“Bajrang Pahelwanji ke pairon pe hi attack karenge woh log,” said a worried wrestler who looks up to the Indian wrestler as his idol.
Bajrang Punia will carry the expectations of many such young wrestlers and also the country in Tokyo. And there is a big reason for it. Indian wrestling has a significant history at the Olympics, having won medals in every edition since 2008. For this edition, the 26-year-old is undoubtedly the flag-bearer of the sport.
Born in a village where every second family has a pahelwan (wrestler), Bajrang is expected to bring home a medal, preferably gold. Part of this expectation lies in the way he has transformed himself into a complete powerhouse over the last cycle.
Check Out: Tokyo Olympics 2021 Schedule
He won gold at the 2018 Asian Games and 2019 continental championships. He also won silver and bronze medals at the World Championships. Even in a stacked 65 kg division at Tokyo, where Bajrang Punia is seeded second, he is one of the pre-Games favorites. A lot of it has to do with his style of wrestling.
Bajrang Punia wrestling style is not the typical one. Unlike most wrestlers in his weight category, stamina and strength are his trump cards. As the 2016 Olympic champion Erica Wiebe – she was knocked out in the first round on day 1 in Tokyo -- had once said, Bajrang Punia’s style will always keep you on your toes. He is that good.
When he wrestles, there comes a time when the momentum of the bout shifts in his favor. The process is so slow in a competition that is just six minutes long – two halves of three minutes – that it is hard to spot. However, it happens.
In the 2019 Asian Championship final, Bajrang Punia trailed 7-2 against Kazakhstan’s Okassov with just over a minute to go. For someone who recently started watching wrestling, he might just switch on the TV in disappointment. However, the trick is to wait a bit longer as the Indian switches gear.
On the mat, Bajrang Punia simply waits like a hungry tiger stalking his prey. When lactic acid starts to build up, and muscles turn heavy, when most wrestlers are running out of breath – that’s when he pounces.
“He takes his time and observes his opponent very closely. Waits for their technique to get a little sloppy before he moves in. The interesting thing is while for most of us, time is running out, for Bajju it’s all happening in slow motion. He knows he will make up for the lost points soon. That is his style,” coach Shako Bentinidis said.
By the time the match got over against Okassov, Bajrang Punia had scored 10 points on a trot to win his first continental title. From 7-2 down he came up 7-12 in the blink of an eye.
At the 2020 Asian Championship in New Delhi, he recovered from 5-0 down within the first minute to close in at 7-6 against Japan's Takuto Otoguro. Bajrang Punia eventually lost 16-9.
His “forward pressure style” has a lot to do with this. He puts pressure on his opponents by constantly snapping and pulling their heads to make them uncomfortable and make mistakes.
Former Indian women’s foreign coach Andrew Cook points out that this tactic gives him an edge over most of his opponents.
“His forward pressure style is part of his game plan. It is not something Shako or in fact any coach tells him to do. It comes instinctively. As a wrestler no one wants to constantly have a hand on their shoulder in such a pressure situation. It makes them uneasy. And Baju does a good job in doing that and forcing guys to make mistakes or break defence,” Cook said.
Bajrang Punia’s achilles heal
This style of play, though, leaves a chink in his powerful armor. His biggest strength – putting pressure and moving forward – is also his weakness.
In order to keep pressing forward, Bajrang Punia keeps a more upright stance which leaves his legs open for attacks.
A lot of it has to do with Mitti Dangal (mud wrestling), where he started his career. Every wrestler in India, including two-time Olympic medalist Sushil Kumar, started their career in mud.
But in dangal, wrestlers rely heavily on brute strength and stamina rather than footwork. It is not until a grappler steps on the mat, they get familiar with ground techniques.
The lack of foreign exposure only makes things worse. The only competition a budding Indian wrestler gets is an Indian with similar dangal roots. So, it becomes a cycle.
“This is a problem because the competition is Indian based (only domestic competitors). It’s difficult to train for something that isn’t happening at home, if they were to travel outside and experience a different style of attacking it would serve them better. This is a difficult issue to solve,” Cook said.
However, Cook feels that had it not been for this attacking style, Bajrang Punia would not have been a favorite at the Olympics.
“Baji’s leg defense is an issue because of his forward pressure style it’s just going to be a part of his game as that is how he presents during matches. It’s really part of it if he had less pressure and was more defensive, we wouldn’t get the same outcomes as he does with his pressure,” he added.
Leg defence will be a big worry at Olympics
Going into the Olympics, Bajrang Punia will be more worried about his leg defense than ever.
The Indian wrestler suffered a knee injury last month during the Ali Aliev tournament in Russia. Bajrang Punia had to stay away from the mat for nearly two weeks before getting clearance to train.
However, he still felt the pain while moving around.
“He says there is pain while moving on the mat but now cannot help it. The Olympics comes once a year, so I have to give my best. He now straps his knee to reduce chances of injury on the same knee,” a source close to Bajrang Punia said.
However, the willingness to go into training when others might have had second thoughts is what makes Bajrang Punia an exceptional wrestler. Cook said the wrestler just needs to be a little clever and check for counters and he will be fine.
“For him it is just getting more clever with his counters and defensive scores off of his own pressure, not changing much just improving. It’s a really difficult sport haha so Bajrang Punia is doing awesome and his fine line is in his recounters and his reactions.