When Sushil Kumar broke the glass ceiling by clinching the 2008 Oiympic bronze, Bajrang Punia was merely 14. He was among the many budding wrestlers, short-fringed with cauliflower ears, training at the Chhatrasal Stadium. Sushil came home to a tumultuous welcome at the New Delhi airport, surrounded by a sea of human bodies, on a humid monsoon night. Bajrang was one among those.
A decade later, Bajrang was accorded a similar reception. Ironically, his Asian Games gold came the day Sushil bowed out in the first round amidst predictions of his retirement. Bajrang is now viewed as the new poster boy of Indian wrestling, which has been mired in endless controversies in recent times. Bajrang acknowledges his rising stature, but is mindful of comparisons with Sushil or Yogeshwar Dutt, his mentor.
“I feel very good when people expect from me. They think I am capable. I was pleasantly surprised with the way I was received at the airport. I had never expected that. It was really touching. When we were growing up we all wanted to be like Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt. But just one medal won’t get me to their statures. There are also other wrestlers who are doing very well,” Punia told DH as he shuttled between Mumbai and Sonipat where he was felicitated by former Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Hooda.
The 24-year-old is in the midst of a phenomenal year where he had bagged gold in Commonwealth Games besides victories in Tbilisi Grand Prix in Georgia and Yasar Dogu International in Istanbul. The Asian Games gold only added to the lustre. “After Olympics, Asian Games is the biggest tournament. To get gold in the Asian Games was my dream and I am happy that through me India could retain the gold in the 65 kg,” he said.
It was Yogeshwar who had won the gold in the 2014 edition in Incheon and Bajrang was more than happy to carry forward the legacy of his mentor. His quest to become a complete wrester led him to hire a personal coach in Shako Bentinidis and the results were for all to show.
“It was my decision to hire the coach. We are aiming for Olympics and we have to do everything possible to get there. Getting Shako helped me a lot. We have worked a lot on my leg defence, on my technique, got to spar with different partners. We still need to work more, the mistakes I made at the Asian Games should not be repeated,” he said.
“I am really happy that I could beat the Japanese wrester (Daichi Takatani). I had lost to him in the Asian Championships six months ago and I was really upset with myself. I tried to fight without any pressure and I am glad I could avenge my loss.”
Yogeshwar: my mentor
If anyone needs to find the whereabouts of Bajrang, ask Yogeshwar. For Bajrang, Yogeshwar - the 2012 Olympic bronze medallist - is the world. It was Yogeshwar who took a young Bajrang under his wings when he used to train at Chhatrasal. Former national chief coach Yashvir Singh recalls Bajrang as a hard working boy.
“He had come with a boy from his village to Chhatrasal. His father was a wrestler too. But he was hard working and crucially had the enthusiasm to fight. He was lucky he was discovered by Yogeshwar and the two would always be together,” he said.
Yogeshwar injected in Bajrang the belief and confidence to become a world-class wrestler. It was on his advice, Bajrang shifted from 61kg to 65kg in 2016 as the former was not an Olympic weight category. It was an emotional moment for him when Yogeshwar came to the airport to receive him after his Asian Games gold.
“I don’t need to tell what Yogi bhai is. Everyone knows how great he is. He is my mentor, my model. I want to be like him. He always watches my bouts, and tells me where I can get better. He is always with me, always telling me that I can do it. He has taught me work ethics and the importance of being fit,” he said.
In fact, Bajrang wasted not a day in returning to India once he wrapped up gold medals in Commonwealth Games and Asian Games. He wanted to train. His next aim is World Championships which could take him to his ultimate destination - the 2020 Olympic Games.
The 2013 World Championship bronze medallist has his schedule chalked out for the coming months. He would be travelling to Azerbaijan before flying to Budapest for the October 22-28 World Championships.
“I want to give my best at the World Championships as it could get me an Olympic qualification. I have done well this year and with each bout, my confidence has also increased. I feel I can do well at the big stage. Olympic is my ultimate dream and I would like to do what Yogeshwar Dutt and Sushil Kumar have done for the country,” he said.
In fact, Bajrang’s whatsapp display picture is of a medal embossed with 2020 Tokyo Olympics. “It is to remind me everyday that I have to win a medal at Olympics. I will not remove it till I achieve my goal,” he said.