Bajrang Punia's keys to success: Stamina, late bursts and 'fire within'

Even in a stacked 65kg division at Tokyo, where he's seeded third, Bajrang is one of the pre-tournament favourites to medal. AP Photo/Anvar Ilyasov

It's a testament to the lofty expectations on him that Bajrang Punia has been named the Indian team's flag bearer in the closing ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics. Part of the reason lies in wrestling's historic significance to India's Olympic campaigns - Indian wrestlers have medalled at every Olympic Games since 2008. For this edition, 26-year-old Bajrang is undoubtedly the current standard bearer of the sport.

Over the last Olympic cycle, he has won a silver and a bronze medal at the World Championships (he has won three medals overall at the WCs - no other Indian wrestler has won more than one). He has also won gold at the 2018 Asian Games and the 2019 Asian Championships. Even in a stacked 65kg division at Tokyo, where he's seeded third, he's one of the pre-tournament favourites.

Born in a village where every second family boasts a pehelwan (including his own father), Bajrang too was expected to wrestle and by the time he was seven, he had followed his elder brother onto the mud pit of the akhara. He started competing soon after in the mitti wrestling dangal.

Bajrang, his father will tell you, wrestled a lot more than other youngsters. "He never seemed to get tired. I remember the first time he went for a dangal, he wrestled six straight bouts. Every time he finished one bout, he was looking for the next one," says his father.

Before long, Bajrang outgrew the dangals and after being spotted by Rampal Singh - the then coach of future double Olympic champion Sushil Kumar - joined New Delhi's Chhatrasal Stadium in 2008. Chhatrasal is considered one of the finest finishing schools for wrestling in the world -- famed for its rigorous grind -- but even in such a competitive environment, Bajrang's work ethic would stand out. Bajrang once claimed he completed 1065 non-stop dand-baithaks (an Indian burpee combination of push up and squat).

Bajrang found a mentor there too -- 2012 Olympic bronze medallist Yogeshwar Dutt, who would advise the younger wrestler on many career decisions. After Bajrang won silver at the 2011 cadet world championship in the 55kg category, Dutt advised him to jump weight categories, even if it meant not winning a medal for a year. In 2012, when he was 18, he began dominating the junior circuit and Dutt recommended him to start competing against seniors. The advice helped, but it is also true that Bajrang remained in the shadow of his mentor.

Even though he had won a medal at the 2013 World Championships, Bajrang's career blossomed after two episodes.

One was Dutt's retirement following the Rio Games, which allowed Bajrang to move into the 65kg division. More important, perhaps, was a decision by the world wrestling body in 2013 to change the format of a wrestling bout from three rounds of two minutes each to two rounds of three minutes -- seemingly a minor move but one that radically increased the role stamina played in a match.

Stamina was, and remains, Bajrang's trump card.

Few things are as exhilarating in sport as the comeback. It's less famous in wrestling, but no less significant - and no one does it better than Bajrang.

When Bajrang wrestles there comes a time where he knows he is about to take control of the match. This won't be entirely obvious for spectators right away. A wrestling bout isn't very long - just two halves of three minutes each. To the spectators, it might seem that Bajrang is down to his last hundred or so seconds. Very often, he is trailing at this point.

It must have surely looked like that, for instance, in the final of the 2019 Asian Championship. Kazakhstan's Okassov was leading 7-2 with just over a minute to go.

On the mat though, Bajrang is simply waiting for his moment. When lactic acid starts to build up, muscles burn and turn heavy, when most wrestlers start making furtive glances at the digital clock -- that's when the Indian pounces.

"He'll see that the opponent's stance and technique gets a little bit sloppy and that's when he starts picking up the pace and the attack rate. Mentally his opponent starts to fold. They start to give up. I've seen this with a lot of Bajrang's matches. He'll go down a couple of points, and then his pace starts to pick up and then second period comes around and then they start to fold and start to drop their hands or head and he blows the match open from there. He'll come at you like a battering ram," says Andy Ramos, who once wrestled against Bajrang at the 2015 World Cup and who now coaches at the University of North Carolina.

By the time the referee blew the final whistle in the match against Okassov, Bajrang had scored ten unanswered points to win his first continental title. From 7-2 down to 7-12 up, in the proverbial blink of an eye.

In the bronze medal match at the 2019 World Championships, against Mongolia's Tumur Ochir Tulga, Bajrang was down 6-2 with just over a minute and a half remaining before winning 8-7.

There are matches of course, where this late surge comes too late. Bajrang fought back from 9-2 down with a minute and a half to go in the semi-final of the 2019 World Championships against Daulet Niyazbekov of Kazakhstan, but lost 9-9 on criteria. A year earlier, he had recovered from 5-0 down within the first minute to close in at 7-6 against Japan's Takuto Otoguro before eventually losing 16-9. Although Bajrang lost those bouts, both his opponents appeared desperate to run down the clock and hold on to the win -- their stamina running out, sucking in great gulps of air, doing their best to grab any sort of rest as they looked to hold out the relentless Indian.

