In 2010 — two years after Sushil Kumar’s bronze medal-winning act at the Beijing Olympics — things were looking bright for Indian wrestling. Sushil, who ended India’s 56-year wait for an Olympic medal in the sport, was adding more wins to his legacy and Yogeshwar Dutt was also emerging as a strong challenger at the world stage.

In the same year, a weary 16-year-old was taking his first trip to an airport. However, this young, up-and-coming wrestler from Sonepat, strongly backed by Yogeshwar, has very little memory of his time at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi airport.

Severely depleted of fluids, a worn-out Bajrang Punia followed the rest of the Indian camp through the security check and immigration and flung himself into his seat in the aircraft. It took the cajoling and coercing of a fellow passenger to convince him to have a cup of tea. All he remembers after that is deboarding the flight in Bangkok, completing the weigh-in, and finally eating a morsel that his body so desperately craved. He was part of the Indian team that participated at the Asian Cadet Wrestling Championships. Bajrang, despite the early discomforts, returned with a gold medal in the 50kg category.

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“I had lost so much weight that I don’t even remember boarding the flight or reaching Bangkok. It was my first flight and I was clueless about what was happening. I ate nothing on the flight. There was a man seated next to me who was also from Haryana. He said, ‘You look really tired, why don’t you have something?’ I told him I had to lose weight before my competition and could not eat. He made me a cup of tea with his own hands and said ‘at least have this’. I vaguely remember completing the weigh-in in Bangkok and then finally eating some food,” recalls Bajrang.

“We were kids back then and did not know better. We used drastic measures to lose weight before competitions. There were times when I just ate a roti or half a roti and drank a cup of chai in an entire day. I used to eat a maximum of 300gm of food in a day to lose weight and sip water once every two hours to quench my thirst. This would continue until I managed to reach the target weight,” he adds.

In 2020, that self-starved youngster from Haryana is the second-best wrestler in the world in 65kg category and is considered one of India’s strongest medal contenders for the Tokyo Olympics.


Bajrang Punia during a training session at the Inspire Institute of Sport in Karnataka.


Sushil won a silver medal at the 2012 London Olympics and Yogeshwar bagged a bronze. And now Bajrang, sporting a chiselled body, yearns to pocket the elusive yellow metal.

Bajrang’s progression to the top has been remarkable. He’s won laurels at every major competition except the Olympics. And in a bid to elevate his craft ahead of the quadrennial showpiece event, Bajrang, supported by JSW Sports, roped in Shako Bentinidis to coach him. The three-time Olympian from Georgia came on board in 2018, right after Bajrang won the gold medal at the Asian Championships and silver at the Under-23 World Championships.

“The advantage is that he is my personal coach and hence he can direct all his attention to my game and rectify my shortcomings. He’s fluent in Russian and is familiar with the European circuit; he ensures I get the top training partners when we travel abroad. And that has really improved my game,” Bajrang says.

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“It used to be very hard earlier because I couldn’t speak the language when we travelled abroad. By the time I could communicate and set up training sessions with other top wrestlers, they would have already found partners. I would then continue my search for a partner and eventually settle for a mediocre partner,” the 26-year-old adds.

Bajrang continues that Shako’s ability to converse abroad has made life a lot easier. “I can tell Shako if the food is not good when we travel, and he talks to the local people to get it fixed. My physiotherapist also travels with me and he speaks English. But often the other person does not speak English. It’s only in our country that we look down upon those who don’t speak English. I’ve seen many foreign wrestlers don’t want to learn English; they are comfortable talking in their mother tongue. I have never felt ashamed of my lack of fluency in English. When someone speaks to me in English, I ask them if they know Hindi and then carry on the conversation in Hindi. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s not like everyone can wrestle either,” he says.

True to his word, Bajrang has also taught Shako a few Hindi phrases. “I speak in English with Shako and I’ve learnt a little bit of Georgian from him. Let me put it this way, my Georgian is as good as his Hindi.” He goes on to list Shako’s Hindi lexicon as “ Ram Ram bhai, aap kaise ho? Mein theek hoon, aap batao. Haan bhai, ki kahe ?” (Greetings brother, how are you? I am well, how about you? Yes brother, what are you saying?)


