Fresh from their Commonwealth Games titles, Vinesh Phogat, Bajrang Punia and Ravi Dahiya will spearhead India’s challenge at the Wrestling World Championships in Belgrade.
The Indian wrestling contingent put up a strong show at the Games in Birmingham, with all 12 of them winning a medal. But it won’t be as easy at the Worlds.
Apart from the level of competition being far superior to the CWG, India isn’t fielding its best team in Belgrade. Four out of the six women wrestlers who won medals at the CWG, including 2021 Worlds silver medallist Anshu Malik, aren’t in action this time around. Among the men, Deepak Punia (86kg) has been forced to give the competition a miss due to an elbow injury.
Vinesh in with a good chance
Squad: Barring Vinesh Phogat (53kg) and Sarita Mor (57kg), the women’s contingent is fairly young. Ankush (50kg), Sushma Shokeen (55kg), U-23 Asian champion Mansi Ahlawat (59kg), U-20 Worlds silver medalist Sonam Malik (62kg), Shefali (65kg), U-23 world bronze medallist Nisha Dahiya (68kg), U-20 Worlds silver winner Reetika (72kg) and Priyanka (76kg).
Vinesh has a fine chance to better her bronze medal from the 2019 edition, especially following Akari Fujinami’s withdrawal. The 18-year-old Japanese star, who is on a mind-numbing 103-match unbeaten streak, had to pull out of her title defence owing to a foot injury last week.
Seeded 10th, Vinesh begins her campaign against Mongolia’s Khulan Batkhuyag, who won silver at the 2022 Asian Championships. The Indian should be able to get past Batkhuyag without much fuss, following which she will take on Kazakhstan’s Zhuldyz Eshimova, a bronze medallist at the Asian Championships.
That would be followed by a tough bout versus Moldova’s Lulia Leorda, a silver medallist at the 2021 Worlds. If Vinesh can get past this tricky bout, then she is all but likely to clash with Sweden’s Joana Malmgren – the 2022 European champion. Malmgren has been shuffling between the 50kg and 53kg weight categories and made the full-time switch to the latter last year. She also won the 2021 Junior World Championships.
Vinesh would fancy her chances in the final, if she were to make it. The two most probable names she could face are either Canada’s Samantha Stewart or USA’s Dominique Parrish.
Why would Vinesh fancy her chances? Because she pinned Stewart in a little over 30 seconds when they competed at the CWG last month. Vinesh wouldn’t mind taking on Parrish either, who lost to Antim Panghal at the 2022 Ranking Series event in Tunisia. Vinesh had defeated Antim during the World Championships selection trials last month.
All eyes on Ravi, Bajrang
Squad: Ravi Dahiya (57kg) and Bajrang Punia (65kg) are the obvious big names in the roster, which also includes Pankaj Malik (61kg), Naveen Malik (70kg), Sagar Jaglan (74kg), Deepak Mirka (79kg), Sanjeet (86kg), Vicky Hooda (92kg), Vicky Chahar (97kg), and Dinesh Dhankar (125kg).
India’s most consistent wrestler today, Ravi is in fine form: he’s won gold at the Commonwealth Games, Asian Championships and Yasar Dogu tournament this year. The absence of Zaur Uguev, the Olympic gold medallist, could prove to be advantageous.
Seeded second, Ravi is expected to ease through his opening bout against Romania’s Razvan Marian Kovacs. He will then take on either Diamantino Iuna Fafe of Bissau-Guinean or Uzbekistan’s Gulomjon Abdullaev. Neither should trouble Ravi: he hasn’t faced Fafe, but he did defeat Abdullaev in the Yasar Dogu Ranking Series in February this year.
Ravi’s quarterfinal opponent is most likely to be Colombia’s Oscar Tigreros, who he had beaten enroute to his silver medal at the Olympics.
Ravi, who has been training in Vladikavkaz, Russia for the last month, would then clash with European U-23 champion and third seed, Horst Lehr, in the last-four stage and a win would see him set up a mouthwatering final against reigning world champion Thomas Gilman. The two have never faced each other yet.
Bajrang, who is India’s first-ever three-time worlds medalist, faces a tricky journey to win a fourth.
He has been held back by a knee injury but will look to capitalise on his new-found form in the men’s 65kg. He showed glimpses of his vintage self as he dominated his way to the CWG gold last month.
Bajrang is seeded second and is the favourite to face three-time world champion Haji Aliyev in the final, but it may not be an easy path. Bajrang’s campaign begins from the pre-quarterfinal stage, where he is most likely to clash with Cuba’s Alejandro Enrique Valdes Tobier. A seasoned campaigner, Tobier is a former Pan-American champion and won bronze at the Worlds in 2018. Bajrang had beaten the Cuban on his way to a silver medal that year.
The 65kg division is the most fiercely-contested and fiercely-followed weight category in freestyle wrestling and can always spring surprises. In Bajrang’s case, the surprise could be in the form of his prospective quarterfinal opponent: USA’s Yianni Diakomihalis. Diakomihalis, a three-time NCAA champion, is out to end USA’s 26-year medal drought in the 65kg division.
If the seedings hold, Bajrang will face Poland’s 2021 European Championship silver medallist Krzysztof Bienkowski in the semis. Bajrang had beaten Bienkowski in their first-round match-up in the 2019 World Championships and went on to win bronze in that edition.
If things go as per script then Bajrang will face Aliyev in the final, but he will also be wary of Iran’s Rahman Amouzad, who is well capable of pulling off an upset win. Bajrang had lost to Amouzad at the Asian Championships this year.