Bajrang Punia, one of the most decorated Indian wrestlers, collected an unprecedented fourth World championships medal, a bronze in Belgrade. He reiterated his superstar status in the challenging 65kg weight category. Punia had claimed a bronze in 60kg as his first Worlds medal in 2013 and took five more years to land his second, a silver in 65kg. Since Udey Chand opened the country’s account in the World championships in 1961, no Indian had secured two medals. After Punia, Vinesh Phogat became the second from the country to do so this year. Punia grew in stature when he bagged a third Worlds medal, another bronze, in 2019 and defied a knee injury to claim an Olympics bronze in Tokyo last year. His latest feat, which was achieved in spite of an impediment, was similar to his performance in the Olympics. It spoke about the champion wrestler’s ability to overcome odds. After struggling with injuries that resulted in his indifferent form in the last one year, he displayed grit to get back to his usual attacking game. This year he took his second consecutive Commonwealth Games title, but needed to reassure himself by securing an eye-catching result on a bigger platform. However, his journey in the Belgrade World championships was hindered early as he picked up a head injury in his first fight in the pre-quarterfinals. He lost to Yianni (John) Diakomihalis in the quarterfinals but got a lifeline when the American entered the final.
Even though a bandage around his head affected Punia’s focus, the 28-year-old held his nerve and fought his heart out to erase massive deficits in repechage and bronze medal contests. His spectacular bronze medal bout, in which he came back from 0-6 to record a narrow win over Pan-American silver medallist Sebastian Rivera of Puerto Rico, will rank high among the all-time sensational fights put up by an Indian wrestler at the elite level. The performance at Belgrade is a testament of his adaptability, consistency and longevity, and should serve as a confidence-booster in the run-up to his Asian Games title defence next year and his quest for an Olympic gold in 2024. Punia relied on his exemplary discipline, hard work and endurance to graduate from being a junior sparring partner of Olympic medallist Yogeshwar Dutt at Delhi’s Chhatrasal Stadium to become a world beater. Now he needs to work on his vulnerable leg defence and slower attacking moves to prepare for the bigger tests ahead. Besides, the 28-year-old would do a world of good to himself by participating in select competitions and preserving his energy for the major events.