It is a testomony to the lofty expectations on him that Bajrang Punia has been named the Indian staff’s flag bearer within the closing ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics. A part of the rationale lies in wrestling’s historic significance to India’s Olympic campaigns – Indian wrestlers have medalled at each Olympic Video games since 2008. For this version, 26-year-old Bajrang is undoubtedly the present normal bearer the game.
During the last Olympic cycle, he has received a silver and a bronze medal on the World Championships (he has received three medals general on the WCs – no different Indian wrestler has received multiple). He has additionally received gold on the 2018 Asian Video games and the 2019 Asian Championships. Even in a stacked 65kg division at Tokyo, the place he is seeded third, he is one of many pre-tournament favourites.
Born in a village the place each second household boasts a pehelwan (together with his personal father), Bajrang too was anticipated to wrestle and by the point he was seven, he had adopted his elder brother onto the mud pit of the akhara. He began competing quickly after within the mitti wrestling dangal.
Bajrang, his father will let you know, wrestled much more than different children. “He by no means appeared to get drained. I keep in mind the primary time he went for a dangal, he wrestled six straight bouts. Each time he completed one bout, he was on the lookout for the following one,” says his father.
Earlier than lengthy, Bajrang outgrew the dangals and after being noticed by Rampal Singh – the then coach of future double Olympic champion Sushil Kumar – joined New Delhi’s Chhatrasal Stadium in 2008. Chhatrasal is taken into account one of many most interesting ending faculties for wrestling on the earth — famed for its rigorous grind — however even in such a aggressive atmosphere, Bajrang’s work ethic would stand out. Bajrang as soon as claimed he accomplished 1065 continuous dand-baithaks (an Indian burpee mixture of push up and squat).
Bajrang discovered a mentor there too — 2012 Olympic bronze medallist Yogeshwar Dutt, who would advise the youthful wrestler on many profession choices. After Bajrang received silver on the 2011 cadet world championship within the 55kg class, Dutt suggested him to leap weight classes, even when it meant not successful a medal for a 12 months. In 2012, when he was 18, he started dominating the junior circuit and Dutt advisable him to begin competing in opposition to seniors. The recommendation helped, however additionally it is true that Bajrang remained within the shadow of his mentor.
Regardless that he had received a medal on the 2013 World Championships, Bajrang’s profession blossomed after two episodes.
One was Dutt’s retirement following the Rio Video games, which allowed Bajrang to maneuver into the 65kg division. Extra vital, maybe, was a choice by the world wrestling physique in 2013 to vary the format of a wrestling bout from three rounds of two minutes every to 2 rounds of three minutes — seemingly a minor transfer however one which radically elevated the position stamina performed in a match.
Stamina was, and stays, Bajrang’s trump card.
Few issues are as exhilarating in sport because the comeback. It is much less well-known in wrestling, however no much less vital – and nobody does it higher than Bajrang.
When Bajrang wrestles there comes a time the place he is aware of he’s about to take management of the match. This may not be totally apparent for spectators immediately. A wrestling bout is not very lengthy – simply two halves of three minutes every. To the spectators, it may appear that Bajrang is all the way down to his final hundred or so seconds. Fairly often, he’s trailing at this level.
It should have certainly seemed like that, as an example, within the remaining of the 2019 Asian Championship. Kazakhstan’s Okassov was main 7-2 with simply over a minute to go.
On the mat although, Bajrang is solely ready for his second. When lactic acid begins to construct up, muscle groups burn and switch heavy, when most wrestlers begin making furtive glances on the digital clock — that is when the Indian pounces.
“He’ll see that the opponent’s stance and method will get a little bit bit sloppy and that is when he begins choosing up the tempo and the assault price. Mentally his opponent begins to fold. They begin to surrender. I’ve seen this with a whole lot of Bajrang’s matches. He’ll go down a few factors, after which his tempo begins to choose up after which second interval comes round after which they begin to fold and begin to drop their arms or head and he blows the match open from there. He’ll come at you want a battering ram,” says Andy Ramos, who as soon as wrestled in opposition to Bajrang on the 2015 World Cup and who now coaches on the College of North Carolina.
By the point the referee blew the ultimate whistle within the match in opposition to Okassov, Bajrang had scored ten unanswered factors to win his first continental title. From 7-2 all the way down to 7-12 up, within the proverbial blink of an eye fixed.
Within the bronze medal match on the 2019 World Championships, in opposition to Mongolia’s Tumur Ochir Tulga, Bajrang was down 6-2 with simply over a minute and a half remaining earlier than successful 8-7.
There are matches after all, the place this late surge comes too late. Bajrang fought again from 9-2 down with a minute and a half to go within the semi-final of the 2019 World Championships in opposition to Daulet Niyazbekov of Kazakhstan, however misplaced 9-9 on standards. A 12 months earlier, he had recovered from 5-0 down throughout the first minute to shut in at 7-6 in opposition to Japan’s Takuto Otoguro earlier than finally shedding 16-9. Though Bajrang misplaced these bouts, each his opponents appeared determined to run down the clock and maintain on to the win — their stamina operating out, sucking in nice gulps of air, doing their greatest to seize any type of relaxation as they seemed to carry out the relentless Indian.
