<
>

Spotlight on Bajrang Punia as depleted fields boost India's medal chances at Asian Championships

Bajrang Punia is the first Indian wrestler with multiple World Championships medals. PTI Photo

The Asian Wrestling Championships will begin on Tuesday in New Delhi, with a host of Indians looking to make a mark ahead of the Tokyo Olympics. Who are the best bets for a medal? ESPN has you covered.

What to watch out for

Missing players

The absence of Chinese players is a big loss for the Asian Wrestling Championships, especially in the women's section of the competition, considering four members of the Chinese team are either current or former World Champions. The women's 53kg category has been particularly affected since both North Korea's Pak Yong-mi and China's Pang Qianyu, the gold and bronze medallist respectively at last year's World Championships, will be missing from the competition.

That might make Vinesh Phogat's job a little easier, as the only major threat in her category will be Japan's Mayu Mukaida. However, the talent pool at the Asian Championships is thin for other reasons as well. The Iranian contingent is easily their second-string squad, with just one of their seven medalists from last year's World Championships making their way to India. While all the Japanese Olympic qualifiers from last year's World Championships are participating in Delhi, Yui Susaki, who is considered perhaps the most talented wrestler from that country, is skipping the 50kg competition in order to focus on securing Olympic qualification.

Return to form for Deepak Punia

Deepak Punia was one of the breakout stars of Indian wrestling last year, winning a gold at the junior World Championships, and following that up with a silver at the senior World Championships in Kazakhstan. However, he had suffered an ankle injury in that tournament that forced him to withdraw from the final.

It seemed that Deepak was still not back to his best when he returned to competition at the Rome Ranking Series last month, dropping a wide points decision in the opening round. He will look to get some much-needed confidence at the Asian Championships, especially with the reduced competition this category has to offer.

World Champion Hassan Yazdani has opted out of the competition, as has the 2019 Asian champion Kamran Ghasempour - also of Iran. In their absence, the main challenge to Punia will be Aligadzhi Gamidgadzhiev of Kyrgyzstan who took a silver at the 2019 edition of the tournament.

Rematch for Bajrang

While the fields in some other categories might be depleted, defending Asian champion Bajrang Punia will have his hands full in the men's 65kg category. Bajrang might come up against two rematches of his last two losses at the World Championships.

Any match against Kazakh Daulet Niyazbekov would be eagerly anticipated considering the circumstances of Bajrang's loss to him in the semifinal of the World Championships last year, where he had fought back from 7-2 down before falling just short and losing on criteria 9-9. That match saw Bajrang complain of biased refereeing after Niyazbekov repeatedly grabbed his singlet without consequence, and the Indian will want to set the matter straight in New Delhi.

The loss to Niazbekov might rankle more, but Bajrang would also hope to get his hand raised against Japan's Takuto Otoguro, to whom he lost in a high-scoring final at the 2018 World Championships. Bajrang might be favourite this time around considering the Japanese missed last year's Asian Championships with a knee injury and only finished fifth at the World Championships in Kazakhstan.

Maiden gold possibility

While Bajrang might be expected to win his second Asian Championship gold medal, it's not unlikely that Ravi Kumar might win his first in New Delhi. The main threats facing the Indian in the 57kg category are former World Champion Yuki Takahashi and 2019 World Bronze medalist Nurislam Sanayev.

Ravi will be particularly confident considering he has beaten both of them in recent times. Takahashi was beaten in the quarterfinals of the World Championships last year and is currently struggling for form having lost out on a chance to compete at the Asian Olympic qualifiers to his compatriot Rei Higuchi. Sanayev, too, has been bested by Ravi at the Matteo Pellicone ranking series last month dropping a 6-0 decision to the Indian in Rome.

While both wrestlers had been competing in the 61kg category in Rome, Ravi would be confident of repeating the feat in the lightest freestyle category this time around.