The Wrestling World Championships began in Nur Sultan, Kazakhstan on Saturday on a disappointing note, with four straight Indian defeats in the Greco-Roman category, but there is plenty on the line in the days to come.
Indian wrestlers in the Olympic weight classes have a total of 18 quota tickets for Tokyo 2020 to aim for, while for Bajrang Punia, anything less than a medal will be a disappointment. While the much decorated 36-year-old Sushil Kumar will be competing for the first time since 2011, 21-year-old Deepak Punia will be looking to take his junior success into the senior ranks.
The Olympic ticket
India has won a total of 13 medals at the Wrestling World Championships. With the exception of Narsingh Yadav’s bronze medal at Las Vegas 2015, none of those medals came at a pre-Olympic World Championships – a result that earned India a quota place at the 2016 Rio Olympics. That result snowballed into a controversy of its own, with both Yadav and double Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar claiming the right to the quota.
To preempt such a situation, Wrestling Federation of India president Brij Bhushan Sharan announced that any Indian who wins a quota at the World Championships will also travel to the Tokyo Olympics. While Narsingh had to win a medal to claim his quota, Indians don’t need to win a medal in Kazakhstan to confirm their ticket to Tokyo. Wrestlers have to simply finish in the top six – the equivalent of reaching a medal round either through the main draw or through repechage.
Olympic standard of Bajrang and Vinesh
Two wrestlers who will likely not be satisfied simply by earning an Olympic quota will be Bajrang and Vinesh Phogat. The two have been in excellent form through this year, winning a medal in every event they have taken part in. Bajrang, who will be bidding for a first World Championship gold after pocketing a bronze medal in 2013 and a silver last year, has won gold medals this year at the Asian Championships and the Ali Aliyev tournament and lost just one match – a one-off bout with USA’s Yianni Diakomihalis. Meanwhile, Phogat, who has never medalled at the Worlds, has all of two unavenged defeats.
It is Punia, though, who will be India’s talisman at the Worlds. He’s currently seeded first, which means the draw is set up for a repeat of his thrilling final against Japan’s defending champion Takuto Otugaro.
The return of Sushil
Once the gold standard of Indian wrestling, Sushil has made more news for the wrong reasons in recent years — a spell that began in 2015 when he missed the World Championships due to injury. He’s willing to let his mat work do the talking this time, though, as he prepares to compete at the World Championships for the first time since 2011. At 34, he’s no longer as sharp as he once was — as early exits at the 2018 Asian Games and the Medved Tournament two months ago would suggest. Making things harder will be the fact that he is unseeded in a division featuring four-time World Champion Jordan Burroughs, Frank Chamizo and Zaurbek Sidakov of Russia. Sushil is likely to face a tricky draw but opponents will underestimate the Indian at their own peril.
Deepak steps up to the seniors
In August, Deepak Punia won the junior world gold in the 86kg category – becoming the first Indian to claim that title in 18 years. He had already won a cadet world title a couple of years before and his latest achievement only stamped his claim to be one the most talented young wrestlers to emerge in recent years. He’s taken his form to the seniors too with a credible bronze medal at the Asian Championships and a silver at the Yasar Dogu competition.
The Worlds will be his biggest challenge to date, though, with defending world champion Fatih Erdan of Turkey and Olympic 74kg champion Hassan Yazdanicharati expected to be the medal favourites. With Deepak not seeded, his best hope would be to avoid a difficult bracket.