Looking to solve Japanese puzzles
India’s Bajrang and Vinesh will be up against top Japanese contenders Otoguro and Mukaida in Asian Wrestling Championships
Mayu Mukaida and Takuto Otoguro have caused enough heartache for Indian wrestling fans. The two Japanese have often stopped India’s top stars Vinesh Phogat and Bajrang Punia on their tracks. In major international competitions, they have frustrated the two Indians who are country’s strongest contenders in wrestling for a Tokyo Olympics medal.
The Asian Wrestling Championships, starting in New Delhi on Tuesday, will be an opportunity for Punia and Phogat to test themselves against the Japanese in home conditions. Success will also help them get crucial rankings points that will determine seedings in Tokyo. Two other Indians to have qualified for Tokyo are Ravi Kumar Dahiya (57kg) and Deepak Punia (86kg), who will also look to assess their level.
In women’s 53 kg, world No. 3 Mukaida will be a strong favourite for gold in the absence of world champion Pak Yong-mi of North Korea and Pang Qianyu of China. Phogat, after winning the world ranking series in Rome last month, has replaced Mukaida as world No. 2 but she is yet to beat the Japanese.
It was Mukaida who defeated Phogat in the last Asian Championships in X’ian, China, where the Indian finished with a bronze medal. Then Phogat had just switched to 53kg from 50kg and was still adapting to the higher weight category. However, the next face-off against the Japanese came after six months, at the world championships where a Tokyo Olympics spot was also at stake.
It did not provide any relief for the Indian. Again Mukaida scored a crushing victory over Phogat, beating her 7-0. The Japanese made a split-second move to bring her down in the first period.
Once she got a good grip over Phogat, she flipped her over and scored six points at a go. The contest was as good as over at that point. That has been the strong point of Mukaida. She scores points in heaps and her defence is difficult to breach.
At the Asian meet last year, Mukaida finished off the contest with almost two minutes left on the clock. She was quick to grab Phogat’s legs thrice, and in her final attempt knotted her legs and rolled her over for a win on superiority (10-0).
“To beat a Japanese you have to be perfect in everything, be it your diet plan or technique. We can’t beat them by playing our style of wrestling; we have to beat them technically. I have assessed my bouts against Mukaida. I will make a plan how to go about playing her,” Phogat had told Hindustan Times after the world championships, where she won a bronze medal and a Tokyo Olympics quota.
She had also hoped she would get to face her once before the Olympics. That wish has come true, and at home where Phogat will have the support. It will be an opportunity that will tell Phogat and her coach Woller Akos a lot about their preparation with five months to go for the Olympics.
Punia will face a two-pronged battle. The only Indian to win gold at the Asian Championships last year, the defending champion will not have it easy with two of his big rivals in the 65kg draw—Otoguro and Daulet Niyanzbekov of Kazakhstan.
In the 2018 world championships, Otoguro exposed Punia’s weak leg defence and won a thrilling final bout 16-9. Last year, Punia was again deprived of world championships gold, and it was Niyazbekov who beat him this time. Down 2-9, Punia had sensationally fought back to draw level when the clocked stopped, but Niyazbekov was declared winner following the tie on account of having scored a controversial four-point throw (biggest move of the match).
It took days for Punia to get over the loss. His Georgian coach Shako Bentinidis spoke about how Punia needs to mix caution with aggression and not concede too many points early on. He has also worked on tightening his leg defence.
A gold medal in the Rome ranking series puts Punia in a good mental space to take on his major opponents.
There will be two teenagers in focus --Sonam Malik (62kg) and Anshu Malik (57), who will be playing their first major senior international tournament. Both made it to the team after winning the trials in Lucknow over established names—Sakshi Malik and Pooja Dhanda. Anshu won silver in the world ranking series in Rome last month. A good performance here would allow Anshu and Sonam, who shocked Sakshi, to seal their places in the squad for the Asian Olympic qualifier next month.
In Greco Roman contests, India will look to improve its tally of three silver and one bronze won in the previous edition. The focus however will be on young grapplers like Sunil Kumar (87kg) and Sajan Bhanwala (77kg), who had won silver and bronze in their respective groups in the world ranking series in Rome last month.
Punjab’s Gurpreet Singh, who won gold in the 82kg in Rome, will skip the event in preparation for the Asian Olympic qualifying tournament next month. In the 2019 Asian meet, he had won silver in 77kg. Gyanender Dahiya (60kg), who won bronze in previous edition, is back in fray.