CHENNAI: A lot has been spoken about the role played by coach Emzarios Bentinidis in the rise of wrestler Bajrang Punia. The partnership that began sometime before the 2018 Asian Wrestling Championships in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan — where he bagged a bronze — has been fruitful. Bajrang followed that up with gold medals at the Commonwealth and Asian Games. The crushing 16-9 defeat against Japanese Takuto Otugoro in the World Championships final in Budapest must have been a reality check for the Haryana wrestler. But 2018 was one of his best years on the mat so far.
And the 25-year-old is showing no signs of slowing down as he has continued his good form into this year’s season opener. In fact, he did better in Xi’an, China, winning gold, defeating Sayatbek Okassov of Kazakhstan 12-7 in a thrilling men’s 65kg final at the Asian Wrestling Championships on Tuesday. While Bentinidis has been praised yet again for the performance of his ward, the Georgian pointed out that Bajrang’s attitude has made things smoother. “My job is difficult. There is no time. But I try to do my best. But Bajrang is a good professional. So it is a lot easier,” Bentinidis told this newspaper from Xi’an.
The World No 1 grappler, however, was made to sweat en route victory. After breezing past Uzbekistan’s Sirojiddin Khasanov 12-1 in the semifinal, Bajrang was expected to have it easy against Okassov. With nemesis Otugoro out of the equation, Bajrang was the overwhelming favourite. But the Asian Games bronze medallist had other plans. Bajrang was down 0-4 after the first minute and was trailing 2-7 after the break. It almost looked like he had lost the plot before a leg attack reduced the deficit to 4-7. Then on, the match was in Bajrang’s hand. And Bentinidis was furious that Bajrang let Okassov dominate him at the start. “I am angry with him for not finishing off the bout quicker. He should have that winning mentality. He was trailing 2-7. He is the best in his category. Anyway, now it is over and we have to concentrate on the World Championships in September,” he said.
The pressure to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics has left every athlete in the country scratching their heads. Every move they make, whether a success or not, invariably leads to how they think they are going to fare in Tokyo. The Worlds in Kazakhstan will be a crucial event for grapplers looking to seal Olympic tickets. While Bentinidis is not worried about Bajrang’s performance, there is one thing that bothers him. Bajrang will stay in India for almost a month before the event and Bentinidis is not a big fan of that. “I want to take him abroad. The weather and food is very different in India and I want him to be in perfect condition.”