Bajrang’s strain and conditioning are key to breaking down his opponents and the centrepiece of his wrestling fashion. He does not watch for opponents to tire however accelerates the method, continually snapping and pulling on his opponent’s head to open them up and put them out of place. “Even on the highest degree, guys have a tempo they’re snug with. In freestyle wrestling, you solely have a restricted quantity of area on the mat. Bajrang places a whole lot of strain on his opponents and once they begin to run out of room on the circle and once they get to the sting of the mat, it places psychological and positional strain on them. He does a very good job of forcing guys to make errors or breaking place. He does a very good job of doing that all through the match,” says Sean Bormet, a coach with the USA wrestling squad who has labored with Bajrang over the previous 12 months.
“I mentioned, ‘Bajrang, you will need to relaxation’. However he was so indignant. He mentioned: ‘In India there is not this phrase ‘relaxation”.”
Shako Bentinidis (Two-time Olympian and former Georgian nationwide coach)
Bajrang’s stamina wanted a extra appropriate platform, and it got here with the shift to 65kg. “I first noticed him in Los Angeles on the day of the weigh-in. It was very apparent to me that Bajrang was struggling to make weight at 60kg,” says Ramos. “Even at the moment we knew within the USA that he was a really highly effective wrestler with a really sturdy gasoline tank. The transfer to 65kg was in all probability the perfect that might have occurred to him. It is a weight you might be extra snug in and reasonably than spending most of your time making an attempt to make weight, you may as an alternative focus in your method.”
That was a respectable concern.
Whereas the Indian’s bodily talents had been well-known, it was obvious to essentially the most expert technicians that he was a one-dimensional wrestler. Whereas strain is considered one of Bajrang’s best strengths, it is also considered one of his defining weaknesses. As a result of he spends a lot time urgent ahead in a extra upright stance, Bajrang leaves himself open to leg assaults from his opponents.
To repair this, Bajrang and his staff referred to as on the providers of two-time Olympian and former Georgian nationwide coach Shako Bentinidis in 2018. However whereas Bentinidis has labored on his method, he says Bajrang’s go-to power will stay his endurance. Bentinidis has labored with a number of World and Olympic medallists throughout his teaching profession, however he finds Bajrang distinctive. “Nobody trains like Bajrang trains. Perhaps others have higher method than he does. In Georgia, individuals have expertise however they do not work laborious like he does. However this (endurance) isn’t expertise, no lottery. That is simply laborious work,” he says.
This was obvious to Bentinidis inside his first week of working with Bajrang. “After the primary week by which we skilled, I informed Bajrang ‘it’s essential relaxation proper now’. I checked out his face and it was as if he did not perceive what I used to be saying. I mentioned ‘Bajrang you will need to relaxation’. However he was so indignant. He mentioned: ‘In India there is not this phrase ‘relaxation”,” recollects Bentinidis.
Bajrang although has slowly been engaged on sharpening his sport.
Ramos compares the newest model of Bajrang favourably to the one he wrestled a number of years again. “Many of the instances wrestlers who financial institution on their physicality battle in opposition to opponents who’re extra technical and versatile. With somebody who is not versatile, you may actually restrict the type of positions they put you in. Then again, somebody who is actually versatile can put you in a whole lot of completely different wrestling positions the place your method is not the perfect. However you might be each. I believe Bajrang is slowly turning into probably the greatest on the earth at it. He is grow to be loads higher technically. He is organising his pictures loads higher now,” says Ramos.
That enchancment was clear to Bormet, who labored with Bajrang on the College of Michigan in December final 12 months, when the Indian seemed to get some coaching after being caught in India for a number of months owing to the COVID-19 Pandemic.
“Bajrang’s is after all a really bodily, a really American fashion. However he’s additionally utilizing a whole lot of hand preventing in his setups. He additionally has a world-class defence. He is nonetheless enhancing. He is nonetheless looking for a steadiness the place he is discovering methods to guard his legs even whereas he presses ahead,” says Bormet.
However he says what stays Bajrang’s decisive benefit is his potential to pile on the strain. “His fashion creates a whole lot of bodily and psychological strain on opponents as he presses ahead. He does not let opponents relaxation. Not everybody has the power to fight that,” he says.
The need-to-win, says Bormet, is crucial to the success of Bajrang’s fashion of wrestling. For it requires Bajrang to be snug at a degree of stress his opponents cannot cope with. “Even when your bout is simply six minutes, it may be very gruelling if in case you have two expert rivals wrestling the best way Bajrang does. You need to be ready mentally and bodily to wrestle that approach. Sure guys solely have a sure consolation degree they’re prepared to work previous. After which some guys they attempt to discover a greater degree of discomfort when coaching as a result of they know it can profit them in a troublesome match,” he says.
That willingness to go in coaching the place others feared to is what Bormet thinks has made Bajrang the wrestler he’s. “The best rivals use many various sources of motivation and braveness. With Bajrang, anytime he wanted to achieve in deep and discover one other degree of depth, you might see him doing it,” he says. “His thoughts did not go the opposite approach the place he gave up. That is what stood out for me. It may be coached however that needs to be a deep sense of inner drive within the athlete. Perhaps you may fan that fireside and mold it however it has to return from inside. It is inside Bajrang,”