India’s top medal prospects at Tokyo Olympics and their main challengers: Bajrang Punia
Bajrang Punia will be leading India’s wrestling challenge at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in the men’s 65kg freestyle category.
The Indian wrestler, a three-time world’s medallist and an Asian Games champion, booked his place at the Games at the world wrestling championships in Kazakhstan in September 2019.
Since earning his slot at the Games, Bajrang went on to star at the Matteo Pellicone Ranking Series in Rome winning gold medals in successive years and a silver in each of the two Asian championships.
Bajrang is currently the top-ranked wrestler in the 65kg freestyle category and is a favourite for a medal at Tokyo 2020. However, the Indian wrestler has to get past some tough opponents at the Summer Games in Tokyo. Here are the top three:
Gadzhimurad Rashidov (Russia)
Top achievement: Reigning world champion (2019) and two-time European champion (2016, 2018)
What makes him so special? Gadzhimurad Rashidov, who switched to the 65kg category only in 2019, has won gold medals in four of his last five tournaments. Since claiming the world title in September 2019, he went on to become champion at the World Military Games in China and claimed the national title in December that year.
His return to the mat after the COVID-19 break saw him exit the Individual World Cup in Serbia in the opening round in December with a freak injury. But he soon recovered and bounced back by sealing his Olympics quota with a gold medal during the national championships in March.
Takuto Otoguro (Japan)
Top achievements: 2018 world champion and two-time Asian champion (2020, 2021)
What makes him so special? Takuto Otoguro has been in solid form. He has managed to clinch a gold medal in each of his last three outings; at the 2019 national championships and at successive Asian championships.
But significantly, Bajrang Punia has lost all three times against Takuto Otoguro, and all in finals. The Indian first went down to the Japanese at the 2018 world championships final and then at the final of the Asian meet last year. Bajrang then pulled out in the final of the Asian wrestling meet in April with an injury.
“Otoguro is a very good wrestler,” Punia told the United World Wrestling in an interview referring to his two clashes with Otoguro. “He wrestled better than me, that is why he won.”
Haji Aliyev (Azerbaijan)
Top achievements: Three-time world champion (2014, 2015, 2017) and Olympic bronze medallist (Rio 2016)
What makes him so special? Haji Aliyev is an Olympic bronze medallist in the 57kg but has now shifted weight categories. The Azerbaijani, a two-time European champion, has looked at home in the new weight class.
In 2019, he managed to win the gold medal at the European Games in Belarus and then followed it up with another gold at the Club World Championships in Iran. A bronze at the Individual World Cup in Serbia was next and in March, Haji Aliyev won a silver at the European Olympic qualifiers in Hungary.