Bajrang Punia qualifies for World Championships with attack on his mind and empathy in his heart
Bajrang has lost just one bout in his last 10 international assignments, the lone loss coming in the 2018 World Championships final - a 16-9 result against Japan's Takuto Otoguro.
Bajrang defeated national champion Harphul Singh 7-0 to qualify for Worlds in 65kg category
Despite the facile win, Bajrang and coach Shako discussed the wrestler's weakness with his leg defence.
Bajrang is conscious of the threat of injuries that comes with regular training and frequent participation in tournaments.
Bajrang Punia is a star. And if that needed a reconfirmation, you ought to be present at Indira Gandhi Stadum's KD Jadhav Wrestling Hall on Friday. Shortly after he defeated national champion Harphul Singh 7-0 after the latter couldn't continue the bout - he suffered what looked like a knee sprain - Bajrang was mobbed by eager spectators for selfies and photographs in a manner befitting a matinee idol basking in the glory of a Friday release.
Flashbulbs and fame are not new to Bajrang anymore. One of India's best bets to win a medal at next year's Tokyo Olympics, Bajrang has been in outstanding form of late. The 25-year-old grappler from Haryana's Jhajjar district has lost just one bout in his last 10 international assignments, the lone loss coming in the 2018 World Championships final - a 16-9 result against Japan's Takuto Otoguro.
That bout in Budapest last October had exposed Bajrang's technical limitations against a much-superior wrestler, and he couldn't really recover from an early 0-5 deficit. Bajrang insists he has moved on from that reversal and has learned his lessons.
"I am not thinking of the past," he said after securing a berth for this year's World Championships inside four minutes.
"I missed the gold medal last year, but that happens in sport. My performance was really good, and even this year I have won gold in all the events I have played in. My effort will be to rectify the mistake I made last time and win the gold medal.
"Also, I will try not to concede early points and let the opponent run away with a significant lead. In the past, I used to give away a few points and then mount a comeback. This time, I will look to score early. Personally, I am fine even if I concede 4-6 points early, but my coaches tell me to avoid doing that and instead score early. My effort now is to go on the attack early and build a lead," he said.
His coach Shako Bentinidis concurred. "Very often, he trails by 3-4 points at the start before coming back in the match, which should not happen at the Olympics. We are working on that," the Georgian said.
Friday's bout was a one-sided affair that hardly tested Bajrang. Far from taking early points off Bajrang, Harphul was found wanting under the latter's relentless attack, and was heading for a bigger defeat before his right knee got injured. He hobbled around for a few minutes before calling it quits, allowing Bajrang an easy passage to the 14-22 September event in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan.
"World Championships is a big tournament, perhaps the second most important after the Olympics. At the Olympics, there will be only 16 wrestlers, but in Worlds, there can be 40-45. So in a way, it is more testing than the Olympics. My effort will be to do well at WC and qualify for the Olympics in the first attempt itself," he said.
Leg defence a work in progress
Despite the facile win, Bajrang and Shako didn't show any emotion and were more than open to discuss the wrestler's most well-known weakness, his leg defence.
"We work on his leg defence every day. He is hardworking, but he needs to focus more. He must not give points at the start of the match," the coach said. Even in trials, Harphul often tried to go for the leg-hold, but Bajrang was quick to withdraw.
"Once an opponent gets hold of your legs, you have just one percent chance of a comeback, while the opponent has 99 percent chances to score. That's how important it is. So I keep working on it," he said.
"All my focus is on that; whatever points I concede, I do it through my leg defence. Even Yogi bhai (Yogeshwar Dutt) used to tell me to be careful with it. Initially, I was very confident in my defence. I used to think that I will not concede any points through my leg defence, but that didn't turn out to be true, so I am working really hard on that."
Bajrang, however, clarified that he will stick to his natural style of wrestling while striving to cut down his weakness.
"I am not changing my style, because changing the natural style doesn't help. All I am trying to do is eliminate errors from my game. Coaches have given me a specific schedule as they now my weakness. We also do a lot of situational bouts targetting my legs, so that I do not commit any mistakes at the World Championships or the Olympics," he said.
Shako believes Bajrang can take up his game by several notches if he can focus harder during the bouts. While he ruled out any major technical adjustments, he did concede that some tweaks might be in store in the months between World Championships and next year's Tokyo Olympics.
"My only instructions to him is to focus. If Bajrang was 18, it would have been easier to change certain things in his wrestling, but he is 26 now, which means I can't change his technique a lot. Having said that, he responds very well to the technical inputs and he is extremely hardworking and disciplined. Our first aim is to qualify for the Olympics, we can then tweak some aspects of his game as we'll have enough time until Tokyo," the coach said.
Technical aspects aside, Bajrang is conscious of the threat of injuries that comes with regular training and frequent participation in tournaments.
"I am aware of the injury threat, but you can't enter the mat with that thought. If you keep thinking of injuries, you won't be able to perform. However, if you know that a particular move can injure you, it is wise not to go for it even at the cost of that match. If you are injury-free, you can always come back in the next tournament," he said.
While on the topic, the discussion veered towards Harphul's injury in the trials, and Bajrang was quick to express his sympathies.
"Injuries are unfortunate for any athlete because they take you back by several days. We are competitors on the mat, but off it, we are like brothers. I feet really bad for him. If I secretly rejoice the fact that my opponent got injured, it will be a very wrong thing to do and God won't forgive me." He then proceeded to add a punchline befitting a matinee idol: "It is important to be a good wrestler, but more than that, it is important to be a good human being." Bajrang Punia's stardom needed no further proof thereafter.
The shooting team will be travelling to Croatia for the European Championships from from 20 May to 6 June, where they will be staying back for training before directly leaving for Tokyo.
Tokyo Olympics 2020: Ethiopian legend Kenenisa Bekele's participation in doubt after skipping qualifier
Although he did not compete in Saturday's race, the Ethiopian federation can still draft Bekele if they wish for a much-awaited duel with reigning Olympic champion and Kenyan world record holder Eliud Kipchoge.
Ganapathy and Thakkar’s marriage of convenience has endured its share of tides. They now describe themselves as "each other's backbones." Come July, the boys will hit the high seas in Japan, sailing into a new dawn.