Rising stature of Bajrang Punia as the flag-bearer of Indian wrestling received a tremendous boost when he won India’s first gold medal at the Asian Games in Jakarta on Sunday night. The 24-year-old’s gold-winning feat in the 65kg class was the potion that the Indian contingent needed on a day when Sushil Kumar suffered the ignominy of a first-round exit in the 74kg category.
The manner in which Bajrang Punia handled pressure was monk-like. For days, all talks have veered around how he, and not Sushil, was a gold medal favourite. He shut himself away from media glare , preferring to concentrate on his preparation for his biggest campaign so far. But, more importantly, he had to battle self-doubt that would cloud his mind during close matches.
Of course, it needed him to strain his every sinew to beat the Japanese grappler Daichi Takatani’s challenge. Every muscle in his body stood the test of strength. Yet, the manner in which his hands, torso and legs were servants to his mind on Sunday evening, was the best part of his conquest of the Japanese. He breezed his way to the final and showcased his determination in the title round.
In fact, he appeared mentally prepared for the intense duel. For, he had watched Takatani came through to the final from the lower half and knew this was a completely different and motivated wrestler to the one he had beaten in the early rounds in the World Cadet Wrestling Championships seven years ago.
Their meeting in the final of the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in Ashgabat, had been a non-starter owing to Takatani’s injury. But the Japanese had got the better of him in the Asian Championship in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, earlier this year. Punia had to work very hard to not repeat the errors he had made in that 5-7 defeat.
He was determined to prove that he was the superior of the two wrestlers in the class. It was a veritable humdinger, one in which the Japanese gave the Jhajjar-born 24-year-old a run for his money. Bajrang Punia had to put up tight defence each time the Japanese went for his legs and tried to throw him down, while looking for opportunities to stay ahead as well.