Bajrang Punia in action against Slovenia’s David Habat during the pre-quarters round of the world wrestling championships, in Nur Sultan, Kazakhstan, in 2019. Punia won against Habat but lost his semifinal bout. He however secured himself a quota at the Tokyo Olympics.


Novel idea

On the technical front, Bajrang has been able to address his slow starts in bouts since Shako’s arrival. He had been widely criticised for giving away points early in the bout — something that cost him dear on a few occasions.

Bajrang came up with a novel idea to counter this. “I’ve started engaging in a warm-up bout before the actual bout. It helps me charge my body and channel my entire power during the six minutes in the main bout. I used to start slowly earlier and my opponents took advantage of that. Many former wrestlers suggested that I do a warm-up bout and I told Shako about it and he was keen to try it out. I usually spar with Jitender (Kumar, who competes in the 74kg category) if he is around or I spar with the coach,” Bajrang says.

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“I don’t warm up an hour before my bout and then relax. My body is slightly different from others and I have to warm up right before my bout.”

Success has not been elusive for Bajrang. He has been the world’s top-ranked wrestler in his category, received the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award and made history by becoming the first Indian to grapple at the famed Madison Square Garden. And, of course, the countless medals and accolades he has won in between. However, even as athletes so often get carried away by fame and fortune, Bajrang determinedly remains true to his roots.

He was born with no silver spoon and neither was he pampered. The men of the house engaged in farming while his mother handled the household. They lived in a kutcha house that lacked basic amenities such as a bathroom.


Kiren Rijiju, Union Minister for Youth Affairs and Sports, presenting the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award to wrestler Bajrang Punia, in New Delhi in November 2019.


“When I began wrestling there was nothing at home. No one had a job. All we had was a farm. Whenever I needed money for training, my father would somehow arrange for it. My mother used to be alone at home and used to work the whole day. Ours was a kutcha house at the time and the flooring was grass, we had no tiles or marble. We did not even have a washroom. It used to hurt me that we had nothing at home,” he recalls. “So, whenever I won competitions or even the small dangal events at the village level, I used to see how I could use the money for the house. I first bought a washing machine so that my mother no longer needed to wash clothes with her hands. When I won the silver at the Commonwealth Games in 2014, I revamped the house and bought a car. I got a small one so that it could be used in case of any emergencies. And I also paid off all our debts.”

Things have been brighter since. “After that, I bought a house in Sonepat in 2016 and life has changed for the better. I have been able to provide for my parents and ensure they don’t face any hardships. My mother has done so much for me and if she is unhappy in her old age, then what kind of a son am I? We should never forget the one who made us. There is a saying in Haryana that goes ‘ Jis ghar mein chahe kuch bhi na ho, budha aur budhiya khush hone chahiye. Jo hasta hua milega woh ghar swarg se kam nahi hai .’” (Even if a house is devoid of luxury, the elders must be kept happy. A home where the elders are happy and smiling is no less than heaven.)

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While Bajrang’s mother is happy watching her son on television, his father was excited to travel for the Olympics. “My father is very keen to travel and was looking forward to going to the Olympics. He was getting his passport ready to go to Japan. But spectators won’t be allowed now. I’m not sure if he knows about it yet,” he says.

Bajrang’s training for the Olympics has resumed. He faced difficulties initially when the lockdown was announced, but managed to source equipment and a wrestling mat to set up his gym by renting a banquet hall in the society he resides in. He’s now part of the national camp in Sonepat.

While he is restricted to grappling with a dummy, for now, owing to the restrictions laid by the Sports Ministry and the Wrestling Federation of India to eliminate the risk of the coronavirus, he is sparing no effort in his preparation for the Olympics. His category, the 65kg, is particularly competitive. “I know that all the wrestlers in the 65kg can outperform each other and they have all begun training. I believe in the fact that I must work hard and that the day I set foot on the mat, God will be by my side and I will return victorious. I will leave no stone unturned in my preparations and I’m confident of bringing home a medal,” he says.

Bajrang views the expectations of his 1.3 billion countrymen as a motivation and not pressure: “When people tell me they hope for or expect me to win a medal for the country, it makes me happy and proud. I take pride in the fact that I am deserving enough for people to expect things from me. I don’t take the pressure; it actually motivates me.”