Tokyo en route Nur-Sultan

Mihir Vasavda
Bajrang has not returned empty-handed from tournaments in the last one year, and has won titles at the Asian Championships and Ali Aliyev Tournament.

The wrestling World Championships, which gets underway in Kazakh capital Nur Sultan, will test the Olympic credentials of Vinesh Phogat and Bajrang Punia, the two biggest medal prospects. India s first junior world champion in nearly two decades, Deepak Punia, will be keen to prove his mettle among the seniors while two-time Olympic medalist Sushil Kumar will return to the worlds for the first time after eight years. With the Wrestling Federation of India president Brijbhushan Saran Singh announcing that the winner of an Olympic quota here will be chosen for the Tokyo-bound team, there is a lot at stake. Here s a low-down on India s prospects:

Bajrang Punia (65kg) — Seed: 1
Challengers: Takuto Otoguro (Japan), Selahattin Kilicsallayan (Turkey), Gadzhimurad Rashidov (Russia)
Competition dates: Prelim – September 19; medal round – September 20

This will be a testing ground for Bajrang s Olympic credentials. India s biggest medal prospect – in Nur Sultan and also in Tokyo next year – will be up against defending champion Takuto Otoguro, European silver medalist Selahattin Kilicsallayan of Turkey and Asian silver medalist from Kazakhstan, Sayatbek Okassov. Two-time worlds runner-up Gadzhimurad Rashidov s presence in this category will spice things up.

Bajrang has not returned empty-handed from tournaments in the last one year, and has won titles at the Asian Championships and Ali Aliyev Tournament. Last year, he lost to Otoguro in the worlds final in a bout that is widely considered to be the Match of 2018. It won t be surprising to see the two tussle for gold once again this week.

This will be Sushil Kumar’s first major international tournament in the 74kg category. (PTI)

Sushil Kumar (74kg) — Unseeded
Challengers: Frank Chamizo (Italy), Jordan Burroughs (USA), Zaurbek Sidakov (Russia)
Competition dates: Prelim – September 20; medal round – September 21

This will be the two-time Olympic medalist and the 2010 world champion s first appearance in the event since 2011. Sushil was set to compete in the 2015 edition but eventually pulled out due to an injury, which paved the way for Narsingh Yadav to go there and win a bronze. The medal earned him a quota for Rio Olympics. That was the beginning of a long battle which ended with neither of them competing at the Games.

Now, Sushil has a chance to make amends. He isn t quite the same wrestler that he was four years ago, and the early exits at the 2018 Asian Games and Medved Tournament this year only reinforces that belief. This will be his first major international tournament in the 74kg category, where he will be up against some of the best in the business. Sushil isn t seeded, which means he might get a tricky draw to reach the medal rounds.

Deepak Punia (86kg) — Seed: 4
Challenger: Hassan Yazdanicharati (Iran), Fatih Erdin (Turkey), Boris Makoev (Slovakia)
Competition dates: Prelim – September 21; medal round – September 22

In August, he became the first Indian to win the world junior title in 18 years. The gold reasserted his position as one of India s best young wrestlers, given his eye-catching performances at the Asian Championships, where he won the bronze, and Yasar Dogu competition, where he returned with a silver.

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The worlds will be his first big test at a senior level. His biggest obstacle will be Iran s Hassan Yazdanicharati, who will be the frontrunner after world champion in this class, USA s David Taylor s season ended prematurely due to an injury. Taylor has handed Yazdani two of his four senior-level losses, so the American s absence makes the Irani wrestler the favourite.

I am confident that India will record its best performance at the World Championship in Nur Sultan. The wrestler who wins a quota at the World Championship will represent India at the Tokyo Olympics. There will not be any trials. This has been our policy in the past as well, and all wrestlers have been informed about this. Brijbhushan Saran Singh, President of Wrestling Federation of India

Seema (50kg) — Seed: 2
Challengers: Oksana Livach (Ukraine), Sun Yanan (China), Evin Demirhan (Turkey)
Competition dates: Prelim – September 17; medal round – September 18

Seema started the season at 53kg but had to drop down to 50 to accommodate Vinesh Phogat in that category. She used her gold medal points from the City of Sassari Tournament, and the Yasar Dogu to jump into the No. 2 spot in the seedings, which is likely to give her a favourable draw.

The weight category has been thrown open by the absence of the top-ranked Yui Susaki, considered to be the most dominant woman wrestler. The Japanese wrestler was stunned by Yuki Irie in a playoff for the spot. That will make Ukraine s Oksana Livach, the top seed and last year s bronze medalist, a favourite in this category.

Vinesh Phogat gestures during the medal ceremony of women’s freestyle 50 kg wrestling event at the Asian Games 2018. (Source: PTI)

Vinesh Phogat (53kg) — Unseeded
Challengers: Sarah Hildebrandt (USA), Mayu Mukaida (Japan), Qianyu Pang (China)
Competition dates: Prelim – September 17; medal round – September 18

Phogat won three titles in the 53kg weight class in July: first at the Grand Prix of Spain followed by Yasar Dogu ranking tournament in Turkey and the Poland Open. En route to a hat-trick of gold medals, she defeated a Rio Olympics bronze medalist, and a few other wrestlers who are ranked in the top 10 of the world.

But that would mean nothing if she doesn t finish among the top six, let alone podium, at the World Championship. World number 1 Sarah ann Hildebrandt of the USA has been solid the whole year while there s a tasty rivalry building up between Phogat and China s Qianyu Pang. Japan s reigning 55kg world champion Mayu Mukaida has dropped to the Olympic weight and grabbed the starting spot from Haruna Okuno, thethe current champion in this category.

Non-Olympic categories

Rahul Aware, seeded second in 61kg, will be among the favourites to finish on the podium in this category. For that, though, he will have to shed the tag of being an under-performer in major international events. He will face still challenge from Cuba s Yowlys Bonne Rodriguez, Beka Lomtadze of Georgia and Romania s Nikolai Okhlopov.
Pooja Dhanda became only the fourth Indian woman to win a medal at the Worlds last year. However, she could not book a berth in her preferred 57kg class, which is an Olympic category. Her surprise defeat to Sarita Mor in the trials means she will fight for her second worlds medal in 59kg.