Over the years, wrestling has been one of India’s most successful sports at the Olympics – from the very first medal by KD Jadhav in 1952 to the only double individual medalist, Sushil Kumar. In 2016, India sent its largest wrestling contingent yet – eight wrestlers, including eventual bronze medalist Sakshi Malik. This time, though, as things stand, India will be sending seven wrestlers. With the likes of Vinesh Phogat, Sonam Malik and Bajrang Punia hopeful of returning with an Olympic medal around their necks, the likes of Ravi Kumar Dahiya and Deepak Punia are the dark horses and capable of beating anybody on their day. With this in mind, we take a look at India’s boxing contingent and how things are looking ahead of the Summer Olympics.
Seema Bisla (Women’s Freestyle 50kg)
Seema comes from a family of wrestlers, where both her father and uncle were wrestlers and played the sport at a decent level. In 2021, she won the bronze medal in the women’s 50kg event at the 2021 Asian Wrestling Championships held in Almaty, Kazakhstan. The 29-year-old then secured her maiden Olympics berth when she reached the final at the World Wrestling Olympics qualifiers in Sofia, Bulgaria. Seema was at her absolute best as she registered three consecutive wins en route to securing her qualification. In what was the most important match of Seema’s career thus far, she trounced the Pole Anna Lukasiak 2-1 in the semifinals. The 29-year-old has been in good form in the lead up to the Olympic Games, and might spring a surprise or two on her day.
Vinesh Phogat (Women’s Freestyle 53kg)
Vinesh is the cousin of wrestlers Geeta Phogat and Babita Kumari. The 25-year-old is India’s best bet for a medal along with Bajrang Punia. After breaking through with her gold medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Vinesh has been a regular at the biggest wrestling events. She repeated her performance in the 2018 Commonwealth Games as she won her second gold medal, and in the same year she went on to win gold at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, becoming the first Indian female wrestler to win gold at both the Asian and Commonwealth Games. Vinesh won gold at the 2021 Asian Wrestling Championships and followed it up with another gold medal at the 2021 Poland Open Wrestling Tournament which concluded this month. Phogat’s gold shows that the star Indian wrestler is on the right track ahead of the Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
Anshu Malik (Women’s Freestyle 57kg)
Rising Indian wrestler Anshu Malik bagged her Tokyo 2020 quota in the Asian Olympics qualifiers in Almaty with a silver medal in the 57kg event. The 19-year-old outclassed her opponents Jiuen Um and Emma Tissina in her Group A matches. She continued to dominate as she beat Shokhida Akhmedova of Uzbekistan 12-2 in the semifinals to seal her qualification. However, Malik lost the summit clash to Khongorzul Boldsaikhan of Mongolia to settle for a silver medal. Malik idolises four-time Olympic medalist Kaori Icho, whose influence on Malik’s style is evident since her gold medal at the 2018 Asian Cadet Championships. Japan is the most dominating country in women’s wrestling, and Anshu aims to learn the Japanese technique to further her career and secure that Olympic medal just like her idol Kaori Icho. Malik has recently won a gold medal at the 2021 Asian Championships, and her style of wrestling and form makes her one of the dark horses to go all the way.
Sonam Malik (Women’s Freestyle 62kg)
From one Malik to another, Sonam defied all odds to become the youngest Indian female wrestler to qualify for the Olympic Games. In 2016, when Sakshi Malik – who was competing in the same weight category – won the bronze medal at the Rio Olympics, Sonam was still a school student. Five years on, and Sonam has defeated her idol four times in as many times they have competed. Her comeback is one of the best comeback stories of Indian wrestling. After reaching Almaty barely hours before her match and without proper sleep for two days, within four seconds of the commencement of the semi-final fight, her opponent pulled a classic move by dragging Sonam’s right leg from the back. Before she could react, her opponent pinned her to the mat and was awarded six points, while Sonam wailed in pain. What then ensued was sheer magic, as a determined and gritty Sonam pulled off a comeback from 0-6 down to take the match 9-6. Sonam’s resounding success and her rise to the cream of the crop in women’s 62kg category makes her one of India’s best bets for a medal in women’s wrestling.
Ravi Kumar Dahiya (Men’s Freestyle 57kg)
Ravi started wrestling at the age of 11 when he saw his idol Sushil Kumar win an Olympic medal for the first time in 2008. Since then, Ravi has dreamt of emulating his idol at the biggest stage of all. He has had a steady rise throughout his career, which makes him a force to reckon with at the Tokyo Olympics. He broke into the international circuit when he won the silver medal at the Junior World Championships in 2015. However, his biggest moment came in October 2019 when he won a bronze medal at the Senior World Championships and, in the process, earned an Olympics quota in the men’s 57kg freestyle category. The lockdown didn’t slow down the 23-year-old either, as he crushed his opponents on course to retaining his Asian Championship title in 2021. Ravi has been seeded fourth in the 57kg category and will likely be facing top seed Stevan Mićić in the semi-finals, if he doesn’t crash out before. Ravi definitely has an outside chance of being India’s dark horse for the 57kg category.
Bajrang Punia (Men’s Freestyle 65kg)
Punia is the only Indian wrestler to have won three medals at the World Wrestling Championships and the current world number one in the 65kg freestyle category. He is one of India’s brightest prospects to win a medal at the Summer Olympics. After securing a bronze medal in his first-ever major tournament, Bajrang fell at the final hurdle of both the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games of 2014, finishing as a silver medalist on both occasions. He tasted his first gold medal three years later in the 2017 Asian Championships held in New Delhi, which started a succession of golds as he righted the wrongs of 2014 by winning gold medals at both the 2018 Commonwealth Games and the 2018 Asian Games. Punia became the world number one in the 65kg category after clinching a silver medal at the 2018 World Wrestling Championships, and a bronze medal at the 2019 World Championships earned him a ticket to the 2020 Summer Olympics. Although his ranking and form fills every India’s heart with hopes of a medal, his recent knee injury at the Ali Aliyev Meet can be a dampener with less than a month to go.
Deepak Punia (Men’s Freestyle 86kg)
Deepak Punia followed the footsteps of his grandfather and father when he started wrestling in local akharas. But it was in 2015 when his maturity and fearlessness was tested when he was taken to the Chhatrasal Stadium in Delhi where he could get formal training. Within a year he grew by leaps and bounds and made a remarkable entry into the international circuit by winning the 2016 Cadet World Wrestling Championships in Tbilisi, Georgia. However, his true potential came to the fore in 2019 when he outwitted his opponents en route to his gold medal at the Junior World Wrestling Championships. Under the tutelage of two-time Olympic medalist Sushil Kumar, Deepak won the silver medal at the Senior World Wrestling Championships in Nur Sultan, Kazakhstan in 2019. He was robbed of his chance to win gold following a leg injury and had to return discontented, unable to fight world champion Hassan Yazdani. Deepak is seeded second in the 86kg category, and if he manages to cross the semi-final hurdle, the showdown event will be against his old foe and top seed, Hassan Yazdani – the gold medalist in Rio 2016 in the 74kg category.