Bajrang Punia might have had to settle for the silver at the World Championships in Budapest but his effort has already placed him in a select bracket in Indian sport.
For the 24-year-old, it was his second World Championships medal, having won a bronze in 2013 as a promising teenager.
The 65kg wrestler from Haryana’s Khudan village was hoping to win a gold medal and match the feat of Sushil Kumar, who continues to be India’s only gold medallist in World Championships, having triumphed in Moscow in 2010.
Still, it doesn’t take away the fact that it has been an exceptional year for Bajrang, who won gold medals in the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games besides a bronze at the Asian Championship. The silver in Budapest has added to his growing stature and come 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Bajrang will be a top contender for a medal.
“This is just the start, two years to go #Tokyo,” Bajrang tweeted following his silver.
On Monday, Bajrang met a tough rival in the 19-year-old Japanese teen sensation Takuto Otoguro who became his country's youngest world champion. Bajrang put up a brave fight after being down 0-5 but the fast-attacking and tactically brilliant Takuto had more tricks up his sleeve.
“The Japanese wrestler was excellent. He has recently graduated to the senior circuit, so we had not seen much of him. But overall, Bajrang has done well, he is an improved wrestler today, and one can say he is on the right track for the Tokyo Games,” Olympic bronze medallist Yogeshwar Dutt, who is Bajrang’s mentor, told DH.
“It has been a successful year for Bajrang. We, of course, wanted him to win gold, but such things happen in wrestling. A silver in Worlds is no less an achievement. He had prepared well, but now he needs to work on his shortcomings. If he had counter-attacked and defended a little better, probably, the result could have been different,” he said.
The contribution of Georgian coach Shako Bentinidis, who began working with Bajrang earlier this year, is also evident. “There is a new-found confidence in Bajrang, which is natural if you keep winning. He has been very consistent since last year. A foreign coach always helps, and the foreign exposure one gets adds to the experience. Next year is very important keeping in mind the Olympic qualification,” Yogheshwar said.
For long, Bajrang has been under the shadows of Yogeshwar, who saw a spark in him as a junior and nurtured him. But now the mentor feels his protégé has come out of his shadow by the sheer weight of his medal-winning performances since the junior days. “He is already there among the best Indian wrestlers, and I hope he keeps at it.”
It wasn't an ideal run-up to the World Championships for Bajrang. He was upset at being ignored for the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna and had even threatened to move court. But on Yogeshwar’s counsel, he decided against it. “I told him to focus on training, awards come if you keep performing well.”