How Bajrang Punia battled pain en route to Olympic wrestling medal at Tokyo 2020

Bajrang Punia became the sixth Indian wrestler to win a medal at the Olympics when he clinched bronze at Tokyo 2020.

By Aarish Ansari
Picture by Getty Images

Among India’s top modern day sporting superstars, Bajrang Punia has been quite unique.

Bajrang Punia is the only Indian wrestler to win more than one medal at the world championships and has also stood on the podium at the Asian Games, Asian championships, Commonwealth Games, as well as the Olympics.

Hailing from the north Indian state of Haryana, which is India's cradle for churning out world-class athletes, Bajrang Punia has been on the rise since stepping into the desi akhadas - traditional Indian mud wrestling pits – when he was only nine. 

Bajrang Punia’s beginning in Jhajjar

Bajrang Punia’s wrestling journey began when his father, Balwan Punia, a wrestler himself, enrolled the young boy to the akhadas in Khudan village of Jhajjar district of Haryana. 

That is where Bajrang found the purpose of his life. 

“He (Bajrang Punia) used to be a very simple and smart kid,” Balwan Punia told the Olympics.com. “He wouldn't prank around a lot and simply did his task... He had told me from the beginning only that he wanted to do wrestling." 

And wrestling is what Bajrang did. After putting the hard yards in his village, Bajrang Punia moved to New Delhi’s Chhatrasal Stadium, the hub of top wrestling talents in the country, in 2008. This is where he met his mentor, idol and sparring partner Yogeshwar Dutt. 

“I observed how he (Yogeshwar) would wrestle on the mat and followed in his footsteps. He became a role model for me since then,” said Bajrang Punia. 

Soon, the medals started flowing in. Bajrang Punia broke into the international scene in 2013 with bronze-winning performances at the Asian championships and the world championships in the men’s 60kg freestyle category.

More success followed in 2014 as the Haryana wrestler went on to claim silver at the Commonwealth Games, the Asian championships and at the Asian Games. 

Bajrang Punia’s ascent to the top continued in the years to follow. The grappler won dozens of medals at all the main events, including golds at the 2018 Asian Games, 2018 Commonwealth Games and a silver at the 2018 world championships. 

The only piece of metal missing from the glittering cabinet was from the Olympics.

Bajrang Punia in Olympics: Debut at Tokyo 2020

Bajrang Punia made a remarkable Olympic debut at Tokyo 2020, winning the bronze medal in the 65kg freestyle event despite battling a knee injury. 

In the run-up to the Summer Games, Bajrang injured his right knee during the Ali Aliyev tournament in Russia in June 2021, just a month before Tokyo 2020.  

The Indian wrestler had to not only forfeit the match but the injury also cast a doubt over his Tokyo Olympics prospects. 

"There is pain in the right knee, the doctor had advised me to rest, but I couldn't afford to take rest as every athlete wants to play in the Olympics for the country," Bajrang Punia had said. “I told them training is important for me. I asked doctors to tell me about the rehab and I will do so accordingly.”

With a heavily-strapped knee, Bajrang Punia made his much-awaited debut at the Olympic Games as the second-seeded wrestler in the 65kg freestyle division. 

But the big Games debut didn’t go as planned, almost ending in a first-round heartbreak. 

Bajrang Punia survived a close shave in the opening bout against Kyrgyzstan’s Ernazar Akmataliev. Although the bout ended with both wrestlers grabbing three points each, the Indian walked out victorious after having the highest-scoring move of the match.

However, Bajrang upped the ante in the next match, registering a dominating win over Iran’s Morteza Ghiasi.

Despite the Iranian’s repeated attempts to target Bajrang Punia’s injured right knee, the Indian turned the game on its head with a takedown and then pinned the opponent to make the semi-finals.

Bajrang Punia, however, fell short in the semis against Azerbaijan's Haji Aliyev, the Rio 2016 bronze-medallist in 57kg and a three-time world champion in 61kg.

Haji Aliyev came from a point down to register two takedowns on-the-trot before extending the lead to 12-5 at the end.

The loss meant Bajrang Punia would have to fight for the bronze medal against Daulet Niyazbekov of Kazakhstan.

The strapping on the knee was proving to be a hindrance for Bajrang in the earlier bouts so he removed it for the third-place contest. Now with an added risk of injury, the Indian stepped on the mat in Tokyo one last time to fulfil his dream of winning an Olympic medal.

"In the last bout, I told them that I will not get the strapping and if the injury gets worse then I will take rest. For me the medal was more important; the injury could be treated. I went with the mindset of winning the medal. So, I didn't add any strapping in the bronze medal match," Punia revealed.

Bajrang Punia picked up two points in the tight first three minutes before making it 8-0 in the next three and winning the bronze medal in his maiden Olympic Games.

In the process, Bajrang Punia also became the sixth Indian wrestler to win an Olympic medal after KD Jadhav, Sushil Kumar, Yogeshwar Dutt, Sakshi Malik and Ravi Kumar Dahiya.  

Bajrang received a hero’s welcome back home but his father Balwan said that his son is not content with the bronze medal and has already set his eyes on Paris 2024.

"Bajrang had told me that day (after he won bronze), 'Papa, at the Paris 2024 Olympics, I will change the colour of the medal and if the countrymen keep supporting me in the same way, then I can bring home plenty more medals'," Balwan Punia revealed.

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