Olympics

Bajrang Punia overcomes bleeding head to win World Championship bronze

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Bajrang Punia gave it his all, including his blood and sweat, as he overcame a deep cut on his head to win a bronze medal via repechage at the World Wrestling Championships in Belgrade on Sunday.

Bajrang now has four medals at the Worlds [a silver and three bronze]but this medal will hold a special place in his heart as he fought the entire tournament with a bandaged head after suffering a cut on his head in the opening bout on Saturday.

Bajrang’s bronze medal bout against Sebastian Rivera was a proper contest: the Puerto Rican raced away to a healthy 6-0 inside the opening 30 seconds as the Indian took time to get used to his opponent’s pace.

Once he did though, there was no stopping him. Bajrang fought back with a four-pointer and then initiated a takedown to level the scores with a minute to go. The aggressive, vintage Bajrang was back.

Rivera, a silver medallist at the 2022 Pan American Championships, targeted Bajrang’s right leg and executed an ankle pick to take an 8-6 lead at the interval. It was the third time Rivera had outfoxed Bajrang with the same maneuver. But Bajrang, being the second-period wrestler that he is, came up with a takedown to reduce the deficit and followed it up with another one to snap up a 10-9 lead.

Rivera was running out of options with less than 30 seconds to go and tried the ankle pick once again, but Bajrang was alert. Rivera left it too late as he worked his way past Bajrang’s defense and flipped him with under a second to go. But it was too late as the buzzer had gone and the Puerto Rican camp lost its challenge.

Earlier on Saturday, Bajrang had begun his campaign with a gritty win over Cuba’s Alejandro Enrique Valdes Tobier. What stood out was not just the fact that he’d beaten the former Pan-American champion, but that he did so with a severely bleeding head. Bajrang composed himself well to get past the opponent he’d earlier beaten on his way to the Worlds silver medal in 2018.

The loss of blood seemed to have taken a toll on Bajrang as he lost in the quarterfinal to USA’s Yianni Diakomihalis via technical superiority. Bajrang looked woozy throughout the bout as Diakomihalis – a two-time Cadet and three-time NCAA champion – went about dismantling him. Bajrang’s wound opened up mid-bout but that didn’t stop Diakomihalis from closing out the bout with a double ankle hold.

Bajrang then earned a shot at the bronze after eking out a comeback win over Vazgen Tevanyan in the first round of repechage. The Armenian raced away to a 4-0 lead with two takedowns, while Bajrang managed to peg one back. Bajrang attempted a takedown in the dying seconds but got countered and was fortunate to not concede.

Bajrang found himself in a spot of bother at the start of the second period as Tevanyan got a strong grip on his right knee, but the Indian’s leg defense was on point as he held on stay in the bout. He then came up with an attack of his own to trail by a point and then produced a moment of magic as he rolled Tevanyan twice to snatch four points and take the lead.

The last 10 seconds were a nervous affair as Tevanyan worked his way to yet another takedown, but Bajrang held his position and stayed put on the mat to ensure he walked away with the win.

In the end, it all worked out for Bajrang, the bloodied head notwithstanding. It caps off a decent year for Bajrang, where he won silver at the Asian Championship, defended his Commonwealth Games title, and won his fourth Worlds medal.

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