Bajrang Punia, bronze winner, stood on the podium step and took the tray of medals from the tray. He immediately lifted the medal with both his hands. He examined the other side of the medal and then flipped it over. After a few seconds, he let it rest on his stomach.
It was not the medal — and indeed the position in which he was standing on the podium — that the star wrestler had envisioned before landing for the Tokyo Games. It was a medal nonetheless; a bronze in what was the 27-year-old’s first taste of the Olympics stage.
Punia was uncharacteristically calm and fought all three bouts on Friday. He had a strapping injury to his right knee that he suffered around a month back. He walked into the mat Saturday evening without one. The knee was free of any restrictions, and the wrestler was unassisted. Punia proved his class by defeating Daulet Niyazbekov from Kazakhstan 8-0 to win 65kg freestyle bronze medal bout.
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It was a different Punia to the one that showed up in the semi-final barely 24 hours ago, outclassed by Azerbaijan’s Haji Aliyev 12-5 in a largely one-sided battle. This was a lot like the Punia we’ve known in recent years; a lot like the Punia who entered the Olympics as the world No. 1, and looked just like one in the months before it, while winning silver at the Asian championships and gold in the Rome Ranking Series. This was a lot like Punia who was poised for glory at Games as the only Indian wrestler to win three medals at world championships.
“I am not happy. This is not what I wanted. Winning an Olympic medal is no mean achievement but I can’t jump with joy with bronze,” Punia was quoted as saying by PTI.
The bronze bout was a tricky one for the Indian. Niyazbekov has been a two-time worlds gold medalist. The second was a Silver in the 2019 edition at Nur-Sultan where he defeated Punia. It was a heated, high-scoring, controversial semi-final match. There was no debate on Saturday about who the dominant wrestler was.
Punia chose to be cautious in the semi-final match against Aliev and switched to attack mode against Niyazbekov. After a couple of minutes of sussing each other out, with Punia looking to find openings, he got his first point on account of the Kazakh’s passivity. Punia was then put in a headlock by Niyazbekov, but he managed to get out of it quickly. With 20 seconds on the clock for the first three minutes, Punia went for Niyazbekov’s legs, and moments later pushed, him out of the yellow zone with a clever change of direction to earn another point.
Punia continued to attack the right leg, which was well defended by the Kazakh after the break. Punia was orchestrating all of the attacks. Niyazbekov, however, was busy thwarting them. The floodgates had eventually to open. They did.
Punia took his vulnerable right leg and made a takedown for a 4-0 advantage. Niyazbekov then tried to target Punia’s legs, but the Indian turned the move into a brilliant counter-attack, this time grabbing his rival’s left leg and collecting two points with under a minute left in the bout. By then it was clear the tide had turned, and with two more points — again, by grabbing Niyazbekov’s right leg — Punia brought the medal to the shore.
It gave India its second medal from wrestling in Tokyo after Ravi Dahiya’s gutsy silver, matching the sport’s most productive showing at the 2012 London Games. Sushil Kumar had won bronze and silver nine years earlier. These men are all alumni of the Chhatrasal Stadium, New Delhi. Punia, who was enrolled more than a decade ago, spent many years there and found a mentor with Dutt.
In his Khudan village in Haryana, his father Balwan Singh had, boldly and confidently, predicted Punia’s victory before the bout. The son ensured he stayed true to his father’s words. “We told him to not feel disheartened (after the semi-final loss) and keep his focus,” Singh told reporters. “He assured us that he will bring a medal.”