Bajrang's pressure and conditioning are key to breaking down his opponents and the centrepiece of his wrestling style. He doesn't wait for opponents to tire but speeds up the process, constantly snapping and pulling on his opponent's head to open them up and put them out of position. "Even at the highest level, guys have a pace they are comfortable with. In freestyle wrestling, you only have a limited amount of space on the mat. Bajrang puts a lot of pressure on his opponents and when they start to run out of room on the circle and when they get to the edge of the mat, it puts mental and positional pressure on them. He does a good job of forcing guys to make mistakes or breaking position. He does a good job of doing that throughout the match," says Sean Bormet, a coach with the USA wrestling squad who has worked with Bajrang over the past year.

"I said, 'Bajrang, you must rest'. But he was so angry. He said: 'In India there isn't this word 'rest''." Shako Bentinidis (Two-time Olympian and former Georgian national coach)

Bajrang's stamina needed a more suitable platform, and it came with the shift to 65kg. "I first saw him in Los Angeles on the day of the weigh-in. It was very obvious to me that Bajrang was struggling to make weight at 60kg," says Ramos. "Even at that time we knew in the USA that he was a very powerful wrestler with a very strong gas tank. The move to 65kg was probably the best that could have happened to him. It's a weight you are more comfortable in and rather than spending most of your time trying to make weight, you can instead focus on your technique."

That was a legitimate concern.

While the Indian's physical abilities were well known, it was apparent to the most skilled technicians that he was a one-dimensional wrestler. While pressure is one of Bajrang's greatest strengths, it's also one of his defining weaknesses. Because he spends so much time pressing forward in a more upright stance, Bajrang leaves himself open to leg attacks from his opponents.

To fix this, Bajrang and his team called on the services of two-time Olympian and former Georgian national coach Shako Bentinidis in 2018. But while Bentinidis has worked on his technique, he says Bajrang's go-to strength will remain his endurance. Bentinidis has worked with multiple World and Olympic medallists during his coaching career, but he finds Bajrang unique. "No one trains like Bajrang trains. Maybe others have better technique than he does. In Georgia, people have talent but they don't work hard like he does. But this (endurance) is not talent, no lottery. This is just hard work," he says.

This was apparent to Bentinidis within his first week of working with Bajrang. "After the first week in which we trained, I told Bajrang 'you need to rest right now'. I looked at his face and it was as if he didn't understand what I was saying. I said 'Bajrang you must rest'. But he was so angry. He said: 'In India there isn't this word 'rest''," recalls Bentinidis.

Bajrang though has slowly been working on sharpening his game.

Ramos compares the latest version of Bajrang favourably to the one he wrestled several years back. "Most of the times wrestlers who bank on their physicality struggle against opponents who are more technical and flexible. With someone who isn't flexible, you can really limit the kind of positions they put you in. On the other hand, someone who is really flexible can put you in a lot of different wrestling positions where your technique isn't the best. But you can be both. I think Bajrang is slowly becoming one of the best in the world at it. He's become a lot better technically. He's setting up his shots a lot better now," says Ramos.

That improvement was clear to Bormet, who worked with Bajrang at the University of Michigan in December last year, when the Indian looked to get some training after being stuck in India for several months owing to the COVID-19 Pandemic.

"Bajrang's is of course a very physical, a very American style. But he is also using a lot of hand fighting in his setups. He also has a world-class defence. He's still improving. He's still trying to find a balance where he's finding ways to protect his legs even while he presses forward," says Bormet.

But he says what remains Bajrang's decisive advantage is his ability to pile on the pressure. "His style creates a lot of physical and mental pressure on opponents as he presses forward. He doesn't let opponents rest. Not everyone has the ability to combat that," he says.

The will-to-win, says Bormet, is critical to the success of Bajrang's style of wrestling. For it requires Bajrang to be comfortable at a level of stress his opponents can't deal with. "Even if your bout is just six minutes, it can be very gruelling if you have two skilled competitors wrestling the way Bajrang does. You have to be prepared mentally and physically to wrestle that way. Certain guys only have a certain comfort level they are willing to work past. And then some guys they try to find a higher level of discomfort when training because they know it will benefit them in a tough match," he says.

That willingness to go in training where others feared to is what Bormet thinks has made Bajrang the wrestler he is. "The greatest competitors use many different sources of motivation and courage. With Bajrang, anytime he needed to reach in deep and find another level of intensity, you could see him doing it," he says. "His mind didn't go the other way where he gave up. That's what stood out for me. It can be coached but that has to be a deep sense of internal drive in the athlete. Maybe you can fan that fire and mould it but it has to come from inside. It's inside Bajrang,"