Here’s what Bajrang Punia’s equally audacious wrestling wife Sangeetha told him after a head injury wouldn’t stop dripping blood and needed bandaging at the recent World Championships: “Wo boli koi nai injury hui hai, iska patti karvaake, dobara se bronze ke liye khelo.” The blood is no biggie, strap on some gauze and go for the bronze, he recalls on his return from a stupendous 4th World’s medal.
Bravado manifesting to work like boldness, has been central to Bajrang Punia’s big tournament outings all these years. After 1 Olympic medal and 4 from the World Championships, bravado ceases sounding like a reckless thing he marinates his bulk in, when he’s tossed into glazing fire. But on the matter of blood, Bajrang and Sangeeta – have made cavalier-morphing-to-courageous into one right art form.
It should have been a gold, but it could have been no medal also – such was his propensity to leak points on a weak leg defense, and botch an opportunity where some top names from Russia, Belarus and his Japanese nemesis were absent. But it was the neon green taped face – his bulging eyes framed by it, more like – that churned stomachs. Not Sangeeta’s, who told Bajrang to get on with the job at hand, and nail the available medal in repechage, unheeding of blood.
Bajrang Punia 𝙠𝙤 𝙧𝙤𝙠𝙣𝙖 𝙢𝙪𝙨𝙝𝙠𝙞𝙡 𝙝𝙞 𝙣𝙖𝙝𝙞, 𝙣𝙖𝙢𝙪𝙢-𝙆𝙄𝙉𝙂 𝙝𝙖𝙞! 👑
The Indian wrestler put up a splendid show to win his fourth Wrestling Worlds medal a few days back. 🤼♂️
— Olympic Khel (@OlympicKhel) September 20, 2022
“Sangeeta motivated me a lot this time. Couldn’t really talk to family in between bouts. But Sangeeta was with me,” he says. “Ek baar mann tha ki zyada cut lag rahaa hai toh main na khelu. But unhone (Sangeeta) iss time mein saath diya. (At one point I thought I won’t play if it hurt too much but she helped). Iss medal mein unka kaafi yogdaan rahaa tha… Kyunki nai khelta toh medal ni jeet paata.” She played a huge role in pushing him to plod on after the medal.
She’s been a good sounding board in training too – blunt in pointing out his mistakes, but always encouraging. “She’s also a wrestler, an athlete. So we understand each other’s game and can point out mistakes frankly. When I’m playing, I won’t know what the opponent is trying or what mistakes are happening. Later we can watch videos. But Sangeeta would tell me point to point, and next bout I could avoid those and improve,” he adds.
His own derring-do is somewhat legendary after the Olympics medal was secured after dramatically flinging off the tape holding together his knee. But he clinically assessed the bleeding head this time – neatly separating the hysterics that the sight of blood can cause someone watching from outside, with the actual discomfort the bleeder feels (not much, he stressed) when heading into a fight.
“Injury hona hai, game mein toh chalti rahegi. (It happens in sport). At Olympics when I got the knee injury, I had thought surgery karvaa lunga, what’s the big deal. Many players have surgeries. Injuries happen in training also. But Olympics was my life’s biggest tournament.” At Belgrade, he knew all the dripping blood needed was stemming. Yahape bhi cut lag rha hai. Toh theeke. Cut lagne se zyada se zyada khoon nikal jaega. Do din baad, dus din baad wo theek ho jaega. Medal pehle zaroori hai.” The cut would inevitably heal in 8-10 days, he reasoned. The medal needed pocketing. Sangeeta seconded him.
World’s & Bajrang’s various wars
Becoming the first Indian with 4 medals from World Championships over the last decade is no mean feat – never mind the gold isn’t yet trapped down. 2013, when he first won bronze, set off a tradition: starting with a loss to a Bulgarian. He remembers it like yesterday; also because last week panned out similar to that.
“2013. Best moment. I was only 18-19. Thought if I won so young I could definitely win more medals for the country. The 2013 medal gave me the confidence of that. I had lost first bout to Bulgaria. Did not think he would make final and I would get the repechage opportunity,” he recalls of the 61 kg division then.
