While growing up as a wrestler, Bajrang Punia had two idols — double Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar and 2012 bronze medallist Yogeshwar Dutt.
Though Yogeshwar was his mentor, Sushil was the big star of Indian wrestling, and Punia looked up to him for inspiration.
In more than 60 years of participation in Olympic wrestling, India have bagged five medals — bronze by KD Jadhav in 1952 (Helsinki), bronze and silver by Sushil in 2008 (Beijing) and 2012 (London) and bronze by Sakshi Malik in 2016 (Rio), besides the bronze Yogeshwar won in 2012.
Punia had seen both Sushil and Yogeshwar from close quarters at Delhi’s Chhatrasal stadium, where he was brought in 2008 after being selected from Virender Kumar’s akhada.
Around the time Punia was finding his feet at the Chhatrasal stadium, Sushil had won a bronze medal at the Beijing Olympics. Four years later, Sushil went one step further and bagged a silver medal — the best performance ever by an Indian wrestler in the Olympics.
But Yogeshwar remained Punia’s idol and their relationship is so close that in 2016, Punia withdrew from the 65kg competition to give Yogeshwar a chance to go to his second successive Olympics.
At the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, Punia has a chance to emulate his idol Yogeshwar and Sushil, and win a medal for India.
Born in Khudan village in the Jhajjar district of Haryana, Punia started training as a wrestler at the age of seven. Though his family was not well off, his father — a wrestler — encouraged Punia to pursue the sport.
Having learnt his craft in the mud pits, Punia switched to the wrestling mat in 2005 and joined the Sports Authority of India’s centre at Sonepat. In 2008, he was shifted to Delhi to train at the Chhatrasal stadium.
Results came early as he excelled at the cadet and junior level and won his first senior-level medal, a bronze, at the 2013 Asian Championships at New Delhi.
Punia is the only male wrestler to win gold at the Commonwealth Games (2018) and Asian Games (2018). He has bagged silver and two bronze medals at the World Championships.
Though he is confident of winning a medal, Punia did not have the best of preparations because of the COVID-19 pandemic as he struggled to get quality sparring partners.
Punia did show good form when he won gold in the Matteo Pellicone Ranking Series 2021 held in Rome in March this year. However, the Asian Wrestling Championship in April almost shattered his dream as he suffered a knee injury.
He has recovered well from it and is currently training in Vladikavkaz, Russia since last month, engaging 2019 70kg world champion David Baev of Russia and U-23 world champion Mirza Skhulukhia (70kg) of Georgia as his sparring partners.
Considering his talent, experience and dedication to the sport, Punia is one of the favourite to bag India a medal in Tokyo.