Bajrang Punia will be the favorite to win gold at the Tokyo Olympics in the men’s 65-kg freestyle category. Currently training in Russia, the three-time world medalist sealed the Tokyo Olympic spot for India after a bronze medal finish at the 2019 World Wrestling Championships.
It was just the start for Punia. The current World No.2 has won two golds and as many silver medals from his last four competitions. However, the 26-year-old's road to a podium finish will be tough. Here are the top wrestlers who can stop him from grabbing India’s first gold medal in wrestling.
Bajrang Punia’s opponent No.1 at Tokyo Olympics
Takuto Otoguro will arguably be Bajrang Punia’s toughest opponent. The Japanese wrestler has been in stellar form since the fifth place finish at the 2019 World Wrestling Championships. Post that, he has won three gold medals in as many outings, including two Asian Championship titles.
Bajrang Punia and Takuto Otoguro have met thrice with the latter getting the better of the Indian wrestler every time. The first time was at the 2018 world championship where Otoguro beat Punia 16-9.
Then at the final of the Asian Championship in 2020, the Japan wrestler defeated Bajrang Punia 10-2. In the most recent clash, the Indian grappler pulled out due to injury.
Bajrang Punia’s opponent No.2 at Tokyo Olympics
Gadzhimurad Rashidov, the reigning world champion, suffered a career-ending knee injury in December and was certain to miss out on the Tokyo Olympics. But he bounced back strongly with a speedy recovery and sealed the 65 kg spot in the Russian team in March.
He will be a tricky opponent for Bajrang Punia, given the Russian grappler's sound ground technique - an area where the Indian grappler has a long-standing weakness.
Bajrang Punia opponent No.3 at Tokyo Olympics
Haji Aliyev, the 2016 bronze medalist in the 57 kg, moved up to 65 kg immediately after the Rio Olympics. The Azerbaijan wrestler has been a reckoning force in his new weight category.
Aliev won the European Games gold medal in Belarus and followed it up with a title win at the Club World Championship in Iran. Aliev had missed out on the Olympic qualification at the world championship in 2019, but bagged the quota at the European Qualifiers in March.
Bajrang Punia opponent No.4 at Tokyo Olympics
Daulet Niyazbekov and Bajrang Punia's 2019 world championship is probably one of the most controversial wrestling matches in the last five years.
Marred by a series of questionable decisions by the match umpires, the match gave rise to a rivalry between Barjang Punia and Niyazbekov. The Kazakhstan wrestler is a two-time world medalist.