India came away from their first wrestling ranking tournament of 2019 with mostly good results. While Bajrang Punia cemented his claim as the best Indian wrestler at the moment, Olympic bronze medallist Sakshi Malik seemed to be finding form ahead of the Asian Championships in April. There was also success for Vinesh Phogat, who was testing a new weight division, ahead of a crucial Olympic qualification season.
Sakshi inches closer to form
Sakshi Malik, the only Indian woman wrestler to have won an Olympic medal, has been battling a period of indifferent form in recent times. She failed to take gold at the Commonwealth Games and subsequently went without a medal at the Asian Games and World Championships last year. Sakshi, who during her run to bronze at the 2016 Olympics had earned a reputation of being able to overcome significant points deficits in the latter half of contests, seemed to have lost some of that magic. Rather it was she who was giving up leads in the dying seconds of the contests at the Asian Games and World Championships.
She would have found some confidence with her performance at the Dan Kolov tournament in Bulgaria, where she won a silver in the women's 65kg division. Among the highlights of that performance was a 4-1 semi-final win over reigning world champion Petra Olli of Finland. Particularly satisfying for Malik would be the fact that she defended a tight lead all the way to the finish. "The change I made was to keep attacking for all the six minutes. Last year, main ruk ke khel rahi thi (my wrestling was stop-start). Now by wrestling all the way to the finish, I was able to force my opponents to stay on the defensive," says Malik, who will be competing in the selection trials for the Asian Championships next week.
Bajrang stamps his class
Bajrang Punia can never be accused of slowing the pace in his bouts. The Indian might not be the most technically superior contender on the mat but there are not many who can come close to matching his work rate. Bajrang gave a demonstration of his stamina all the way to winning a gold medal at the Dan Kolov tournament. Trailing 3-0 against USA's Jordan Oliver, he reeled off 12 straight points in a display of relentless shot-taking to run the American into the ground. It was the sort of dominant performance that has been symptomatic of Bajrang's form over the last year.
Since 2018 he has won gold medals at the Yasar Dogu and Kartozia and Balavadze tournaments, followed by golds at the Commonwealth and Asian Games. The solitary blemish, if you were to call it that, was a silver medal in the finals of the 2018 World Championships. There's little surprise that Bajrang is the highest-ranked Indian wrestler in the UWW rankings -- he's currently third in the men's 65kg division. All through it all, it has been his work rate that has run through opponents. Bajrang seems to know this too. "If I can wrestle for all six minutes, I will win the bout," he says.
New weight, no problem for Vinesh
Vinesh Phogat is considered India's finest wrestler in the women's division but there were concerns over how she would perform under the new UWW rules for wrestling. With competitions over two days, wrestlers are expected to make weight on two separated days. This was particularly challenging for Vinesh, who wrestled in the women's 50kg category until last year. She had had issues making weight in the past -- once even failing at an Olympic qualifier. Instead, she decided to move up a weight division to the 53kg category.
While there were fears whether she would be able to carry her strength to a superior weight division, Vinesh laid those worries to rest as she won a silver in Bulgaria. Among her scalps was USA's Sarah Ann Hildebrandt, who had won a silver in that weight division at the 2018 World Championships. Vinesh dominated the American, winning by fall in the first half of the bout. It was an impressive win, especially since she plans to compete at that weight division at the 2019 World Championships in order to test the waters for a bid at the 2020 Olympics. While Vinesh didn't win a gold, that wasn't her goal. "This is the first competition of the season, so I will not be stressed about it [result]. I have not thought that I have to win a gold medal here. I'm here to check my progress and know my opponents," she had said ahead of the competition.