World Wrestling Championships 2018: Return of Indian lions on the mat
As the Amateur World Wrestling Championships 2018 come to a close on Sunday night at Budapest in Hungary, it will be all smiles for the Indian contingent. Their results have proved that they are seemingly on their road to a brilliant recovery from the brief lull that followed them since the 2015 edition, despite Sakshi Malik's historic bronze at Rio Olympics 2016.
Had it not been for the agonizing misses from some of the underrated wrestlers, India could've come back with their highest medal tally ever at any World Wrestling Championships.
Despite that, the memorable outings of wrestlers like Bajrang Punia and Pooja Dhanda have ensured that India is more than ready for the gruelling season that would follow in the run-up to the coveted Tokyo Olympics 2020, where India aims to achieve the unimaginable -- an Olympic gold medal in wrestling.
Bajrang Punia: Creating history, despite the miss
A rising wrestling star, and the famed disciple of the legendary wrestler, Yogeshwar Dutt, Bajrang Punia scripted history as he clinched a silver medal after 5 years for the Indian contingent at the World Championships, losing narrowly to Japanese wrestler Takuto Otoguro by 9-16 in the final.
The road to the final wasn't that easy, and Bajrang had to sweat it out against previous year's bronze medallist Alejandro Valdes of Cuba, who had shortened his 4-1 lead in the first round of the semi-finals to 3-4. Thankfully, Bajrang kept his cool throughout and refused to let Alejandro have his way.
Unfortunately, he couldn't maintain this stance in the final, and he missed the chance to become only the second world champion from India in this field after the iconic wrestler Sushil Kumar won the honours in 2010.
Despite the narrow miss, Bajrang Punia created history, for he is only the fourth Indian after Bishambhar Singh, Sushil Kumar, and Amit Kumar Dahiya to reach the final. He had even won a silver medal last year at the Under-23 World Championships, and we hope that Bajrang cruises with ease to the Tokyo Olympics as the qualifiers officially start from next year. For that, his current coach and Georgian legend Shako Bentinidis will have to work hard.
Pooja Dhanda: A miss at Asiad compensated by a historic performance
Probably one of the wrestlers who was certainly not pleased with her performance at the Asian Games 2018 was Pooja Dhanda. The dark horse, who had clinched a silver medal at the inaugural Youth Olympics in 2010, and even defeated iconic wrestler Geeta Phogat in her road to the Commonwealth Games 2018, ultimately earning a silver medal, Pooja went down in the semi-finals. To add to her woes, she missed out on a bronze medal, losing ultimately to Katsuki Sakagami of Japan by 1-6.
However, she left that all behind as she entered the arena of the World Wrestling Championships. Shocking previous edition's silver medallist in 55 kg, Odunayo Adekuoroye of Nigeria, who is also the current Commonwealth champion, she went down again to Rong Ningning of China, who ultimately became the champion of this event.
However, since Rong stormed into the final, Pooja got another chance at a medal in the repechage round. This time, she left nothing to chance, pummelling Alyona Kolesnik of Azerbaijan by 8-3 and then Grace Bullen of Norway by 10-7.
The moment the final hooter was sounded, Pooja scripted history yet again, as she is the fourth Indian woman to have won a bronze medal at the World Championships, after Alka Tomar in 2006,and Geeta and Babita Phogat in 2012 editions respectively. India has high expectations from this 'dhaakad' girl now.
The whisker misses: A lot in store for future
However, what hurt India were matches where the wrestlers missed the podium by a whisker. It was agonizing for Commonwealth champion and recent Arjuna awardee wrestler Sumit Malik, who missed yet another bronze medal at this edition. He had missed his chance at the Asian Games, where he lost the bronze medal in the final repechage round.
Sumit Malik shocked everyone when he entered the semi-finals, pummelling Inkar Yermukambet of Kazakhstan by 6-1. This is shocking since no wrestler from India had ever progressed beyond the first round in the super heavyweight [125 kg.] category, let alone cruising into the semi-finals.
However, the Chinese wrestler Deng Shiwei proved too mighty, defeating him squarely by 5-0. Despite the loss, Sumit had another chance, by the virtue of a repechage round. However, despite some good moves, Sumit failed to sustain his early lead, and he went down to his American opponent, Nick Gwiazdowski of USA, who defeated him by 7-2.
Another agonizing miss was surprisingly from one of the youngest wrestlers from the legendary Phogat clan, Ritu Phogat. Silver medallist from the U-23 World Championships last year, Ritu had come as a replacement for her elder cousin and Asiad gold medallist, Vinesh Phogat, in the 50 kg category. On her debut at the senior level World Championships, she made it to the repechage round after Yui Sisaki, her Japanese opponent who defeated her in the quarter-finals, made it to the final round.
She overcame Alina Vuc of Romania in a tie-breaker, and looked all set for a historic bronze, when she was unfortunately defeated by Oksana Livach of Ukraine, who defeated her by 10-5. However, this cannot undermine the immense talent Ritu has in store, and Vinesh would need to be in top form, should she face Ritu in her quest for Tokyo Olympics 2020.
Similarly, Sakshi Malik, who had to suffer an agonizing defeat in the Asiad semi-finals, made it to the repechage round, but lost the medal without a tough fight, going down to Marianna Sastin of Hungary by 2-3.
Can India make it big at Tokyo 2020?
Going by the performances at the World Championships 2018, India looks more than ready to make it big at Tokyo Olympics 2020. The only thing that the wrestlers need to keep in check is their attitude, which shouldn't break during the dying seconds of the match, which is where some of the grapplers, especially like Sumit Malik and Ritu Phogat, narrowly missed the podium despite having immense potential. If they overcome that, nobody can stop India from creating history at Tokyo Olympics 2020.