Bajrang silences doubters with bronze

The problem with fixation on Achilles’ heel – or Bajrang Punia’s ankle, as Puerto Rican Sebastian Rivera will attest at some point in the future – is that the rest of the warrior’s body tends to be a rumbling barrel of wild, muscular limbs that intent on suppressing an opponent. There’s a full armor tank and side snipes of agitated anatomy to counter, beyond the heel’s apparent weakness.

Rivera, a Pan-Am rookie, kept going for the Indian veteran’s right ankle for a series of picks with the aim of throwing. But when Bajrang cleanly dodged his much-publicized, much-maligned weakness (the shambolic leg defense) by kicking his leg backwards, Rivera ran out of ideas and went 11-9, beating Belgrade in the Bronze Playoff of the Wrestling World Championship.

Trailing 0-6 to win, Bajrang picked up his fourth World Championships medal and third bronze (he also has silver). The 28-year-old added another halo to his legendary status in Indian wrestling, although he eludes a world title like Sushil Kumar. Despite all the criticism he’s received in recent months for being washed out, branded replaceable by a bunch of new homegrown names routinely thrown into the ring and being rudely reminded that he’s going downhill, Bajrang showed up to snatch his bronze, with the same frenzy he’d shown at the Olympics when it went for the bronze medal at the last moment.

For someone who’s being yanked on his heels by homegrown challengers in a perpetually stacked 65kg category and whose ankle has been like a guided missile on Rivera’s radar throughout both periods of the Bronze playoff, the rest of Bajrang’s fighting body is a big brave heart and a sharp mind more than made up for the “weak legs”.

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Of course, as was the story of this World Championship and even his entire career, Bajrang conceded a majority of his points on this eligible stage. But when one’s own weakness is so blatant, so productive and so easy to score from vulnerable positions, the opponents commit the insanity of not even coming up with a plan B. Rivera picked up the predictable points but couldn’t stop the multi-layered poking and Bajrang’s own attacks, scored from the literal edge, saw him bleeding points from dropouts and a monster takedown with 23 seconds on the clock at 8-9, to overtake the Central American.

The timing of Bajrang’s accelerated bulldozing was crucial and clever, as was the experienced way he closed the gap and then sped past Rivera. From start to finish, Rivera pinged for the same ankle from the exact same angle. But twice – seconds before the end of the first period and as the clock ticked down in the second period, Bajrang made his moves to claw his way into the points lead.

Gas tanks that Indian wrestlers are known for — something derided as useless when their defenses let rival attacks through — was what fueled the hull at the last second to complete the Puerto Rican’s challenge. It is quite well known that Bajrang is a second period wrestler, taking his time to establish space around his opponent, taking off slowly and going for the legs. But just how much of a ferocious second-period monster he can be was shown when he won his rearguard medal for India.

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Usual comeback

Considering Bajrang was engineered by American Yianni Diakomihalis on Saturday – a 10-0 result he had to sleep and stew on before preparing for the repechage. Even against Armenian Yazgen Tevanyan in the repechage, it was a kill move in the fading seconds that gave him the rally win to secure the bronze playoff. That was a hard-hitting neck grab, with Tevanyan’s right leg being shackled with a neat little pair of scissors and pinpoint rollers for the stun that overcame the now routine deficit.

They say Bajrang is leaving too late. It often comes back to bite him. But he walked with such confidence in Belgrade – not unlike the final day of the Olympics in Tokyo – that he could wreak havoc as the seconds descended on Rivera that the pressure, the metaphorical crack of heels, was always on Rivera was felt to cut Bajrang’s wings.

Rivera had the first points on board within seconds – ankle biting, no change. Bajrang, attacking from the inside, capitalized on the clock and relative complacency, dismissing leg points as nothing and ramming Rivera on the side edges after forcing him to retreat. It was an odd scenario where Bajrang, despite falling behind, was always seen chasing Rivera into tight corners and breaking the lead.

In this relentless, high-scoring action, Rivera was tumbled inside and secured Bajrang 4-6, and with a series of doubles and a lock at the side, followed by Rivera with a lightning-fast nth ankle jump, the score reading 6-8 . An ankle pick stood out as Bajrang hopped around without losing his balance, leg up, and flew despite holding on. But with 24 seconds left, Bajrang launched a takedown of his own and a challenge at the end gave him the 11-9 cushion.

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It’s been tense preparation for Bajrang, with his weaknesses amplified in the spotlight from younger, faster 65kg competitors in India. His own self-doubt about dwindling skills, not much coaching expertise to improve his game, and nervousness about not believing the body was steaming like it used to be at its pre-2019 peak meant he had to overcome his own demons. But on Sunday Bajrang Punia, who won the trials in India, proved he was made of something else when he fights internationally. You know Achilles has a weak heel, but then there’s the rest of Achilles, which is a lot more intimidating.

Bajrang would say so, telling UWW, “I gave away six points at the start. And the leg armor that I thought would work just wouldn’t come off. I have to sit down and analyze why it’s not working. It didn’t work in games I lost and it didn’t work today when I won. It’s a big weakness and I’ll have to work a lot. Leg defense has been a huge problem since the knee injury (at the Olympics). That doesn’t eat away at my self-confidence, otherwise I wouldn’t have scored any points. I didn’t used to give that much leg (submission points in leg defense). I always fight to the last second because we work hard as wrestlers. I need to figure out if I need more hard work or smart work on leg defense.”

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