Bajrang Punia’s strategy shift at the Asian Championships fails to pay off

Bajrang Punia’s new tactic of preserving energy till the final didn’t pay off as he lost to Iran’s Rahman Mousa Amouzadkhalili in the 65kg summit clash of the Asian Championships in Mongolia on Saturday. Bajrang, in his fourth successive Asian final, picked up his third silver medal on the trot.

During the fight, he cut a rather mellow figure, putting in a display quite unlike his usual high-intensity and in-your-face style of wrestling. Bajrang was content with winning points on the activity clock and lacked ideas when it came to initiating an attack. His movement on the mat was sluggish, far from his sprightly self, as he continues to recover from a knee injury he suffered last year.

Earlier in the day, he had got off to a sedate start, beating Uzbekistan’s Abbos Rakhmonov 3-0. Two of those points were won off the activity clock (because his opponent was not initiating any attacking manoeuvers), third for a step-out after forcing Rakhmonov off the mat. The bout itself had little to no action or real intent.

Next up was Bahrain’s Haji Mohamad Ali. The Indian once again took the lead via the activity clock and finally earned a point off a fine move that saw him latch on to Ali’s right leg and initiate a takedown. That move spurred on Bajrang as he began to move better on the mat. He was, though, unable to hit top gear.

Wrestling Federation of India asst. gen. secy. Vinod Tomar said after the bout that it was all part of the plan – to play cautiously, conserve energy and go all out in the final.

In the final, though, Bajrang lacked any tempo, giving away a passivity point early on. The Iranian returned the favour in the second period, but Bajrang continued to miss the velocity that he used to bank on. Amouzadkhalili, a junior world champion in 61kg, executed a swift takedown to take the lead, before holding on for the title.

Making a comeback to the international circuit for the first time since the Olympics, where he won bronze, the Asian Championships were seen as the right platform for Bajrang to gain morale and get a few wins under his belt — especially in the absence of his long-time nemesis and Olympic gold medallist Takuto Otoguro.

Bajrang had stayed away from the mat after Tokyo, where he considered bronze a disappointment, and had returned only in early March at the playoffs for the Asian Championships. This was after he had skipped the Ranking Series in Istanbul and went on exposure tours to Russia and Iran.

He then had to dig deep to grind out a 4-2 win over Rohit to earn his ticket on the plane to Mongolia, but it was far from a convincing display – much like his show at the Asian Championships.

Bajrang’s trait to turn matches around in the second period – one that has won him plaudits and brickbats alike – has vanished. He’d admitted in earlier interviews that giving away a lead in the first period may prove detrimental, but he backs himself enough to erase the deficit and seal the win in the second period.

That Bajrang is no more – the 28-year-old appears a distant version of his former proactive self.