Prediction: Will Bajrang Punia win a medal at Tokyo Olympics 2020?

Bajrang Punia. (©Twitter)
Bajrang Punia. (©Twitter)

Earlier in March, Bajrang Punia decided to quit social media to focus on the Tokyo Olympics preparations. He wrote that to win a medal at the Games he needs to leave everything aside and focus on preparations. While he returned to social media citing the COVID-19 situation in India, the 27-year-old continues to make sacrifices like staying away from his family and wife to train in Russia.

Over the last Olympic cycle, Bajrang Punia has won two world championships medals, a gold at the 2018 Asian Games and 2019 Asian Championships. Even in a loaded 65kg division in Tokyo, where he is seeded second, Bajrang Punia is one of the pre-tournament favorites.

The Haryana-born has been in fine form this year, winning four medals in as many major competitions. His coach Shako Bentinidis said that Bajrang has improved a lot this year.

“He has picked up the pace. Is moving right on the mat. His body is in right sync with his mind. At Ali Aliev competition, he was excellent,” said Bajrang Punia’s coach.

The wrestler, though, had to withdraw from the semi-final bout after injuring his knee. Doctors advised Bajrang Punia to stay away from the mat for nearly 14 days. But even during the two weeks, he made sure to continue training.

His wife Sangeeta Phogat talked about Bajrang Punia's grit and resolution. She said:

“He is a very strong person. When he got injured, he was in pain but was not worried. Instead, he started drawing out plans with his coach on what to do until he cannot step on the mat. There are not many athletes with such a positive attitude. He is very strong mentally."

Shako echoed Sangeeta and added Bajrang Punia is a unique wrestler with a hunger to keep improving.

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“No one trains like him. Some wrestlers have better technique than Bajrang. But his endurance is not god-gifted. It is sheer hard work,” he says.

But is all this enough to win an Olympic medal?

Bajrang Punia’s challengers at the Tokyo Olympics

To the most extent yes, his endurance will help him sail through to the semifinals. But it is in the last four that the real competition will begin.

Bajrang Punia will face stiff competition from the likes of Asian champion Takuto Otoguro (JAP), world champion Gadhzimurad Rashidov (RUS), 2019 world medalist Daulet Niyabekov (KYG), and 2016 Rio Olympic bronze medalist in 57 kg Haji Aliyev (AZE).

READ: “He needs to stay switched on” - Yogeshwar Dutt believes Bajrang Punia can win a medal at Tokyo Olympics

The good news is out of the four challengers, Bajrang Punia is likely to skip two given the seeding. Rashidov is the top seed, while Niyazbekov is number three behind the Indian wrestler. But he might meet Otoguro and Aliyev early in the competition and get set up for an interesting clash.

Otoguro has been Bajrang Punia’s Achilles heel since 2018. The duo have met thrice, with the Japanese prevailing every time.

In their first bout at the 2018 world championships final, Otoguro thrashed Punia 16-9. Their second encounter took place in New Delhi at the Asian Championship 2020 final. Otoguro once again prevailed with a dominant 10-2 victory. In their last encounter at this year’s Asian meet, Bajrang Punia withdrew due to an elbow injury.

READ: Phogat family waits in hope for 20-year-old Olympic dream to come true

While Bajrang relies heavily on endurance and stamina, it is Otoguro’s superior technique and agility that gives him an upper hand. Moreover, Bajrang’s upright stance compared to Otoguro’s lower stance puts the Indian in a difficult position. Often he finds himself defending his legs against the Japanese wrestler.

Aliyev and Bajrang Punia, on the other hand, have never clashed against each other in any major competition.

Niyazbekov and Bajrang Punia will have an interesting clash at the Tokyo Olympics, should they meet. The wrestlers have clashed twice since 2019, with a win each in their kitty. In their most recent encounter at the Ali Aliyev in Russia, Bajrang Punia won the bout 9-0.

READ: Top wrestlers who can stop Bajrang Punia from winning gold at Tokyo Olympics

Meanwhile, Rashidov will be a tricky opponent. The Russian possesses superior ground wrestling which might trouble the Indian wrestler.

However, Shako believes, Bajrang Punia has found ways to use his weaknesses as a strength.

“Instead of worrying too much about our weaknesses, we have found ways to make it our strength. We have been working on it for some time and even trying to use it during competitions,” says Shako.

Iran’s Morteza Hassanli Ghiasi Cheka and Hungary’s Iszmail Muszkajev will be two dark horses in the 65kg division.

Bajrang Punia is likely to reach the semifinals given his seeding and current form. But to win gold he will need to push that extra mile in Tokyo.

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Edited by Adithya Raghuraman
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