There’s something troubling Bajrang Punia. The Olympic bronze medal-winning wrestler has returned from Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia with his third consecutive silver medal from the Asian wrestling championships. 

But Bajrang’s performance at the 2022 edition has left the wrestler and his well-wishers disappointed as he lost to 19-year-old Iranian World junior champion Rahman Amouzad 3-1 in the final. 

In 2020 in Delhi, Bajrang lost the final to Japanese foe Takuto Otoguro (then a World champion who went on to win the Olympics gold a year later) and had to pull out of the final against the same opponent because of an elbow injury a year later. 

At this year’s meet, Bajrang – returning to his first competition after the Olympics – was not at his best. “It’s far from being satisfactory. Not because it was a silver medal, and we could not win gold. It’s about the performance, the psychology and the body language while fighting. We need time to work on these,” says coach Sujeet Maan, who has been working with Bajrang at the National camp since the Tokyo Olympics.

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In Ulaanbaatar, Bajrang fought differently, stressing more on his defence, and moving away from his usual attacking style. All his matches were low-scoring affairs. He won against Abbos Rakhmonov of Uzbekistan 3-0 in the quarterfinals and Haji Mohammad Ali of Bahrain 3-1 in the semifinals to enter the final. 

Maan says he has been working with Bajrang, the most successful Indian wrestler in the World Championships with three medals, on different aspects – attack, defence, counterattack and ground wrestling. 

In the past, Bajrang had put in a lot of work with his former coach Georgian Shako Bentinidis to make his leg defence stronger. Maan is also giving attention to the champion wrestler’s leg attack and leg defence, which has been a topic of discussion among wrestling followers for quite some time. His renewed focus on defence saw him concede very few points at the Asian meet.  

In the final, Amouzad managed to execute a leg attack on Bajrang, resulting in a decisive takedown, and with less than two minutes left on the clock, Bajrang, who usually banks on his endurance to tire his opponent out in high-scoring duels, could not counter effectively. 

“It’s not that his leg defence is weak. He looks vulnerable because of his attacking style. A dashing stroke player in cricket gets quick runs but takes the risk of losing his wicket. Similarly, an attacking boxer scores a lot of points but in the process gives away some,” says Maan, endorsing the view that Indian wrestlers generally need to work on ground wrestling because of their grooming on mud pits in akharas.

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Mahavir Prasad, a Dronacharya award-winning coach, finds a pattern in 28-year-old Bajrang’s bouts. “Possibly, Bajrang is trying to stay safe. As his defence has become stronger, you see such low-scoring bouts. Some big wrestlers around the world have gone through this with the progress of their careers. They cut down the moves. It is an energy-saving tactic,” says Mahavir. 

“Also, a wrestler of Bajrang’s caliber faces stiffer challenges. Opponents prepare well before meeting such a wrestler and give away a little.” 

Maan agrees. “Life is difficult for an iconic wrestler as everyone prepares well before taking on him. At the domestic level, especially in trials, such a top wrestler is the man to beat for everyone else.” 

For Bajrang, the first task is to get completely fit and shake off his rustiness. 

“When you don’t drive a car for many months and suddenly start driving again, you stay a little tentative for the first few kilometers. That is Bajrang’s case. He did not face any competition (for eight months),” says Maan.

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“When he tried to make a comeback (after the injury he picked up before the Olympics) in the Ranking Series event in Turkey in February, he again got injured. He was without a physio for some time. We wanted to work on a few areas but could not execute our plans due to the lack of time. We had planned to train in Shilaru before going to Ulaanbaatar, which is situated at a high altitude. 

“Now we have a physio and we have begun working on different areas, including the mental side of his game. There will be a gap of more than two months after the selection trials (for the Commonwealth and Asian Games this year), during which we will work on specific areas which we have not been able to do so far. Also, we may have one or two camps in foreign countries.” 

Meanwhile, Bajrang, nearing 30, needs to guard against injuries. He had elbow, knee, and hamstring issues in the run-up to the Olympics last year. He had another knee injury earlier this year which hampered his comeback. 

“It’s important for Bajrang to keep himself injury-free. He can land medals in top-level events including the Olympics provided he remains injury-free. Basically, he must manage himself well and, if needed, pick and choose his events,” says Mahavir. 

Sushil Kumar took part in select events towards the later phase of his career, and Yogeshwar Dutt, too, recovered from major knee surgery to win Olympic medals at 29. 

Bajrang has already proved his class by securing an Olympics bronze while carrying an injury in Tokyo. The ace wrestler, who will turn 30 by Paris 2024, has the capability to claim golden glory in the Olympics and prove the skeptics wrong. All he needs to do is stay away from injuries, a fact no one realises better than him.