While Bajrang Punia wrestled in Rome at the Matteo Pellicone ranking tournament, some 7,000 kilometres away, coach Shako Bentinidis was having some anxious moments at his home in Sonipat. He is still waiting for the Wrestling Federation of India to seek an extension of his visa for India which ended with 2019.
“There were some tight bouts but it’s all good,” he said. “I can only watch from here.”
He did send some instructions a day before Punia’s bout. Though he won a gold in Rome, the World Championships bronze medallist did not look as convincing as he had last year. He did not dominate wrestlers as he would in the second period and all his wins, including in the final, were either by one or two points.
Apart from Punia, Vinesh Phogat was the only other wrestler to win a gold medal in an Olympic weight category. She wrestled in the 53 kg weight category in women’s freestyle and ended all her bouts with authority. She scored 35 points on her opponents while conceding only seven. A day before her bouts, she was sightseeing Rome “to be relaxed.”
The contrasting routes that the two wrestlers took to their gold medals are symbolic of their lives off the mat as well. While Punia is grappling with controversies, Phogat seems to already be on the right path as we get close to the Olympics.
For instance, at the start of 2019, Phogat participated in Dan Kolov ranking series and won a silver medal in 53 kg, losing to Qianyu Pang of China. She avenged her loss at the Asian Championships a month later. In Rome, she won 4-2 and never looked in trouble.
In the same tournament in Bulgaria, Punia won gold defeating Jordan Oliver of USA 12-3, unleashing his skills in the second period and scoring 12 unanswered points.
A year later, Punia won 4-3 against Oliver. He hardly looked in control of the bout and took the lead only after a controversial call. No doubt Oliver has improved in the last one year but for Punia, staying the same level is worrisome. The absence of Bentinidis was surely one of the reasons but Punia has been caught in such more than once now.
“It affects you dearly,” Punia said. “The Indian coaches have a different style but what you have worked with your team, you can only do it with them. I did miss him.”
Punia’s run in Rome included wins over Zain Retherford (5-4), USA’s World Championships team member, another American Joseph McKenna in quarter-finals (4-2) and Vasil Shuptar of Ukraine (6-4) in semi-final.
On the other hand, Phogat dominated. She defeated Khrystyna Bereza of Ukraine (12-0), former U-23 world champion Lannuan Luo (15-5) in quarter-finals, Pang (4-2) in semi-finals and Luisa Valverde Melendres of Ecuador (4-0) in the final.
“I did not come here only to win gold. That was secondary,” Phogat said. “I want more mat time now since we are beginning the new season. More bouts against opponents I have not wrestled like the Ecuador girl.”
Punia and Phogat have been the spearheads of India’s men’s and women’s freestyle wrestling for some time now. Both won gold medals at Commonwealth Games and Asian Games in 2018. While Punia dominated the 65 kg category winning around the world in 2019, Phogat decided to change her category from 50 kg to 53 kg but did not let her performance go down. Both ended up winning bronze medals at the World Championships in September.
Immediately, there were rumours of Punia parting ways with Bentinidis after the WFI expressed their concern over his coaching methods. Once that was sorted, a dearth of training partners halted his training so Russian wrestler Viktor Rassadin was flown. Later, he had to cut short his camp in Turkey.
Despite the gold, Punia admits he could have performed better in Rome. He, however, fails to pinpoint the reason.
“I did not expect myself to perform like this here,” he said. “You can blame this on the weight cut or on the American wrestlers keeping themselves too far from me on the mat wrestling or anything. But the truth is that I am not satisfied.”
It was a sentiment shared by Phogat too.
“I want to be calmer on the mat. It happened at the National Championships and even at the selection trials. I am reacting too much. I want to create a zone where my focus is just on wrestling.”
She added: “The Tokyo Olympics is very near. I want to get better. My results in 53 kg are according to our preparations and what we are doing in training. Everybody is happy.”
Punia’s camp, however, cannot say that.
“It keeps happening. Something or the other keeps coming up which is negative for me,” he said. “Maybe I need to talk things over.”
Asian Championships around the corner
Punia has exactly a month to do that. The Asian Championships will begin in New Delhi from February 18 and he will look to defend his title. In most likelihood, he will also have a revenge bout against Daulet Niyazbekov of Kazakhstan.
The atmosphere won’t be hostile in New Delhi and he will also have Benitidis on his side. However, Punia must deliver his best to and take a big leap of confidence towards the Olympics, something Phogat has already done.
Even when her coach had left for Hungary on December 22, she followed a strict training plan. Not for one day did she let the coach’s absence affect her.
“I asked people to shoot my videos and later we would assess them,” she said. “I continue to do that and I want to better myself.”
For Phogat, the Asian Championships will be a test to see if she can overcome the Japanese challenge in case Mayu Mukaida enters the tournament. In their previous two bouts, the Japanese wrestler has come out on top. But Phogat says she is close to beating her.
While these results will help them garner some points for the Olympic seeding, most of them won’t matter when it comes to those two days in Tokyo.
Being the biggest hopes of winning a medal in wrestling at the Games, the pressure on Punia and Phogat will be immense but the manner in which they train themselves to handle this pressure may just take them over the line.