Can Bajrang Punia, Antim Panghal revive Indian wrestling in Hangzhou? - Hindustan Times
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Can Bajrang Punia, Antim Panghal revive Indian wrestling in Hangzhou?

ByAvishek Roy, New Delhi
Oct 05, 2023 07:49 AM IST

All focus will be on whether Indian wrestlers can turn focus to the mat with a clutch of medals after the prolonged sexual harassment protest

Tokyo Olympics medallist Bajrang Punia and two-time world U-20 champion Antim Panghal are at two ends of their career paths. Punia, the battle-hardened champion and a formidable name in world wrestling not long ago, is eyeing resurrection at the Asian Games in Hangzhou. This year, he has been off the mat, seeking justice for his women counterparts against the federation chief. Putting wrestling on the backburner, Punia took on the authorities with the same feisty approach that has brought him laurels on the mat.

Wrestler Bajrang Punia (HT PRINT/File Photo) PREMIUM
Wrestler Bajrang Punia (HT PRINT/File Photo)

Tokyo Olympics medallist Bajrang Punia and two-time world U-20 champion Antim Panghal are at two ends of their career paths. Punia, the battle-hardened champion and a formidable name in world wrestling not long ago, is eyeing resurrection at the Asian Games in Hangzhou. This year, he has been off the mat, seeking justice for his women counterparts against the federation chief. Putting wrestling on the backburner, Punia took on the authorities with the same feisty approach that has brought him laurels on the mat.

Antim Panghal is the emerging star. The 19-year-old showed amazing tenacity and composure to put behind the controversy surrounding her and world championships medallist Vinesh Phogat and secure a berth for the Paris Olympics while winning bronze at the world championships last month.

It is on their shoulders that India's revival in wrestling stands. A good performance will bring the focus back on the sport as the turmoil in Indian wrestling has left little to cheer about in terms of success on the mat.

The result at the world championships -- with only one medal and Olympics berth to show -- painted a bleak picture. The lead up to the Asian Games was chaotic. The trials were pushed beyond the deadline. The criteria for selection led to confusion and court cases. Antim could progress to Hangzhou only because defending champion Vinesh, who along with Punia was given direct entries, pulled out injured. Antim is being seen as the one who has taken the baton from Vinesh, gold medallist at 2018 Jakarta in the weight class (53kg).

"It's been a tough period for the wrestlers this year. There was no national camp to prepare them. We have been participating in competitions with the wrestlers preparing at individual level," coach Virender Dahiya said.

"The Games is an opportunity to bring the focus back on wrestling and for that to happen, you need some solid performances from the youngsters. Despite lack of preparation, they have been doing well in age-group tournaments at the international level, and that's a good sign."

On the first day itself, Greco Roman wrestler Sunil Kumar put India on the medal table, bagging bronze by beating Atabek Azisbekov of Kyrgyzstan 2-1 in 87kg. With the freestyle competition starting Thursday, there will be expectations, but it will not be easy.

Antim will have to negotiate a tough draw. She opens against Jasmina Immaeva of Uzbekistan in her qualification round. If she wins, it will next be a faceoff with world champion Akari Fujinami of Japan, the top seed who beat her comprehensively in the Asian Championships final in April. The other big name in the draw is Tokyo Olympics silver medallist Pang Qianyu of China.

“The Asian Championship was my first tournament at senior international level and I learned a lot. The Japanese wrestlers are very fast. I think I did well considering that before the competition I had a shoulder injury and could not do proper training. When I face her next, it will be a new bout and I will be more prepared," Antim had said before the worlds.

Her ability to escape difficult situations and score on the counter is remarkable. She was in flow at Belgrade where she upset reigning world champion Dominique Parrish of USA with a come-from-behind victory and then lost in the semis against Tokyo Olympics bronze medallist Vanesa Kaladzinskaya.

Tokyo Olympian Sonam Malik (62kg), Pooja Gehlot (50kg) and Mansi Ahlawat (57kg) too have shown the spark. Sonam won bronze at the Asian Championships but has struggled with an elbow injury this season.

For Pooja Gehlot, CWG medallist and silver winner at the U-23 worlds (2019), it will be an opportunity to make a mark on the big stage. She has not competed this year and looks fresh to mount a challenge. In 57kg, young Mansi Ahlawat, the U23 world championships medallist, can be the breakout star for India.

Aman Sehrawat in 57kg holds the biggest promise in men's freestyle – the weight class of Tokyo Olympic silver medallist Ravi Dahiya. Ravi's injury during the trials opened the door for his Chhatrasal academy teammate to prove himself at the big stage. After his early loss at worlds, Aman will be keen to make amends. Following his string of success in age-group at international level, Aman struck it big with gold at the Asian Championships this year. He will be a medal contender in Hangzhou.

Tokyo Olympians Deepak Punia (86kg) and Bajrang (65kg) can make the biggest impact. Bajrang has a lot to prove. He faced criticism for getting selected in the Games squad without entering the trials and will be under pressure to defend the title he won in 2018 Jakarta.

Five years ago, the Jakarta win marked the beginning of a highly successful period for Bajrang – a five-time world and Olympic medallist. This time, he returns to the mat after a year; the world championships bronze in 2022 was his last appearance. It appears a tough draw with the presence of 2022 world champion Rahman Amouzad of Iran, a two-time Asian champion, and the seasoned Mongolian Tulga Tumur-Ochir.

On his day Bajrang can beat the best. But after a long break, it has to be seen if he has the strength, pace and fire to revive his career ahead of the Paris Olympics.

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