Chiba: He did not live up to the sky-high expectations but India's Bajrang Punia will return from Tokyo with a bronze medal on Olympic debut after outwitting Daulet Niyazbekov in the play-off here on Saturday.
If his defence let him down in the semifinal against Hazi Aliev, Bajrang's smart attacking moves made him a 8-0 winner against Kazakhstan's Niyazbekov, to whom he had lost in the semifinals of the 2019 World Championship.
The medal-winning performance saved 27-year-old Bajrang and the Indian wrestling contingent from embarrassment since the wrestlers had entered Tokyo with high expectations.
After medal-favourite Vinesh Phogat's shock quarterfinal exit and Bajrang's below par show in the first three matches, a pall of gloom had descended on Indian wrestling contingent.
However, the three-time medallist at world championships rose to the occasion with a comfortable win.
With Bajrang's medal, Indian wrestlers have matched their best performance at the Olympic Games by earning two podium finishes. Ravi Dahiya had won an inspiring silver medal in the 57kg category.
At the 2012 London Games, Sushil Kumar had won a silver and Yogeshwar Dutt returned with a bronze.
Bajrang earned the first point on passivity of Niyazbekov as standing wrestling was on display.
The Indian initiated a right-leg attack but Niyazbekov had the Indian in a headlock. Bajrang freed himself from the position and earned another point by pushing out the Kazakhstan wrestler, leading 2-0 at the end of first period.
His right-leg attack again did not convert into points with Niyazbekov again stopping him with his headlock.
Bajrang kept attacking and finally executed a take-down with a right-leg attack. He repeated the move for a commanding 6-0 lead and took it away from Niyazbekov with another move on the left-leg.
Niyazbekov was surprisingly very subdued after coming to the Play-off round with a win in the repechage round.
With his podium, India also equalled their best ever Olympic medal haul of six achieved in the 2012 London edition.
Bajrang had defeated Kyrgyzstan's Ernazar Akmataliev and Iran's Morteza Cheka Ghiasi before losing to Aliev from Azerbaijan in the semifinals on Friday....