Bajrang Punia braces for the 'most important bout of his career'

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Haji Aliyev sauntered onto the mat when his name was called out in Tokyo's Makuhari Messe stadium ahead of his semifinal bout in the Olympic 65kg category. He exuded complete confidence, and why not? He's a three-time world champion and a bronze medallist from the Rio Olympics. In akharas across India, young wrestlers watch his bouts looking to emulate the golden boy of Azerbaijan who, at 30, seeks the one major title that has eluded him.

He was followed by Bajrang Punia, who almost sprinted to the mat. He would be outclassed, though, inside six minutes, dropping a wide 12-5 decision, and will now wrestle for a bronze on Saturday.

While it's not the bout he'd have hoped to be in on Saturday, the good news is that the schedule - evening in Tokyo - gives him enough time to get through a proper weight cut - something that it seemed he couldn't do today.

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Punia (25), with an unprecedented three world championship medals, had come to the Tokyo Games as the star of the Indian wrestling contingent. At his best he's a relentless steamroller of a competitor, working his opponents down, exhausting them, breaking them through constant pressure. On Friday, though, he looked a shadow of himself.

He had a favourable draw: He had Ernazor Akhmataliev, who finished 7th at the 2019 Asian Championships, and then Iran's Morteza Ghiasi, who was third at the Asian Championships this year. On paper those are the sort of opponents the Indian should roll over with ease. He managed to overcome both but after a mighty struggle.

He only managed to beat Akhmataliev on a technicality, winning on criteria (by virtue of scoring a takedown) 3-3. Against Ghiasi, Punia was on the shot clock twice - and trailing 1-0 before countering a botched double-leg takedown to secure a lucky win by fall.

His performances led to speculation about an injury he had suffered to his right knee, which was heavily strapped on Friday. He picked up the injury just about a month ago, at the Ali Aliev Tournament in Russia, and had to forfeit a match because of that. Adding to the question marks over his fitness was the fact that Punia appeared to be testy about loading weight on that limb and consequently not really able to push forward as he is used to.

What is more likely, however, is that the knee ailment was serious enough to force Punia off training for sufficiently long, making his routine of cutting weight harder than usual. "Bajrang, in his early bouts, had all the signs of a bad weight cut. He was slow and didn't seem to have a lot of stamina but that is something that he would have recovered from by the time the evening session started," says Rahul Mann, a former national champion who has competed against Punia.

Indeed, by the time Punia got to his semi-final, almost six hours later, he was far more active, pulling down at Aliyev's neck, and shoulders, locking his chest in a wrap, dragging him off balance, doing his best to exhaust him. Aliyev, though, isn't a three-time world champion for nothing. Although he conceded a point to the Indian for passivity early on, he smartly evaded Punia's attempt to tire him. He moved out of the line of Punia's forward push, went below, took hold of his left leg and turned him over for two points. He'd do this once more to go into the break with a 4-1 lead.

The second round would be closer as Punia piled on the pressure after Aliyev had started with two of his own. But despite Punia earning another two points to close the match at 9-5 with about a minute left, the Azeri would hold on for the win.

This isn't to say that Punia is completely fit. "Bajrang still has a little pain in his knee. But it is okay," his coach Shako Bentinidis said after the loss in the semifinal.

This makes sense to Lalit Kumar, coach at Chhatrasal stadium who had worked with the Indian prior to the latter's departure from the New Delhi academy in 2017. "In the match against the Iranian, he was attacked on his legs repeatedly. Even though his knee was constantly twisted he was able to work out of the situation. If his knee had any serious injury that was not possible," he says.

Indeed in the move that preceded the fall, with about a minute and twenty seconds to go, Ghiasi had secured a hold on Bajrang's right leg and held on while kneeling on the mat. Bajrang powerfully pulled his leg back and then pushed off from the same foot to topple the Iranian on his back. "That shows his knee is fine," says Kumar.

Tomorrow, Punia will face the winner of Senegal's Adama Diatta and Kazakhstan's Daulet Niyazbekov. He has history with the Kazakh wrestler, losing to him controversially in the semifinal of the 2019 World Championships in Kazakhstan but then beating him comprehensively 9-0 at the recent Ali Aliev tournament.

With the bout in the evening, it's likely that Bajrang will not have any significant physical issues as he had earlier in the day. He'll also know that for all his medals coming into the Olympics, the only one that matters is the one he could possibly win on Saturday. "This is the most important bout of his career. He has to be completely focused," Bentinidis would tell reporters.