Ace Indian wrestler and current world number two Bajrang Punia could have won two more gold medals in his career – a World Championship and an Asian Championship – had it not been for Japan’s Takuto Otoguro.
The Japanese World Champion has faced Bajrang Punia twice so far and has reigned supreme on both occasions. And the Haryana wrestler, who has always struggled with his defence, believes that his counterpart was the better performer all along.
“Not only was [leg defence] my weakness, but it was also his strength,” Bajrang Punia said during an Instagram live session with United World Wrestling.
“I can't say that my body was not supporting me that day [2020 Asian Championships final] because I played three good bouts before that.
“Otoguro is a very good wrestler. He wrestled better than me that is why he won,” he added.
No answer to Otoguro’s attacks
Two-time Asian champion and a Commonwealth Games and Asian Games gold medallist, Bajrang Punia has compensated for his weak defence well with his superior upper-body strength against most of his opponents.
However, he has found it difficult to escape the quick and firm grasp of Takuto Otoguro.
After conceding early points to the Japanese at the 2018 Worlds’ gold-medal bout, which eventually cost Bajrang Punia the medal, the 26-year-old was better prepared next time in front of the home crowd at the Asian Championships in Delhi in February.
But Otoguro’s extremely effective low-single attack proved lethal for India’s Olympic medal hope.
“In the previous World Championship bout , I gave away a lot of points in the beginning,” Bajrang Punia recalled.
“So, in this bout the coach decided how we needed to play. My bout was going well for the first three minutes, the score was 3-2.
“After that, I couldn't defend the leg-attack. He attacked well and scored good points,” the 65kg wrestler added.
Leaving no weaknesses for Tokyo Olympics
Having started wrestling in the akhadas [mud pits], Bajrang Punia had to work hard to change his mud-wrestling stance later in his career.
But while his strength and improvisation has worked against many well-built wrestlers, the relatively less intimidating Japanese has managed to stay out of Bajrang Punia’s reach.
Explaining his manoeuvring low-single attack that fetched him the gold medal against the Indian on the Delhi mat, Takuto Otoguro had told UWW, “When I shot for the low single, his [Bajrang Punia’s] leg was sweaty, so I went for his shoe so I wouldn’t slip off.”
After conceding the continental title to the Japanese on home soil, getting the better of him at his home at the Tokyo Olympics next year will be an uphill task for the Indian.
It’s why Bajrang Punia, who has set up a mat in his home to spar with his partner amidst the lockdown, is using the Olympic postponement to fill all the chinks in his armour.
“I am concentrating on improving my leg defence in my training. I want to train as much as I can leave no weakness at the Olympics,” he added.