There is a reason why Bajrang Punia’s Instagram profile picture is that of a roaring lion. The Indian wrestler embodied all traits of the majestic animal to become part of a new folklore in Tokyo.
Fighting on an injured knee, the 27-year-old defeated Kazakhstan’s Daulet Niyazbekov in the 65 kg category at the Makuhari Messe Hall to win India its fifth wrestling bronze in history.
Bajrang Punia had beaten Niyazbekov recently at the Ali Aliyev tournament in June. This was also where the Indian suffered a knee injury. He had also lost to the Kazakh once in a controversial bout in the 2019 world championship semi-final.
However, Punia's win at the Olympics is nothing short of historic, considering the fact that he did it despite the injury.
He had looked a pale shadow of himself on the first day of the competition. The knee, though recovered, had left a lasting effect on his mind. It affected his ability to shift weight on the leg and move smoothly, which almost cost him the first two bouts.
The challenge proved to be too much against Azerbaijan’s Haji Aliyev in his semi-final.
For the majority of the qualifying rounds, the Haryana-born fought with a strapped right knee. Although it was to reduce the chances of aggravating the injury, he did seem uncomfortable.
Bajrang Punia is one of those rare lucky wrestlers who haven't suffered major injuries. Even when faced with minor issues, he has always managed to recover in time for the competition.
However, Tokyo was different. Having been advised to rest so close to the Olympics was not something he could afford. He contacted doctors in India who advised him to do knee strengthening.
“I did what my doctors and physios advised. Every athlete hopes to remain fit and injury-free during the Olympics. I used to keep exercising to return to fitness. I stopped sleeping in the afternoon to work on my fitness,” he says.
On Saturday, though, he wanted to give it all. He was ready to tolerate the pain – and wrestlers have high pain tolerance - for the all-important bout. He decided not to strap his knee against Niyazbekov.
“Felt like my leg is tied up, so I told physio that I don't want it for the bronze medal bout and if injury gets worse we will see about it later,” he says.
As they say, a wounded lion is even more dangerous than a fit one. Bajrang Punia was back in his zone, protecting his territory like a lion.
He fought in the manner that had made him one of the heavyweights of the sport. He pressured Niyazbekov and tired him out. The Kazakh was content just holding on in the first period.
Bajrang Punia won the first point on passivity, and then another after pushing Niyazbekov out of the safe zone.
In the second period, Bajrang finally let all hell loose with three takedowns to make the score 8-0. Niyazbekov had no answer for the Indian's pace and relentlessness.
When the final whistle sounded, Bajrang Punia had a very calm expression. After all, he was chasing eternal glory by winning Olympic gold. Although he missed it, his win in Tokyo was the passing of the baton. Wrestling, once synonymous with Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt’s heroics, would finally have new exemplars.
Bajrang Punia, along with silver medalist Ravi Dahiya, will be the new benchmark next-gen will follow. In the space of six minutes, they surpassed their idols and took responsibility for the weight of a billion hopes as they prepare to begin MISSION PARIS 2024.