Asian Games: Comeback attempt falls apart, Bajrang Punia fails to win bronze - Hindustan Times
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Asian Games: Comeback attempt falls apart, Bajrang Punia fails to win bronze

By, Hangzhou
Oct 06, 2023 11:32 PM IST

Bajrang Punia being tossed around the mat by Japan's Kaiki Yamaguchi did make for an unwanted lasting memory

Sports arenas can be brutal places. While they present a perfect theatre for athletes to express their craft, they also possess the innate ability to humanise, even humiliate them. In Hangzhou, the contrast played out in all its glory as around the time the Indian men's hockey team celebrated their gold medal at the Gongshu Canal Sports Park Stadium, 70km away in Lin’an Sports Culture & Exhibition Centre, Bajrang Punia walked off defeated and devastated.

Bajrang Punia reacts after losing to Japan's Kaiki Yamaguchi in the men's freestyle 65kg category wrestling match for the bronze medal at the 19th Asian Games(PTI)
Bajrang Punia reacts after losing to Japan's Kaiki Yamaguchi in the men's freestyle 65kg category wrestling match for the bronze medal at the 19th Asian Games(PTI)

It was not exactly a fairytale redemption that romantics had hoped for, but Punia being tossed around the mat by Japan's Kaiki Yamaguchi did make for an unwanted lasting memory. By the time the final whistle was blown, Punia had buried his head in the mat, perhaps too shocked to comprehend what just hit him. Under the dizzying arc lights and thundering applause for the Japanese, the Tokyo Olympics bronze medallist and the defending Asian Games champion lay helpless and embarrassed, his might being ripped to smithereens, his comeback having turned into a nightmare.

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The scoreboard read 10-0 -- a win by technical superiority to Yamaguchi with 89 seconds left on the clock. It was a boxing equivalent of TKO. A tennis equivalent of a double bagel. A cricketing equivalent of a first-ball duck. In wrestling terms, it is the ultimate statement of superiority or submission, depending on which side you are on.

Punia swatted aside the dark curtains and exited the arena, entered the passage where a handful of Indian journalists waited, and walked by without so much as a nonchalant acknowledgment. But the refusal to talk didn't smack of arrogance or dismissiveness. It was Punia in perhaps his weakest moment — tired, frustrated, livid, broken all at once. He struggled to get rid of the wrapping on his right wrist, almost ripping it off in rage. The punishment ended, but the pain will linger. He disappeared into the players' area, coach Sujeet Mann in tow, and by all accounts, broke down.

Since 2015 — the year from which UWW maintains Punia's statistics — Friday was only the fifth instance for the four-time World Championships medallist having been beaten on superiority. He had suffered a similar fate in 2016 (10-0), 2017 (10-0, 17-6), and 2022 (10-0), but Hangzhou will hurt differently. This was Punia's first competition in 13 months since winning a Worlds bronze. In between, he had emerged as the face of wrestlers' protest back home, standing up for the women wrestlers who had allegedly faced sexual harassment at the hands of the WFI chief Brijbhushan Sharan Singh.

In an earlier interview to HT, Punia had claimed that he would readily forego Asian Games for the larger fight he had at hand. Under intense pressure to call off the protest, Punia had dwelled on the mental toll the protest had taken. In terms of wrestling, he had claimed to have been reduced to the level of a rookie. Against Yamaguchi, his lack of physical and technical preparation unravelled in embarrassing detail.

The Japanese jumped to an early 2-0 lead through a brace of push-outs and showed first signs of trouble when he slipped around Punia and effected a two-point takedown. In the second period, Yamaguchi's unrelenting pace had Punia flummoxed. 4-0 became 6-0 in a blink, and when the Japanese pushed an off-balance Punia out of the circle with a powerful takedown, the latter's fate was sealed. Punia dug his head in the mat and covered his face, waiting to be put out of misery. Yamaguchi obliged with another takedown as coach Mann shook his head in dejection.

The signs were for all to see in the morning session itself when Punia lost the semi-final to Iran's Rahman Amouzadkhalili 1-8. More than the scoreline, there was a two-point throw at the beginning of the second period when the Iranian swept Punia off his feet and sent his body thudding to the mat.

Most knew then that the man who had hitherto not returned empty-handed from a multi-disciplinary event will have to pull off something special to keep that record intact. Against Yamaguchi, the record and the man broke.

Meanwhile, Asian Championships gold medallist Aman Sehrawat continued his impressive run in the senior circuit with a maiden Asiad bronze in the 57kg class.

Aman opened his campaign with a 6-1 win over South Korea's Kim Sunggwon before beating Iran's Ebrahim Khari 19-8 from being 1-8 down in the first period. In the second period, Aman grappled like a man possessed, reeling off one takedown after another to cruise to a 19-8 win.

He lost the semis 12-10 to Japan's 2021 World Championships bronze medallist Toshihiro Hasegawa but won the third-place bout against China's Minghu Liu 11-0. Kiran (76kg) and Sonam (62kg) were the other bronze medallists of the day for India.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Shantanu Srivastava is an experienced sports journalist who has worked across print and digital media. He covers cricket and Olympic sports.

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