A Forgotten Wrestling Legend: Perhaps The Greatest of Them All

Srikanth DileepCorrespondent IFebruary 16, 2009

Some people when they first heard the name “Great Khali”, used by the Indian superstar “Dalip Singh”, might have wondered where that name came from.

Did they call him “Great” because of his size? Did it come from the brains of the creative team of writers? or did Vince create it? No. Then where did it come from? In answering this question we’ll have to first ask ourselves two questions.

Where did pro wrestling come from? And who is the greatest wrestling legend of all time?

To discover the origin of that in ring name and to get our questions answered, we’ll have to take a long look back at the history of wrestling, not just as a form of entertainment but as a real time sport and art form. We’ll have to study in deep, how pro wrestling evolved and take it’s ancestors out of the dust and rust of memories.

This journey will take us to the different arts and sports forms from which the different styles of entertainment wrestling as we see it today, has evolved. For example, wrestling in the North American region originated from the catch and submission style of wrestling popular in Europe and Asiawhile the prominent Japanese style of wrestling puroresu, evolved out of the different types of martial arts practiced in the country.

Hardcore wrestling came straight from the streets and was derived from the violent street fights often called as extreme or garbage action. Similarly, we can see that the different fighting techniques in several different parts of the world have merged themselves into the sport that is wrestling to transform it into the entertainment form of pro wrestling.

Now, although pro wrestling has taken its components from every form of action, its inner core still consists of the basic styles of catch wrestling, judo as well as mat and submission wrestling.

But one peculiar aspect of these ancestors of present day pro wrestling, is that they were not just mere sources of entertainment, rather were highly competitive and arguably, the toughest forms of sports ever invented, practiced, and performed.

Yes, they were “real”, damn real! Looking into that decorated history of wrestling, we’ll see legendary wrestlers from different parts of the world, who were masters of one or more styles of wrestling, who carried championship belts of majestic pride and honour from different regions, categories and styles of wrestling.

Wrestling to them was not a way of passing time or entertaining themselves. It was their deep passion and their life.

Among these wrestling legends, are names like Frank Gotch, Benjamin Roller, Dan Kolov, Imam Baksh and the list goes on with names like “Stanislaus Zbyszko”, who as we know today, is one among the pioneers of the modern day pro wrestling, one of the key individuals who played a major role in transforming wrestling from a competitive sport into an entertainment form full of showmanship and theatrics.

Somewhere in that long list of legends and champions, we may perhaps come across a name from among those in the subcontinental region, consisting of countries like India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh. A name that stands apart from everyone else in wrestling till date, a legend that would rank amongst the greatest, not just in wrestling, but in all of sports. The legend of a man known as “Great Gama”.

Great Gama, or Ghulam Muhammad, was a Kashmiri Muslim wrestler from the undivided India, who was a practitioner of what is known as “Pehlwani” wrestling in south asian countries like India and Pakistan.

Pehlwani wrestling is one of the true early ancestors of present day mat wrestling from which todays pro wrestling has evolved. “Gama” was actually his Punjabi/Indian nickname. He won the Indian version of the world heavyweight championship on Oct. 10, 1910. But the greater part of his legacy was that he is the only wrestler in history who remained undefeated throughout his life and the fact that his active career spanned more than 50 years, speaks for itself.

He is known as the greatest Pehlwani wrestler in history and one very interesting point is that Gama although much heavier than an ordinary person and very much known for his extraordinary strength, was only 5’ 7” tall which inturn means that inorder to hold such a magnificient record, he must also have been one of the greatest ever technically sound wrestlers in history, if not “the greatest”.

Ghulam Muhammad was born to the renowned wrestler Muhammad Aziz in Amritsar, Punjab.His father died at the age of five and he was looked after by his uncle Eida. Gama was first noticed at the age of ten when he entered a strongman competition, held in Jodhpur, that included many tough exercises including Indian squats, and which was attended by around four hundred wrestlers.

In that competiton, Gama came out among the last fifteen wrestlers. At that point Gama was announced as the winner by the Maharaja of Jodhpur due to his remarkable show of strength and enormous stamina as well as dedication among the many older wrestlers.

At the age of 19, Gama challenged the Indian wrestling champion, Raheem Baksh Sultani Wala who stood at 6'9" and had a very impressive record and was also known to be technically sound. Hence Gama was dismissed by the best analysts as standing no chance at all of surviving in the match.

But, to the amazement of every soul who came to watch the bout, it went on and on for hours and finally, ended in a draw. This was the turning point of  young Ghulam’s career and a second bout was arranged with Baksh. In that match, instead of the defensive mode he had followed in the previous bout, Gama unloaded offense and by the end of the match. Gama was bleeding from his nose and ears but by that time he had managed to destroy the chest region of Raheem Baksh, hurting his lungs and heart.

