Bajrang Punia earns long-due coronation with gladiatorial display

Shrines of Hanuman are a ubiquitous presence in wrestling akharas across India. Also known as Bajrang Bali -- for he's the patron of pehelwans everywhere -- the mud statues smeared with vermillion and bearing a mace, inspire the wrestlers, urging them to push themselves in their feats of strength and skill.

Wasn't it serendipitous then that on Sunday, it was a Bajrang who inspired Indian wrestling once again? Clad in a red singlet, 24-year-old Bajrang Punia stepped onto the mat, Indian wrestling still in stunned silence at the chastening of its legend Sushil Kumar early in the day. An assured Bajrang Punia made his way past one challenge after another. Three bouts of near perfect wrestling - he beat Sirojiddin Khasanov, Abdulqosim Fayziev and Batchuluuny Batmagnai by technical fall -- brought him to the final of the men's 65kg wrestling, where he beat Daichi Takatani 11-8.

Asian Games 2018 | Schedule | Results | Medals tally

With that he had claimed India's first gold of the 2018 Asian Games. And with the crowd in the wrestling hall of the Jakarta Convention Centre chanting "Bajrangi, Bajrangi" he added himself to the pantheon of Indian wrestling heroes.

Sunday's coronation was overdue. It wasn't as if people doubted his ability. Yet for too long he remained in the shadow of India's wrestling greats. His bronze at the 2013 World Championships came just a year after Sushil Kumar's Olympic silver. A silver at the 2014 Asian Games came on the same day as his mentor Yogeshwar Dutt won gold.

There were also obvious flaws in his game. "He was just raw when he was young. He would keep attacking and give his opponents chances to score. You can maybe beat some good wrestlers like that but you can't win many matches together," says national coach Kuldeep Singh. He was particularly vulnerable around his legs. The limbs often seemed stuck to the ground, serving as rather tempting targets for opponents to grab for leverage as they pulled him down to the mat.

"I have to tell him all the time that he is very good. I have to tell him before sleeping, during training, and when he is eating that he is very good." Shako Bentinidis (Bajrang Punia's coach)

A change of coach five months ago seems to have helped. Georgian Shako Bentinidis, a no-nonsense, clean-shaven former European Champion himself, acknowledges the challenges Bajrang faced. "Every time he would give the leg to the opponent. And each time I would have to make him stop and repeat," he says.

Bentinidis also looked to set right Bajrang's acute lack of self-belief. "Bajrang is very good. But he needs courage. He needed jigar (heart). I have to tell him all the time that he is very good. I have to tell him before sleeping, during training, and when he is eating that he is very good. That he is on another planet than other wrestlers. Maybe now he believes a little more," says Bentinidis.

The belief that he was the best on the mat was reinforced constantly. On Saturday, Bentinidis had him watch clips of the 2001 movie Gladiator. "I want him to feel like that fighter. Even when he is under the most pressure, he will still fight and win," says Bentinidis.

It took all that fighting spirit to keep Bajrang in the bout against Takatani. He had almost shut out his first three opponents. With a lead of 6-0 inside the first two minutes, he looked to be doing the same against the Japanese. But Takatani dug in. Three times he picked Punia's ankle and brought him down to level the match. Two further takedowns brought the Indian some breathing space but Takatani closed in again to two points following a wild scramble in the final minute.

Takatani sensed blood and those watching too feared the worst. "Bout khinch gaya, (the bout got stretched). Anything could have happened," Sushil Kumar exclaimed later. On the mat, Bentinidis felt the same. "I could see his legs shaking. I was screaming 'courage' and that he should just stay steady. But I was not sure," says Bentinidis. Maybe just a few months ago, the match would have been lost as it had been against the same opponent. But not today. "Since the last time I beat him I tried my best but Bajrang is stronger mentally now," Takatani said after the match.

According to those that know him, Bajrang will only get better. His earliest mentor Yogeshwar Dutt certainly feels so. "He has the desire to learn and the hunger to win. This medal has made him a contender for Tokyo 2020," he says. "He has everything going for him. He will make the 65kg division his own. He is developing the skills and mentally he is going to get even stronger than before," says Bentinidis. "This win is very important. He will inspire even more wrestlers in the future," says Sushil.

The wrestler they speak about likes the thought that his name would inspire others.

"I think it is a good thing that I was named Bajrang."