Bajrang Punia told to check attack, keep control

Wrestler Bajrang Punia will have unfinished business going into the new year. He will start with a ranking series in Italy followed by the Asian Championships at home in February. Favourite for 65kg gold at the world championships, Punia’s campaign ended with bronze at Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan in 2019, bringing his preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics into sharp focus. The Wrestling Federation of India posed some tough questions to his coach Shako Bentinidis and brought him directly under its contract to monitor Punia’s preparations better.

Under the Georgian, Punia has made good progress, but there are areas Bentinidis feels his ward has to work on to put up a strong challenge in Tokyo. The criticism Punia has faced is his weak leg defence and the tendency to concede a big lead and then trying to cover up towards the end with his back to the wall.

The 25-year-old Haryana wrestler booked his Tokyo Olympics berth in Nur Sultan. In the semi-final against Daulet Niyazbekov, Punia was level 2-2 in the first period but a controversial throw at the start of second period saw Punia trail 7-2. Despite his strong comeback, he lost. In the bronze medal bout against Tulga Tumir Ochir of Mongolia, Punia was down 6-2 in the first period before he made a comeback in flamboyant style for a 8-6 victory.

Bentinidis feels Punia needs to get tactically smarter, curb his attacking mindset and stay solid. His opponents have read Punia well and they wait for him to open up and score, he said.

“He has to work on tactics and leg problem. If you give eight points and try to comeback, it’s not possible every time. You can’t do it in the Olympics in such a tough category. After looking at his bouts and every opponent, I think Bajrang must not attack too much in the first three minutes but stay in control.

“In the second period also he needs to work hard and be in control. When Bajrang is opening up, then it is a problem. If he is in control and does not concede six-seven points after three minutes, there will be no problem,” the Georgian told Hindustan Times.

Also, when it comes to major tournaments Punia must take less pressure, he said. “The World Championships and Olympics are more psychological. In other tournaments or in training when Bajrang’s leg is attacked, 90% of the time he comes out of the situation without giving points. But in an important competition like world championships if you take stress, then you end up giving points easily. He must take it easy and relax.

“If you have two wrestlers of the same level, you will see the wrester who is psychologically strong winning. He is very hard working and he fights till the last second. We are working on these areas, but it is he who has to fight on the mat.”

Given the class field in 65kg where Russian world No. 1 and world champion Gadzhimurad Rashidov, world championships silver medallist Daulet Niyazbekov of Kazakhstan, Japan’s Takuto Otoguro and Ilyas Bekbulatov, who switched nationality from Russia to Uzbekistan, are there, Punia will not have it easy.

“There are many, many big wrestlers in the category. It is the toughest category in the world and every opponent thinks about Bajrang. They want to take early points against him. We are working hard to bring out the best in him at the Olympics. He is someone who gives 200 per cent in every training session.”

Punia is training in Turkey, but his coach hasn’t joined him. “My visa expired. Hopefully I will be able to join him soon. We will come back for the Asian Championships here in February. We would like to train abroad after that as he needs to spar with quality partners.”

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