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Asian success makes Bajrang aim for a world medal

Bajrang Punia celebrates after winning the gold in the men's 65kg freestyle category at the Asian Wrestling Championships in New Delhi on Saturday. Manvender Vashist/PTI

It was clear South Korea's Lee Seungchul was desperate. In the closing minute of the 65kg freestyle gold medal match at the Asian Championships, he interlocked his opponent's fingers in his own and yanked painfully. It was an obvious violation of the rules of the game. And as the referee caught the infringement, it only served to worsen Lee's predicament. He had already been warned before and now he conceded a two-point penalty to his opponent. Bajrang Punia now led 6-2 and was closing in fast on what would eventually be the maiden continental crown of his career.

Even as he gratefully gulped down a few mouthfuls of air, which his infraction had briefly procured for him, Lee must have wondered what had gone wrong. And what could he possibly do against the Indian who just didn't seem to tire. Lee had led 2-0 at the break but he was always harried by his opponent. Punia wasn't the most accurate with his shots but he more than made up for it with sheer relentlessness. He was simply creating so many opportunities that his opponents were unable to cope with the pressure. North Korea's Kim Kukgwang and Iran's Meisam Nasiri -- the defending champion from 2016 -- might have commiserated with Lee. Nasiri had led 3-1 before being bullied into submission (7-5) in the quarterfinals while Kim held a 2-0 lead before Punia turned it around to win 3-2 in the semi-finals.

It was a hard-fought title win and it made the perfect upgrade for the bronze and silver the 22-year-old had won at the 2013 and 2015 Asian Championships. "Gold is gold," Punia would say later as he held the medal for the cameras. "Even the shine of gold is different. In the past I was an Asian silver medallist or an Asian bronze medallist. Those medals are good to have but now I am an Asian champion. That is a completely different thing."

The yellow metal might have felt even better in his fingers, owing to the fact that he had avenged prior defeats to both Nasiri and Kim. Only a couple of months ago, at the World Cup in Iran, Nasiri had beaten Punia by technical fall. But Punia says he wasn't thinking about that loss, which occurred even as he was recovering from a ligament tear in his knee. "I lost to him at his home," he says. "Over here the crowd was supporting me. It just never came to my mind what had happened in the past."

Punia says that going into the tournament he was unconcerned about what draw he got. As it turns out that would be a good thing as his route to the gold was as challenging as it got. "My coach, Surjeet Mann, told me that if I was going to win the tournament, I would have to beat everyone anyway," he says. "So I wasn't hoping to get an easy draw or not."

But while he was confident, he wasn't reckless. Watching Punia's match from just behind Team India's coaches was his long-time mentor Yogeshwar Dutt. A former two-time Asian Champion himself, Dutt says he spotted a few errors that had crept into Punia's game. "Results in wrestling are affected by those small flaws that everyone has," Dutt says. "Had Bajrang's flaws shown up during the fight, he would've lost. But he didn't let that happen. Bajrang used to get defensive [during the World Cup] and would end up losing points due to that. I told him to keep up the defence of his legs, and not to provide his opponents an opportunity to attack."

The advice was to attack constantly. "Attacking comes naturally to Bajrang," Dutt says. "I just told him to stick to what he knows and try and tire the opponent out, so that he can get opportunities for attacking. All Hindustani pehelwans (wrestlers) tend to have good stamina. And you win in wrestling because of that. Bajrang's game is primarily built around his stamina."

Even as Punia joins a select group of Indians who can call themselves Asian champions, Dutt says the job is only partly done. "Only seven to eight from India have become Asia champions," he says. "When you become an Asian champion, you know that you can compete at the world level. You are now a contender for medals at the World Championships."

And that in particular is what Punia will be targeting next. "In the past I would settle for less," he says. "Now I know what I am capable of. I will be back training again on Monday. We have the World Championships in August. My goal is to win a medal there. I won't rest until then."