Bajrang Punia wins bronze as India equal best-ever tally at Olympics

Bajrang Bajrang wrestles Kazakhstan's Daulet Niyazbekov in the men's freestyle 65kg wrestling bronze medal match. JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images

India's Bajrang Punia won the country's sixth medal at this Olympics after winning his bronze medal bout in the men's wrestling freestyle 65kg division at the Tokyo Olympics on Saturday. Bajrang defeated three-time Asian Champion Daulet Niyazbekov 8-0 in a dominant performance.

This is India's sixth medal at this Olympics, equaling their best-ever display at the Games. They had also won six medals (two silvers, four bronzes) at the London Olympics in 2012. This is India's fourth bronze at this Olympics after PV Sindhu (badminton), Lovlina Borgohain (boxing) and the men's hockey team. India also won two silvers through Mirabai Chanu (weightlifting) and Ravi Kumar Dahiya (wrestling).

This is the second time after London that India has won two wrestling medals at a single edition of the Olympics. Bajrang is the sixth Indian wrestler to medal at the Olympics after KD Jadhav (bronze, 1952), Sushil Kumar (bronze, 2008 and silver, 2012), Yogeshwar Dutt (bronze, 2012), Sakshi Malik (bronze, 2016) and Dahiya.

Niyazbekov is also a two-time Worlds medalist, having won bronze in 2011 and silver in 2019, where he defeated Bajrang in the semis in a very close bout. Bajrang, however, had defeated Niyazbekov in their last bout earlier this year.

Bajrang, seeded second here, was dominant from the outset against Niyazbekov, who was seeded one spot lower than him. Niyazbekov was charged with passivity in the first period and he failed to score with the passivity clock on and Bajrang then pushed him out to earn another point and lead 2-0.

Niyazbekov struggled to impose himself on the bout as Bajrang's defence was solid and the Indian's superior conditioning reaped rewards as the bout went on as he executed multiple takedowns successfully to eventually win by a comfortable margin.

Bajrang had earlier lost 5-12 to Azerbaijan's three-time world champion Haji Aliyev in the semis on Friday.

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.

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.