When Bajrang Punia takes the mat at Hangzhou’s Lin’an Sports Culture and Exhibition Centre on October 6 to start his Asian Games campaign, it will mark the first sighting of the defending champion in a competition this year. In an ideal world, Punia – Tokyo Olympics bronze medallist – would’ve started as a favourite, but as the year has shown in considerable detail, these are far from ideal times for Indian wrestling. Punia though has been at the forefront, but first a reality check.
Among India’s most successful wrestlers, Punia will have his task cut out in a quality field in Hangzhou where rivals will look to cash in on his lack of game time. Iran’s world No.1 Rahman Mousa Amouzadkhalili has already won a World Championships (2022) and is the 2023 Asian Championships gold medallist. That he is only 21 indicates his talent, as does the fact that he beat the Indian at last year’s Asian Championships final where Punia, returning after a knee injury, was largely cautious and passive.
Mongolian world No.4 Tulga Tamur-ochir too can test Punia. With 14 wins from 15 bouts this year (until the World Championships), he has stamped his authority in the ultra-competitive 65kg class. Punia and Tamur-ochir go back to 2018 when the Indian beat him 5-3 in the quarter-final. At the 2019 Worlds, Punia overturned a 0-6 deficit to beat Tamur-ochir 8-7, and in 2021 he served another demoralising defeat to the Mongolian in the Rome Ranking Series when he rallied from 0-2 down to effect a takedown 30 seconds from the final whistle.
Those were the years when Punia was at the peak of his powers. In 2018, he did a Commonwealth and Asian Games golden double before taking silver at the World Championships to become world No.1 for the first time. In 2021, his win in Rome made him world No.1 again, and months later, he won the Olympics bronze. While his leg defence was suspect, he would invariably find a way to work around his weakness.
Challenge arrived in the form of Takuto Otoguro – the slippery Japanese who beat him in the 2018 Worlds final as well as in the Asian Championships final in 2021 – though Punia’s aura of invincibility was never really dented. He would stun the field with his pace and stamina, and his superior endurance would ensure he often turned the match around in the second period when his opponents would begin to tire.
The Punia we have now is also a crusader who was at the forefront of a relentless protest in the capital for 36 days demanding justice for women wrestlers for the alleged sexual harassment they faced at the hands of then wrestling federation president, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh. This Punia held candlelight vigils, addressed mass gatherings, scuffled with policemen in the dead of night, declared he was willing to forgo the Asian Games, even the Olympics, if it meant justice for his teammates. He spoke of justice and dignity, and that the protest was his toughest bout yet.
He has also seen the tide turn against him thanks to the automatic Asian Games berth handed out to him, leaving Vishal Kaliraman, who won the trials in the division but was left a standby, disgruntled. Punia briefly honed his craft in a shroud of secrecy at the SAI campus in Sonepat, chose not to go on a sanctioned foreign training trip, aborted another overseas training stint to build his case ahead of the WFI polls, and skipped the World Championships trials.
As of now, Punia is in Kyrgyzstan with coach Sujeet Mann to prepare for the Games. People in the know feel it may turn out to be a gamechanger, that even a fortnight of quality practice may prepare him for the Asiad. However, it is not too tough to gauge his physical and technical reserves considering that he last took to the mat in September 2022 at the World Championships where he won the last of his four medals in the competition.
At the height of the protest, he once admitted that his skills had dipped to the level of a rookie after months of missed practice. He would often lose track of time and day and find entertainment in watching some of his old bouts.
From mat to pavement and back on the mat, his redemption – if it happens – will be another glorious chapter in his career. The question though remains whether Punia has it in him to rise above myriad distractions and mark a dream return.