Bajrang Punia had won a bronze medal in the World Championships last year. (Photo Credit: Getty Images)
Bajrang Punia will look to defend his 65kg freestyle title while Vinesh Phogat will aim to upgrade the 53kg bronze she won in the last edition to gold when the Asian Wrestling Championship begins in New Delhi on Tuesday. The six-day event at the KD Jadhav Wrestling Stadium will act as a platform for the Indian wrestlers to test their skills against the best in Asia ahead of the Tokyo Olympics. The championship has been classified as a ranking tournament for the Tokyo Olympics by the United World Wrestling, the global governing body of the sport. Besides Punia and Vinesh Phogat, who had won a bronze medal each in the World Championships last year, the 30-member India squad will also feature Deepak Punia, Ravi Kumar Dahiya and Olympic medallist Shakshi Malik.
Anshu Malik, Ashu and Sonam Malik are the three youngsters who would look to make a mark in the tournament. The tournament will be played in three categories -- men's freeStyle, Greco-Roman and women's wrestling. The first two days will see Greco-Roman competition, followed by women's wrestling (next two days) and men's freestyle (last two days).
There was initially uncertainty over the participation of four Pakistani wrestlers and two officials due to political tension but they have been cleared by the government to take part in the championship. However, a 40-strong Chinese contingent will not be taking part in the championships as they have not been granted visas by the government due to the novel coronavirus outbreak there. The Senior Asian Championship is returning to India after a gap of two years. India last hosted the championship in 2017. In the 2019 edition in Xi'an province of China, India had won 16 medals, including the lone gold from Punia in 65kg category.
World No. 2 and India's leading medal hope, Punia said, "It is a great opportunity for all of us. We will be playing in front of our home fans. Though to many it might seem as pressure, but I believe it will work as an advantage and I am hopeful that large numbers will be coming in to fill the stands and support us." Dahiya, who has already qualified for the Olympics courtesy his bronze medal-winning performance at the 2019 World Championships, echoed Bajrang's feelings. "We are excited about the tournament. I am personally looking at ensuring that in my weight category I end up winning gold. 57 kg is a tough weight category and has probably the stiffest competition but losing is not an option when you are playing in your home ground," he said.
Vinesh is India's brightest medal prospect in the women's category fresh from her gold medal at the Ranking Series in Italy. (Image credit: Getty Images)
Fresh from her gold medal at the Ranking Series in Italy, Vinesh is India's brightest medal prospect in the women's category. "We have a strong contingent in both men and women's category. Asia has a very good set of wrestlers and being the Olympic year everyone will be looking to get as many wins as possible heading to the Tokyo Games. Personally, I am looking at this competition as a launch-pad for my upcoming competitions," said Vinesh.
One of the dark horses of the tournament will be Sakshi (65 kg) who has not done anything of note last year. While she is not competing in her regular weight category, she could utilise the tournament to redeem herself. Sakshi had won a bronze in 62kg in the last edition. Apart from the Indians, there will be a number of top international wrestlers as well, like Kenichiro Fumita, gold medallist at 2019 World Wrestling Championships, and Nurislam Sanayev from Kazakhstan in freestyle.
In Greco-Roman, wrestlers like South Korea's Ryu Han Su (a two-time world champion) and Uzbekistan's Elmurat Tasmuradov (a five-time Asian Championship gold medallist) will be in action. Aisuluu Tynybekova of Kyrgyzstan, gold medallist at 2019 world championships and a three-time Asian Championship winner, will be headlining the women's wrestling category.