By around 1910, all famous Indian wrestlers except Raheem Baksh had been beaten by Gama. Then, Gama and his brother sailed to England to compete with wrestlers from the west. In London, Gama issued an open challenge to throw any three wrestlers of any weight class, within thirty minutes but nobody came forward (some promoters regarded this simply as a bluff).

Then he issued open challenges to prominent individual heavyweight wrestlers with stipulations like “he would beat them or pay them the prize money and leave for home”. The challenge was first taken up by American Benjamin Roller and Gama pinned Roller in one minute 40 seconds first and then again in nine minutes 10 seconds.

Then, Gama’s challenge was accepted by Stanislaus Zbyszko and the match date was fixed on 10 Sept. 1910. The match prize was £250 and the John Bull belt. The match started and within a minute, Zbyszko was taken down and he remained in that position for the remaining two hours and 35 minutes of the match. He would get up for brief moments but only to end back down in his previous position.

A rematch was then fixed on Sept. 17, 1910. Zbysko failed to show up and Gama was announced the winner, by default. Thus he received the prize money and was awarded the John Bull belt after which he came to be known as Rustam-e-Zamana or the World Champion. Before he left England, Gama also defeated several Japanese judo, grappling experts like Matsuya Mada.

After returning from England, another match was fixed between Gama and Raheem Bakhsh Sultani Wala in Allahabad. This match finally ended the heated struggle between the two biggest pillars of Indian wrestling with a victory for Gama after which he won the title, “Rustam-e-Hind” or Champion of India.

Soon, he came to be known as “Great Gama”. Years later, Gama was asked who his strongest and greatest opponent was and the reply was “Raheem Bakhsh Sultani Wala”. After his victory over Sultani Wala, Gama beat Pandit Biddu in 1916, who was known to be one of the best Indian wrestlers of the time. The Prince of Wales during his visit to India, in 1922, presented Gama with a silver mace.

Gama was without any opponents till 1927. By this time, he had attained nick names like  “Lion of Punjab”. Then, it was announced that Gama and Zbyszko will face each other once again, in a rematch.

In 1928, in Patiala, the two icons met again. By this time, both were well past their prime, still the match drew a gigantic crowd of around 60,000. But the result of the match came quick, when Gama threw Zbyszko in only 42 seconds. But by this time, Zbyszko had attained an image of showmanship (by this time, the era of present day pro wrestling had actually started with booked matches), and several people thought of this as a worked attempt to push the stars who were past their prime.

In February 1929, Gama beat Jesse Petersen in just one and a half minutes. In the 1940’s, Gama continued to put out challenges but with an added stipulation that those who accept his challenge should first beat Imam inorder to face him. But, no one ever did. Gama remained in active wrestling till 1955, but could not find an opponent and thus he retired, undefeated.

Once he put up a challenge to stop a train from moving and the stipulation was to make a 11 km stratch fare free, for all Indians. But, the British government of the time, turned down the offer.

After India and Pakistan became independent in 1947, and the partition of India happened, Gama opted to move to Pakistan and spent the rest of his life in Lahorealong with his brother, the Indian champion Imam Bux and his nephews. The Great Gama died in Lahore on 21 May. But, the exact year of his death is still unclear, and there are arguments that it was 1958 and that it was 1960.

The biggest legend to rise in Pehlwani wrestling in the many years that followed was Dara Singh. He beat several former world champions including Zbyszko in the United States. His prime period in wrestling was during the 50’s and 60’s and he is known for his epic series of matches against Lou Thesz in the late 1960’s. Dara Singh retired from active wrestling in 1983.

It is interesting to note that Gama and Dara have never faced each other because both had their prime periods at very near yet, different points in wrestling history.

Again, I must communicate here that Gama has not been inducted into the wrestling hall of fame or in most of the other groups of elites related to wrestling. Dara Singh was inducted into the “Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame” in the class of 1996 inductees, but Gama, I believe, has still not been inducted, which is a very good reason to support my arguments that it is completely biased.

It is not that Dara was not a great wrestler or he was undeserving of the honour. But, the point is that Dara Singh despite being a great wrestler, was also a well known Indian actor and has left his mark in the celluloid. This, along with matches against Lou Thesz could also have been reasons for inducting him while ignoring Gama till this time.

This leaves us with several thoughts like “Was Gama the greatest wrestling legend of all time?” or “Who could have been that person who will finally come and accept Gama’s challenge and…may be, defeat him? And end his undefeated run”...maybe a technical great of today like “Kurt Angle”, or a strong and sound “Brock Lesnar”...or may be an “Andre the Giant”...these questions will forever remain unanswered.

Today, a hass which is a doughnut shaped exercise disc (shown in picture), weighing 95 kgs, used by him for squats, is placed at the National Institute of Sports (NIS) Museum at Patiala.