World’s medals were quite rare back then. “We had only 5-6 world medals in Indian history. Ye kaha jaega..Kept thinking he ll lose next round, then next, then next. Didn’t expect him to make finals because there was 2012 silver medallist from Olympics and Mongolians. But when he reached final, I drubbed next 2-3 wrestlers easily. Had I kept thinking that I won’t be able to win… I wouldn’t have. My friends and coaches then motivated me that I could win because I had worked so hard. I got that encouragement. I couldn’t believe I had a world Championships medal.”
4️⃣th Worlds medal for @BajrangPunia 🤼♂️
Our Tokyo Olympics BRONZE medalist has bagged a BRONZE🥉 again. This time at the Wrestling World Championships (FS 65kg) in Belgrade🤩
His World Championships CV now:
— SAI Media (@Media_SAI) September 18, 2022
It took another 5 years to get a shot in 65kg. He nurses the bitterness of that lost final, like a good roiling regret. It keeps him sharp. “2018 silver. I’ll never forget. I could’ve been champion against Japanese who’s sitting with the Olympic title in 2021,” he says properly salty.
The Japanese kept stopping for frivolous reasons with medical timeouts, Bajrang reckons. “Wrestling only stops if you are bleeding or there’s major injury! Can’t complain that ankle is hurting… He kept stopping and resuming, stopping and resuming and sat down claiming his ankle hurt. So in 2018 final, what should have been a 6 minute fight turned into a 10-12 min bout. He took rest when he got tired and kept calling doctors to tend to ankle and stopping. It will always hurt, I’ll never forget that they made a mistake. It haunts me still. If referee hadn’t favoured him, result could have been different,” he rants. It’s debatable if only the stoppages broke the Indian’s rhythm, but it added to his World Championships litany.
A year later in 2019, Bajrang had legitimate reasons to feel robbed when the officiating table blatantly leaned in with the local Kazakh grappler in Kazakhstan, simply refusing to award eye-popping fouls, and brazenly giving throwdown points to the Kazakh while Bajrang had initiated the throw. That semifinal earns a growl too.
“2019 same thing happened. It’s happened 2-3 times in World Championships with me. Semis vs Kazakhstan. We protested to UWW and they even said Sorry that it won’t happen again.. Had I made the finals, could’ve won gold. But result doesn’t change just by saying Sorry again and again for a poor decision. What’s lost is lost. I’ll never forget. We work hard, and then cheating happens and that too at top level, it’s difficult to forget these things,” he says.
It’s one of the things – denied legit fairness – that pushes him to go cavalier when a second chance medal dangles. Though, his earliest coach Virender from Chhara akhada, traces it back to his childhood. “His father was a wrestler, and mother injected that never-give-up tendency in him. This one time he didn’t make the Haryana squad, he pleaded for an opportunity. When I played him from Delhi, he demolished the field” the coach recalls. “I don’t think he ever believes he’s trailing in any bout till the last second,” he adds.
It’s how he overturned a 0-6 deficit, with points on a weak leg offered on a platter, by snapping with his sheer unforgiving strength. “We work hard for medals. We play for the country. If we have gone there representing the country, then it’s our job to give our best till the last second. Results are not in our hand. Working hard is. We should not waste even a tiny opportunity to win medal, from want of trying. No one should say, a player was sent and did not give his all for the country, or he could’ve don’t this or that instead to get the medal,” Bajrang says.
Blood could be gushing out, or cheap points trickling away, Bajrang fancies himself to be a tank that can roll over anyone stopping him from a medal. “0-6, when I play it doesn’t cross my mind that score is 6-0 or 8-0. Only thing running through head is to give it everything, give my best in 6 minutes. I don’t accept defeat till the end. Be it 8-0, 9-0 or what ever. I won’t give up till 6 mins are over.” It’s just blood. It will clot. Just points on the leg. They will stop. Adrenaline though, is limitless.