Gama Pehlwan (Pehlwan: Panjabi word meaning wrestler) was born in Amritsar district in the village Jabbowal (Punjab, Northern India) on May 22, 1878, to a family of wrestlers. After the death of his father Muhammad Aziz Baksh (a well-renowned wrestler) when he was six, Gama was put under the care of his maternal grandfather Nun Pehlwan. Following his death, Gama was taken care of by his uncle Ida, another wrestler, who also began training Gama in wrestling. This legendary wrestler had some 5000 wrestling matches and remained undefeated when he retired, he traveled internationally and challenged the best of the best.
He was first noticed at the age of ten, in 1888, when he entered a strongman competition held in Jodhpur, which included many grueling exercises such as squats. The contest was attended by more than four hundred wrestlers and Gama was among the last fifteen and was named the winner by the Maharaja of Jodhpur due to his young age. Gama was subsequently taken into training by the Maharaja of Datia.
Training & Diet
Gama's daily training consisted of grappling with forty of his fellow wrestlers in the wrestling court (akhara). He did a minimum of five thousand bodyweight squats (baithak) and three thousand pushups (dands) in a day and even sometimes more within 30 to 45 minutes each by wearing a doughnut-shaped wrestling apparatus called a Hasli weighing approximately 100 kg.
Gama's diet included the following:
1. 10 liters of milk per day mixed with 1.5 pounds of crushed almond paste
2. A half liter of ghee
3. Six pounds of butter
4. Three buckets of seasonal fruits
5. Six desi chickens or mutton
6. Fruit juices and other ingredients to promote his digestive system and muscular health
First encounter with Raheem Bakhsh Sultani Wala
Fame came to Gama in 1895, at the age of 17 when he challenged then-Indian Wrestling Champion, middle-aged Raheem Bakhsh Sultani Wala, another ethnic Kashmiri wrestler from Gujranwala, now in Punjab, Pakistan. At about 7 feet tall, with a very impressive win-loss record, Raheem was expected to easily defeat the 5'7" Gama. Raheem's only drawback was his age as he was much older than Gama, and near the end of his career. The bout continued for hours and eventually ended in a draw. The contest with Raheem was the turning point in Gama's career. After that, he was looked upon as the next contender for the Indian Wrestling Championship. In the first bout Gama remained defensive, but in the second bout, Gama went on the offensive. Despite severe bleeding from his nose and ears, he managed to deal out a great deal of damage to Raheem Bakhsh.
By 1910, Gama had defeated all the prominent Indian wrestlers who faced him except the champion, Raheem Bakhsh Sultani Wala. At this time, he focused his attention on the rest of the world. Accompanied by his younger brother Imam Bakhsh, Gama sailed to England to compete with the Western wrestlers but could not gain instant entry, because of his lower height.
In London, Gama issued a challenge that he could throw any three wrestlers in
thirty minutes of any weight class. This announcement, however, was seen as a bluff by the wrestlers and their wrestling promoter R. B. Benjamin. For a long time, no one came forward to accept the challenge. To break the ice, Gama presented another challenge to specific heavyweight wrestlers. He challenged Stanislaus Zbyszko and Frank Gotch, either he would beat them or pay them the prize money and go home. The first professional wrestler to take his challenge was the American Doc Benjamin Roller. Gama threw "Doc" 13 times in the 15-minute match, Gama pinned Roller in 1 minute 40 seconds the first time, and in 9 minutes 10 seconds the other. On the second day, he defeated 12 wrestlers and thus gained entry to the official tournament.
