot of fans in Russia. But that base is slowly changing as more international stars keep emerging.
The best among them is Bajrang Punia.
Now a three-time World Championships medallist, Bajrang Punia is undoubtedly the biggest star of Indian wrestling. Fans from different countries want a picture with him. And he rarely says no to anyone. He is interrupted for photos during TV interviews, followed to the hotel; fans even wait at the airport to catch a glimpse of him. There was a family that had travelled from Uzbekistan to get a photo with Punia among other wrestlers.
The 25-year-old won a bronze medal, but more importantly, qualified for the Olympics. Wrestlers from different countries have conceded to his caliber.
In May, Jordan Burroughs, one of America’s best-ever wrestlers, had tweeted: “Bajrang Punia the G.O.A.T.”
He may not be the greatest-of-all-time yet but is slowly building a reputation towards becoming one at least in India.
Known as the journeyman of wrestling after he competed in three competitions inside two weeks this year, Punia has made the world take notice.
“His power to wrestle six minutes is out of this world,” Vladimir Khinchegashvili, an Olympic champion who also competes in 65kg category said. “He may not be the best guy technically but look at the way he wrestles for six minutes. I would love to train with him.”
At the World Championships, Punia was tipped to win the gold medal but lost his semi-final against Dualet Niyazbekov of Kazakhstan. But he still managed to impress most with his performances.
“He is a great wrestler with a great coach. The ability to work so hard is very rare,” Gaidar Gaidarov, coach of Dagestan, said. “His stamina is perhaps the best in the world.”
Indian wrestlers have made a name for themselves with their incredible ability to tire out the opponents. Punia and Dahiya have a similar style of wrestling that lets them take control of the bout in the second period.
Despite his loss to Uguev in the semi-final, Dahiya managed to earn a few fans.
“I have wrestled Ravi in the Pro Wrestling League and he comes at you hard,” Khinchegashvili said. “He is a bit tall for this weight and the height can be a problem but in Tokyo, he will be a real threat for medal.”
Even Takahashi was amazed by Dahiya’s power.
“He was too strong for me and I did not have power to tackle him,” Takahashi said after the loss. “I think the gap between my previous bout and quarter-final was so less that I could not match him for power.”
But there are many who think this can be a problem for the wrestlers when they grapple with more technically sound colleagues around the world.
Gaidarov, for instance, is focussed about the mat skills Punia has.
“They are focusing too much on his stamina. Look at something else,” he said. “He will get older and this thing will not stay with him forever. Grow him into a more diverse wrestler if you need more wins.”
There is a reference to the movie Dangal every time someone speaks to her but they know that Vinesh Phogat is the pick of the lot in the wrestling family, around whom the Bollywood blockbuster was based on.
“On her day, she can beat anyone. She looks so dominating.” Tonya Verbeek, Canada’s coach, said. “But it’s not always. She has been good all year and possess a real threat which should take her to the Tokyo Games in confidence as well.”
Phogat won her first World Championships medal on the fourth attempt. She defeated Rio Olympics bronze medallist Sofia Mattsson, world No 1 Sarah Hilderbrandt of USA and 2017 World Championships bronze medallist Maria Prevolaraki of Greece to win the bronze.
The medal was fifth for India in women’s wrestling in the history of World Championships. Given there were Olympic quotas on offer, this became a more difficult competition. Phogat also became the first Indian woman wrestler to qualify for two Olympics.
“The Indian team has had an incredible showing,” commentator Sally Roberts said. “Their moves and angles have been great and you can see that with Vinesh. She is so powerful with those with those snaps. she is super reactive. She has some phenomenal defence and pressure.”
Elsewhere, Aware’s bronze did not make the big statement in Barys Arena given that it was a non-Olympic weight class but he left people surprised after making it to the podium. It puzzled a few on why he did not have more international medals to his name, given his style of wrestling.
A journalist from USA summed up his performance: “He is so unorthodox. Where was he all this while?”
The overall performance of India was noticed by most and when as many as four wrestlers qualified for the Olympics, a journalist from Japan, who began covering the sport only from the Asian Games last year, had to add India in his list of “strong countries”.
“I am preparing for Tokyo Games,” he said. “Now I know I have to check more about Indian wrestling.”