If 2018 was the year of Bajrang Punia—he won gold at the Commonwealth and Asian Games—2019 saw the rise of another Punia; Deepak Punia. The 20-year-old became the world number one in the 86kg category, while Bajrang slipped to number two in the 65kg classification.
That is not to say that Bajrang had a bad year. Far from it. The poster boy of Indian wrestling had another solid year, but perhaps felt short of his own lofty expectations. He started the year with dominant performances in the Pro Wrestling League, winning all seven bouts he was in. He led the Punjab Royals, the defending champions, into the final, but his team faltered at the finish. Bajrang himself dominated Rajneesh Dalal 11-0 in the final, but in vain. Haryana Hammers, after reaching four finals, finally took the title.
Bajrang then began his international season, in February, with a gold at the Dan Kolov-Nikola Petrov tournament in Ruse, Bulgaria. This was an important win as the grappler would have wanted to maintain his momentum leading up to the World Championships in November, which was a qualification event for the Olympics. And Bajrang did just that.
As did his compatriot Pooja Dhanda, who claimed gold in the 59kg category. Olympic bronze medallist Sakshi Malik took home a silver in the 65kg division, while Sandeep Tomar won silver in the 61kg category. Sakshi would go on to have a mediocre year; she did win bronze at the Asian Championships, but was dropped from the Target Olympic Podium Scheme later in the year.
Bajrang soon added another feather to his cap by becoming the first Indian to compete at the famed Madison Square Garden in the 'Grapple at the Garden' event. There, however, he lost to unheralded American Yianni Diakomihalis 8-10. The Indian took the loss in his stride and continued to pack his calendar with medals, winning another gold at the Asian Championships in April. The following month, he won gold at the Ali Aliev invitational in Dagestan, Russia.
“The biggest problem with Bajrang is that he loses focus sometimes and gives away times,” Shako Bentinidis, his coach, said in an interview in July. “We are working on it. It's difficult.”
Leg defence has also been an area of concern for Bajrang, but he said in an interview later in the year that he had improved in that regard.
Overall, the Indian contingent won one gold, six silver and nine bronze at the Asian Championships. Deepak was one of the bronze medallists at the event; a lot more was to come.
But come July, another story was being told. Vinesh Phogat, arguably the most popular female wrestler in India, had switched to the 53kg category, from the 50kg one, some months prior. She did not taste immediate success; she won silver at the Dan Kolov-Nikola Petrov tournament and then a bronze at the Asian Championships. However, at the Grand Prix of Spain, she got back to winning form and struck gold. Within two weeks, she added another gold to her collection, at the Yasar Dogu, and another at the Poland Open in August.
Then came a silver at the Alexander Medved Prizes, and Vinesh was ready for the World Championships at Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan. She won bronze there and qualified for Tokyo 2020, which was the priority.
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Talking of the Phogats, Mahavir Phogat's youngest, Ritu, transitioned from the mat to the ring earlier this year. The wrestler competed in the PWL, winning all her four bouts for MP Yodha, but soon ditched the singlet for trunks and gloves. She joined Evolve MMA, and soon competed in her first fight in the Singapore-based ONE Championship—she beat South Korea's Kim Nam-Hee in under four minutes.
At the Yasar Dogu, which Bajrang missed this year, Rahul Aware from Maharashtra clinched gold in the 61kg category. Deepak continued his ascent with a silver and the Indian men's contingent also bagged two bronze medals at the event. As for the women, apart from Vinesh's gold, Seema won gold in the 50kg category, while Manju Kumari did so in the 59kg division.
Come September, and the World Championships in Kazakhstan beckoned the Indian grapplers. Bajrang Punia, one of the favourites, lost his semifinal match, but won bronze. The judging of the bout came under scrutiny, with many feeling that Bajrang's opponent, Daulet Niyazbekov, was favoured because he was a Kazakh.
Bajrang, however, did qualify for the Olympics, which was the ultimate goal.
The Indians won five medals and four Olympic quota places at the event.
Of the lot, perhaps the most impressive performance was that of Deepak, who defied expectations to reach the final in the 86kg category. Unfortunately, he had to pull out of the contest because of an injury and had to settle for silver. He did qualify for the Olympics. Also, earlier in the year, he had won gold at the World Junior Championships. Within months, he transitioned from a junior champion to a senior one. And, with this performance, he has raised hopes of a medal at Tokyo.
Another prospect is Ravi Dahiya, who surprised many with a bronze in the 57kg category at the World Championships. Aware, too, won bronze, but in the non-Olympic 61kg category.
The Greco-Roman wrestlers, once again, trailed their freestyle counterparts this year. They managed three silver medals and a bronze at the Asian Championships, but returned empty-handed from the Worlds.
But, with four quota places in the Olympics and the rise of a potential world-beater in Deepak Punia, Indian wrestling did quite well for itself in 2019.