Bajrang Punia

India IND

Wrestling

  • Year of Birth
    1994

Biography

Bajrang Punia

Bajrang Punia is a man of many firsts.

He is the first Indian wrestler to be ranked world No. 1 in any category and the first Indian to win two world championship medals.

Bajrang Punia also added to his burgeoning reputation with a bronze medal in his maiden Olympics at Tokyo 2020, battling through a knee injury to fulfill his dream.

Growing up in humble surroundings in Jhajjar, Haryana, Bajrang Punia did not have the money to take up sports like cricket or badminton that needed expensive equipment. Kids preferred free-hand sports like kabaddi and wrestling and the ‘akhara’ (wrestling area) was a popular destination in his town.

Moreover, his father Balwan Singh was a wrestler himself and a young Bajrang would often escape school to watch the beefy wrestlers in action. “I never realised when it became a part of me,” Bajrang Punia said later.

Bajrang Punia started training at the local akhara at the age of 14 and was soon introduced to fellow Olympic medallist Yogeshwar Dutt, who has been Punia’s mentor ever since and a regular sparring partner.

Bajrang Punia first rose to prominence in 2013 with his bronze medals at the Asian wrestling championships and world championships, both in the men’s freestyle 60kg category.

In 2014, he enjoyed more success – winning silver medals at the Asian championships, the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games.

The family then shifted to Sonepat in 2015 to enable Bajrang Punia to attend camps and train at the local Sports Authority of India (SAI) centre but a back injury sidelined the youngster for about nine months.

Bajrang Punia had faced this situation before. In 2011, he had suffered a severe neck injury while wrestling locally and had been out of action for some six months. This gave him the belief that he could bounce back. He did that perfectly.

Bajrang Punia returned to action at the world championships in 2015 at Las Vegas and though was beaten in the first round, he had a chance of winning bronze through the repechage rounds.

The Indian wrestler came very close – tying on points with Vasyl Shuptar – but lost as Shuptar had won the final points, and the medal was awarded to Ukrainian. It proved to be a turning point in Bajrang Punia’s career.

“That loss rankled. I started to think about how if I had trained slightly more I could have won a medal at that event. It fuelled a hunger inside me and I started training like a mad man. That 2015 injury taught me never to give up,” he told Firstpost.

Soon enough, the results of that training bore fruit. Bajrang Punia won the gold medal at the Commonwealth Championships in 2016 and became Asian champion in 2017, both in the 65 kg.

He was even more successful in 2018 – winning golds at the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games in addition to bronze at the Asian championships – and in a historic moment, became a silver medallist at the world championships to become the only Indian wrestler to win two world championship medals.

Bajrang Punia followed it up with a third world championship medal – a bronze – in 2019, which earned India a quota place at the Tokyo Olympics. He also won his first match in the German League for his club VFK Schifferstdat, with the crowd chanting the Indian’s name.

The wrestler was also awarded the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award – India’s highest sporting honour – in 2019.

Bajrang Punia worked hard for his dream of winning Olympic gold under the guidance of coach Shako Bendinitis. Heading into Tokyo, he spent a substantial time training abroad, improving his psyche along with his breathing during bouts.

At Tokyo 2020, despite competing with a knee injury, Bajrang Punia powered through the first two rounds, beating Kyrgyzstan's Ernazar Akmataliev and Iran’s Morteza Ghiasi in closely-fought bouts.

In the semi-finals, though, Azerbaijan wrestler Haji Aliyev, a three-time world champion and eventual silver medallist at Tokyo, effectively targeted Bajrang Punia’s injured knee and beat him.

The Indian grappler, however, bounced back in style in the bronze medal match.

Up against Daulet Niyazbekov, the Kazakh wrestler, who beat him in the 2019 world wrestling championships semi-finals, Bajrang Punia produced a dominant performance to claim a spot on the podium on his debut Summer Games.

Though the gold medal did not come about at Tokyo, Bajrang Punia gave it his all to secure the bronze on his Games debut and will no doubt, go full tilt for gold in the next Olympics in Paris 2024