Bhaisahab, I have no idea why people are attracted to me. There are so many times that instead of supporting their own country, they root for Bajrang.”
Germany, Kazakhstan, Russia, USA. Indian wrestler Bajrang Punia has made crowds fall in love with him around the world. The reason, though, is beyond him.
“It’s perhaps the craze for wrestling in these countries. You don’t get this much love in India, because not a lot of people truly follow wrestling,” Bajrang tells The Indian Express from his training base in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “In all these countries, at any tournament or event, the stadiums are full of people with love for wrestling.”
But why is so much of it directed towards Bajrang? The 26-year-old phenom is a three-time medallist at Worlds but yet to strike gold. He hasn’t made his Olympic bow. There have been Indian wrestlers, nay, combat sport champions from India with bigger achievements. But nobody makes fans as easily as Bajrang.
Before his stint in the German league last February, the country’s wrestling forums went into overdrive. Commenters wondered whether he would live up to the hype after a tough Pro Wrestling League season back home. Others reposted speculation of the debutant being under the weather. Cut to the Indian cutting down opponents to size, to the chorus ‘Bajrang, Bajrang’.
Bajrang remembers waking up to back pages bathed with his photos. “Inder Tiger, Inder Joker. One who changed the game. Photos in every newspaper and channels,” recalls Bajrang. “My club (VfK 07 Schifferstadt) hadn’t won the league title in 14 years.”
Two months later, he was at the Ali Aliev Invitational in Dagestan; the wrestling capital of Russia. In the final, he defeated a local guy as the crowd favourite.
“You watch those wrestling videos from Dagestan, they are exactly like the Germany one. The crowd is behind me even though I am beating the local guy,” Bajrang says. “Russia is lovely and whenever I step on the mat, they start the chants.”
Russia’s love for Bajrang rubbed off on their neighbours. Kazakhstan hosted the World Championships last year, and eventual bronze medallist Bajrang landed a day before his bout.