Here is the lowdown on three wrestlers who will lead India’s challenge in men’s wrestling at the Tokyo Olympics.
Ravi Kumar Dahiya (57kg)
Form guide: 2021: Silver at Poland Open; Gold at Asian championships, Kazakhstan; 2020: Gold at Asian championships, Delhi.
Main rivals: Two-time World champion Zaur Uguev (Rus), two-time Worlds medallists Suleyman Atli (Tur) and Nurislam Sanayev (Kaz), former Asian champion Reza Atri (Iri), former Worlds silver medallist Arsen Harutyunyan (Arm), Individual World Cup bronze medallist Georgi Vangelov (Bul), former World and Asian champion Yuki Takahashi (Jpn), and two-time Worlds bronze medallist Erdenebatyn Bekhbayar (Mgl).
Like many of his peers, Ravi Kumar Dahiya – from Nahri village in Sonepat district of Haryana – shifted to the iconic Chhatrasal Stadium in Delhi at the age of 10 with hopes of becoming a well-known wrestler.
Always sincere to wrestling, Ravi shone early at the global stage when he bagged a silver medal in the 55kg weight category in the World junior championships in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, in 2015. He battled a knee injury and difficulties in getting funds to recover from the setback during his junior days before catching everyone’s eye with a silver medal in 57kg in the World under-23 championships in Bucharest, Romania, in 2018.
Ravi Kumar Dahiya – Shiv Kumar Pushpakar
A series of fine performances for 2019 Pro Wrestling League champion Haryana Hammers brought him more attention. The shy grappler belonging to a farmer’s family raised his game to take a World championships bronze and an Olympic quota place in 57kg in Nur-Sultan the same year.
A busy wrestler on the mat, Ravi proved his class by winning back-to-back Asian titles in 2020 and 2021, followed by a silver in the Poland Open. Someone whose life revolves around wrestling, 23-year-old Ravi – a big fan of his mentor Sushil Kumar – would like to make his idol proud in the Tokyo Games.
Bajrang Punia (65kg)
Form guide: 2021: Gold at Matteo Pellicone Ranking Series, Italy; Silver at Asian championships, Kazakhstan; 2020: Silver at Asian championships in Delhi.
Main rivals: World champion Gadzhimurad Rashidov (Rus), two-time Worlds medallist Daulet Niyazbekov (Kaz), Worlds bronze medallist Ismail Musukaev (Hun), former World champion Takuto Otoguro (Jpn), double Worlds bronze medallist Alejandro Valdes (Cub), Individual World Cup winner Vazgen Tevanyan (Arm), Olympic medallist and three-time World champion Haji Aliyev (Aze), and two-time Worlds medallist Magomedmurad Gadzhiev (Pol).
Bajrang Punia, one of the two big stars in Indian men’s wrestling at present, may have been four years late for his Olympic debut but the only three-time World championships medallist from the country is definitely one of the more consistent performers in his weight category. This makes Bajrang one of the strong medal contenders in the 65kg weight class in Tokyo.
“You have to train well to win a medal. God can’t help you if you sit at home. One needs to work hard,” says Bajrang Punia. – Special Arrangement
Hailing from Khudan village in Jhajjar district of Haryana, Bajrang took up wrestling at a very young age when he did mud wrestling. Later Bajrang’s family moved to Sonepat to support his wrestling career.
Bajrang remained in the shadow of his mentor Yogeshwar Dutt in the initial phase of his career before making his mark by claiming a World championships bronze medal in the 60kg in 2013.
The gritty wrestler went on to gather several medals in the Asian championships, Commonwealth championships, Commonwealth Games, Asian Games, World under-23 championships and World championships.
Bajrang experienced more success after his switch to 65kg. His two Asian titles, Commonwealth Games and Asian Games gold medals, a Worlds under-23 silver and three Worlds medals have come in the last four years.
The country will pin its hopes on the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna and Arjuna Award winner for a medal in Tokyo.
Deepak Punia (86kg)
Form guide: 2021: Silver at Asian championships, Kazakhstan; 2020: Fourth place at Individual World Cup in Serbia; Bronze at Asian championships in Delhi.
Main rivals: World and Olympic champion Hassan Yazdani (Iri), Worlds bronze medalists Stefan Reichmuth (Sui) and Artur Naifonov (Rus), former World champion David Taylor (USA), four-time Worlds medallist Ali Shabanau (Blr), Individual World Cup bronze medallist Osman Gocen (Tur), former Worlds silver medallists Sosuke Takatani (Jpn) and Boris Makojev (Svk).
Deepak Punia is has carried forward his success from junior to elite level. Deepak, who is from Chhara village of Jhajjar district in Haryana, is another bright product of the Chhatrasal Stadium, Delhi.
The well-built wrestler showed his potential early as he won the World cadet and the World junior titles in 2016 and 2019, respectively. In fact, his World junior gold was the first by an Indian after a gap of 18 years.
Deepak graduated to the elite level at a rapid pace and grabbed an Olympic quota place along with the silver medal in 86kg at the World championships in Nur-Sultan. He, thus, narrowly missed a rare treble of winning the World cadet, junior and elite crowns as he withdrew from the title clash in Nur-Sultan owing to a leg injury.
The youngster had a tough time in 2020 as he lost his mother and spent three frustrating months at home during the early phase of the lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak.
However, Deepak overcame the odds to return to competitive wrestling. The 22-year-old claimed a silver medal in the Asian championships in 2021 to announce his intention in the lead-up to the Olympics.