Match with Stanislaus Zbyszko
He was pitted against world champion Stanislaus Zbyszko and the date of bout was set as 10 September 1910. Zbyszko was then regarded among the premier wrestlers in the world; and he would then take on the mammoth challenge of India's feared Great Gama, an undefeated champion who had been unsuccessful in his attempts to lure Frank Gotch into a match. And so, on September 10, 1910, Zbyszko faced the Great Gama in the finals of the John Bull World Championships in London. The match was £250 in prize money and the John Bull Belt. Within a minute, Zbyszko was taken down and remained in that position for the remaining 2 hours and 35 minutes of the match. There were a few brief moments when Zbyszko would get up, but he just ended back down in his previous position. Crafting a defensive strategy of hugging the mat in order to nullify Great Gama’s greatest strengths, Zbyszko wrestled the Indian legend to a draw after nearly three hours of grappling, though Zbyszko’s lack of tenacity angered many of the fans in attendance. Nevertheless, Zbyszko still became one of the few wrestlers to ever meet the Great Gama without going down in defeat; The two men were set to face each other again on September 17, 1910. On that date, Zbyszko failed to show up and Gama was announced the winner by default. He was awarded the prize and the John Bull Belt. Receiving this belt entitled Gama to be called Rustam-e-Zamana or World Champion.
Matches with American and European champions
During this tour, Gama defeated some of the most respected grapplers in the world, "Doc" Benjamin Roller of the United States, Maurice Deriaz of Switzerland, Johann Lemm (the European Champion) of Switzerland, and Jesse Peterson (World Champion) from Sweden. In the match against Roller, Gama now issued a challenge to the rest of those who laid claim to the World Champion's Title, including Japanese Judo champion Taro Miyake, George Hackenschmidt of Russia and Frank Gotch of the United States – each declined his invitation to enter the ring to face him. At one point, to face some type of competition, Gama offered to fight twenty English wrestlers, one after another. He announced that he would defeat all of them or pay out prize money, but still, no one would take up his challenge.
The final encounter with Raheem Bakhsh Sultani Wala
Shortly after his return from England, Gama faced Raheem Bakhsh Sultani Wala in Allahabad. This bout eventually ended the long struggle between the two pillars of Indian wrestling of that time in favor of Gama and he won the title of Rustam-e-Hind or Champion of India. Later in his life when asked who was his strongest opponent, Gama replied, "Raheem Bakhsh Sultani Wala".
Rematch with Zbyszko
After beating Raheem Bakhsh Sultani Wala, Gama faced Pandit Biddu, who was one of the best wrestlers in India of that time (1916) and beat him. Gama did not have any opponents until 1927 when it was announced that Gama and Zbyszko would face each other again. They met in Patiala in January 1928. Entering the bout, Zbyszko "showed a strong build of body and muscle" and Gama, it was reported, "looked much thinner than usual". However, he managed to overpower the former easily and won the bout inside a minute, winning the Indian version of the World Wrestling Championship. Following the bout, Zbyszko praised him, calling him a "tiger". At forty-eight years old he was now known as the "Great wrestler" of India.
Match with Balram Heeraman Singh Yadav
After defeating Zbyszko, Gama beat Jesse Petersen in February 1929. The bout lasted only one and a half minutes. This was the last bout that Gama fought during his career. In the 1940s he was invited by the Nizam of Hyderabad and defeated all his fighters. The Nizam then sent him to face the wrestler Balram Heeraman Singh Yadav, who was never defeated in his life. The fight was very long. Gama was unable to defeat Heeraman and eventually, neither wrestler won. Heeraman was one of the toughest wrestlers for Gama to face.
Although Gama did not retire until 1952, he failed to find any other opponents. After his retirement, he trained his nephew Bholu Pehlwan, who held the Pakistani wrestling championship for almost 20 years.
The Match That Never Happened
Another legendary wrestler from Punjab was Kikar Singh Pehlwan, who was a giant and known for his herculean strength. Kikar Singh Pehlwan was born in 1857 and had passed his prime as he had become asthmatic by the time Gama Pehlwan had become a force to be reckoned with.
His Brother Imam Baksh
It is said that the only wrestler who could have defeated Gama Pehlwan was none
other than his own brother, Imam Baksh Pehlwan, who was not only half a foot taller than his more acclaimed sibling but was also hailed by experts as tactically more superior than Gama. But call it fraternal loyalty or mutual respect, but they never came face to face though Gama eventually did relinquish his Rustam-e-Hind title to his brother in a tournament in Kolhapur in which Imam Baksh destroyed Gama’s arch-rival Raheem Baksh in the ring.
The Great Gama died in Lahore, Pakistan on 23 May 1960 after a period of illness. He was given land and monthly pension by the government and supported his medical expenses until his death.