India's Bajrang Punia will contest the bronze medal bout of the men's wrestling freestyle 65kg division at the Tokyo Olympics on Saturday after losing 5-12 to Azerbaijan's three-time world champion Haji Aliyev in the semis.
Bajrang was the first to score in the semi as his opponent was penalised for passivity but it was the Azerbaijani wrestler who the won the next nine points to lead 9-1. Aliyev won his points with takedowns and also executed the leg lace successfully.
Bajrang fought back in the second period on the back of his superior conditioning and narrowed the lead to 9-5 after a couple of successful takedowns of his own but Aliyev used all his experience to good effect and increased the lead to 11-5 before eventually winning another point after an unsuccessful challenge from the Indian camp.
Bajrang's progress to the last four of the 65kg freestyle wrestling division in Tokyo was entirely uncharacteristic. It was a strangely subdued Bajrang on the mat on Friday who did just about enough to win his first match against Ernazar Akmataliev of Kyrgyzstan. He then got a bit of luck against Cheka, securing a pin after his opponent - leading with about a minute and half to go in the bout - missed a go under and was rolled over for a pin.
Earlier on Friday, Seema Bisla's medal hopes ended after she lost her pre-quarterfinal in the women's freestyle 50kg category and her opponent lost in the subsequent bout.
The 27-year-old Bajrang's trump cards, by virtue of which he has won an unprecedented three medals for an Indian at the World Championships, are his relentless pressure and conditioning.
In his pre-quarterfinal bout, Bajrang defeated Akmataliev of Kyrgyzstan 3-3 on points in a bout that was closer than he would have liked. The Indian advanced on criteria as he scored two points in a single move, as opposed to Akmataliev, who won a point each in three separate moves.
To counter that, Akmataliev - a wrestler who had pinned World Champion Ilyas Bekbulatov at the Asian qualifiers to secure his place in the Olympic games - was wary starting off, conceding a point on the shotclock. However, it was Bajrang who was on the defensive. Once Akmataliev realized this, he stepped up his own offence and scored on the push out. After Akhmataliev got careless in the closing seconds of the first period, Bajrang slipped behind him to go 3-1 up, with the two points for the takedown proving crucial at the end. Bajrang is typically very strong in the second half, thanks to his stamina and late bursts, but he appeared to be content trying to hold on for the win this time as the bout entered its final seconds. However, Akmataliev made a final charge in the last 19 seconds, managing one push and then another with about eight seconds left on the clock, to make it 3-3. The Indian's two-point move helped him edge the bout.
In the quarterfinal against Cheka, it was clear that Bajrang was not wrestling in his familiar style. He got a rare caution for passivity and the Iranian went into the first period with a point after Bajrang opted not to attempt to score while on the shotclock (thirty seconds in which he had to score or receive a point penalty). The Iranian nearly secured a takedown in the second period, grabbing hold of Bajrang's right leg but the Indian managed to see off that danger. Perhaps for the first time in his international career, Bajrang would then earn a second caution for passivity and was once again put on the shotclock. The Iranian, instead of waiting, went for another takedown but missed his attempt to lift the Indian and ended up underneath him. It was all the luck Bajrang needed as he forced his Iranian opponent's shoulderblades on the canvas for the win.
Why Bajrang's matches have gone the way they have - tactics or physical limitations - is not certain. He had suffered an injury while competing at the Ali Aliyev tournament in Russia a few weeks before the Olympics. His coach, Shako Bentinidis, has however said that the injury was not serious.
Aliyev had won the bronze medal in the 57kg category at the Rio Olympics in 2016 and at 30 years-old is probably coming to the end of his international career.
Bisla, meanwhile, lost 3-1 to Tunisia's Sarra Hamdi. The bout began slowly, with neither wrestler able to get on the scoreboard in the first two minutes. Bisla then received a passivity charge and, after failing to score in the next 30 seconds, went down 1-0. Hamdi then took Bisla down but the Indian defended well enough to avoid losing points. However, Hamdi then pushed Bisla out of bounds to make it 2-0.
Bisla then avoided another passivity charge with a ferocious charge which was defended well by Hamdi, but was still enough to get the Indian a point. In the last 30 seconds, Bisla went for a push but Hamdi reversed it well to make it 3-1 and close out the win. Bisla's chances of a medal through repechage ended after Hamdi lost her quarterfinal bout.