Bajrang beaten but unbowed, a winner on a bigger stage

Bajrang Punia up against Iran's Rahman Amouzadkhalili in the men's 65kg freestyle semifinal at the Asian Games. Photo by WANG ZHAO/AFP via Getty Images

Bajrang Punia competed in a wrestling bout after 383 days on Friday. The last time he did, he won bronze at the World Championships. On Friday, he missed out on bronze at the Hangzhou Asian Games - but that may not be the important part of this story.

First, the wrestling. He resembled the Bajrang from 2022: The boulders for shoulders, tree trunks for quadriceps, he looked that part, at least physically. And that took him to the semifinals as he clinched two easy wins. There was hope that the defending champion might finish on the podium again. Then he ran into two quality opponents. Iran's Amouzadkhalili Rahman handed him one reality check in the semifinal and Japan's Kaiki Yamaguchi handed him another in the bronze medal bout.

From another perspective, those opponents are nothing compared to what he has faced since the start of the year. And the mental and physical toll that battle has taken on him is intangible, but will be significant.

Bajrang began the year after a phenomenal 2022, when he won gold at the Commonwealth Games, silver at the Asian Championships and bronze at the Worlds. And then he came up against a bigger battle: the battle against the Wrestling Federation of India's erstwhile president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh. As Vinesh Phogat put it, "the battle of their lives".

Bajrang, Vinesh, Sakshi Malik and other wrestlers staged two protests, one in January and the other in April, demanding the arrest of Singh. The second time around, the wrestlers went on a 36-day protest where they braved New Delhi's punishing heat and slept on makeshift beds on the footpath. It made for a surreal, and sad, picture: India's Olympians and most successful wrestlers sleeping on the streets of the nation's capital.

They missed training for over two months, in what was a crucial period with the Asian Games and World Championships around the corner. A chance to qualify for the 2024 Paris Olympics was at stake. But they had no practice. One physiotherapist associated with Bajrang's success put it in perspective: "The physical toll on the body is such that the wrestlers will need at least two days of training for every day they missed."

And that's not counting the mental toll. The same physio said: "That's going to take a lot of time, we really can't have a timeline for that."

Things got worse on May 28, when Bajrang and the protesting wrestlers were arrested for protesting and breaching the Delhi Police security cordon. They were released the same evening, but the wrestlers felt they had seen enough - they announced the next day that they would throw their Olympic, World Championship and other medals into the Ganga River in Haridwar.

They then relented, met with the Sports Minister and a chargesheet was subsequently filed against Brij Bhushan.

Only after that did Bajrang return to training. He went to Kyrgyzstan to train for nearly two months, while telling the Sports Ministry that he wanted to skip the trials for the Worlds to prepare for the Asian Games. But there was more controversy when he was given a direct entry into the Asian Games team: Two teammates, Sujeet Dayanand and Vishal Kaliraman, who fight in the same weight category, did not agree to that and approached the Delhi High Court for relief.

Vishal went on to win the trials for the Asian Games and was named as the standby athlete, but he was upset, to say the least. What followed was unsavoury as Vishal and his family began to bad-mouth Bajrang on social media platforms, while many others latched on to the same train of thought: that while Bajrang was fighting for free and fair elections, among other things, he was exploiting the same system that he was fighting.

It got to such a point that Bajrang put out a video on social media addressed to Vishal, telling him that he would finish the Asian Games and come back to India to "accept his challenge" of a bout.

That's the state of mind he was in when he went to Hangzhou. He didn't win a medal and Asian Games ended with a comprehensive defeat by technical superiority. But on the bigger stage, fighting bigger battles, he's shown that he's a champion.