Wrestler Bajrang opens India’s gold account at Asian Games

Bajrang, who came into the Asian Games as favourite to win the gold in this category, beat his Japanese opponent 11-8 in the final bout.

Wrestler Bajrang Punia opened India’s gold medal account at the 18th Asian Games.   -  PTI

For the first 76 seconds, Bajrang Punia made it look ridiculously easy. The final of the 65kg Freestyle wrestling competition on the opening day of the Asian Games here looked like being yet another walk in the park for the 24-year-old, who had won all his previous bouts on the day on technical superiority.

It didn’t exactly pan out that way but at the completion of his grudge match against Japan’s Daichi Takatani, Punia was the proud winner of India’s 140th Asiad gold with a 11-8 scoreline, the first in this edition and reiterated his credentials as the brightest spark in the next generation of Indian wrestling and able successor to the mantle of Yogeshwar Dutt -- his mentor.

Six months ago, Punia had gone down to Takatani in the semifinals of Asian Championships, the only one in last seven tournaments where he failed to make the final. On Sunday, Punia ensured there would be no repeat of the heartbreak at Bishkek, holding his nerves to the ecstasy of vociferous Indian supporters.

 

“After Yogi bhai and Rejender Pehelwan, I am only the third wrestler to win the Commonwealth Games and Asiad gold in the same year, so it is a great feeling. Also, we have had only nine Asiad golds in wrestling in so many years. When Yogi bhai won it in 2014, it came after a long 28-year gap. I did not want another long wait for it, I am happy I am continuing what he started,” Punia said after the bout.

He refuted any pressure in the title bout but on a day when double Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar crashed out in the opening round, Pawan Kumar lost his bronze medal match and two others – Mausam Khatri (97kg) and Sandeep Tomar (57kg) – faltered, Punia was the sole torchbearer of Indian wrestling. “If I start worrying about comebacks from the opponent, it will be the end of my bout only with no chance of a win. All I think about is my training and my plan,” he asserted when asked about Takatani’s repeatedly successful leg-holds.

Up 6-0 in 1.16 minutes, the bout appeared to be heading to a one-sided result but Takatani switched his plan, went repeatedly for Punia’s legs while maintaining his own defence, allowing the latter little space to get a firm grip and avoiding a defeat by fall.

It soon became 6-6 and Punia appeared to be running out of ideas but there is a reason his training with Georgian Shako Bentinidis has been hailed as the best decision in his career. With the increased strength in his upper body and stamina, he managed to escape the Japanese to edge ahead 10-8. A last second challenge from the opposition was rejected to give Punia a deserved gold.

“Achha lag raha hai maine Asian Championship ki haar ka badla le liya aur ye jeet mai Vajpayee ji ko samarpit karunga (It feels good to avenge my defeat from Asian Championships and I would like to dedicate this win to former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee),” Punia added.

But there would be no celebrations, not yet. Punia has his sights firmly on bigger targets, the first of which would be the World Championships in October, with an Olympic quota at stake. “I am gunning for Olympics and so immediately after this, training for the World Championships will start,” he said before being whisked off.