Rising from a nondescript village in Ludhiana district, it took him years of grit and determination to become the legend he has today. Sixty-four-year-old wrestling sensation Tiger Jeet Singh is another Indian to have lived out his foreign dream, emerging as a prominent member of Canadian society. HT City tracks Tiger’s life.
Village to Vancouver
In the early 1960s, six-foot plus 17-year-old Jeet Singh Hans aka Tiger Jeet Singh (one of four sons of Major Gurbachan Singh) is a high school student in Sujapur village, Ludhiana. He dreams of living life king size, but is unsure of how to achieve what seems like a distant dream. He already has the physique of a wrestler, complete with the bulging muscles, and has started taking part in local kushtis (wrestling matches).
In 1962, still a teen, he lands in Vancouver penniless but with big dreams. The amateur wrestler begins participating in some local fights which help him to earn a livelihood. He only returns to India for a visit after five years.
As he begins to garner popularity in wrestling circles in Canada, he bags a five-year wrestling contract by a local promoter of the sport, Frank Tunney, for a weekly salary of $100. A professional coach, Fred Atkins, from New Zealand, is hired to train Jeet. Atkins gives Jeet his stage name, Tiger. “Fred, who was a professional wrestler himself, was my first and last coach. He gave me so much — I can never repay him for all that he’s done for me,” says Tiger fondly.
Within several years, Tiger makes a name for himself, and in 1974, defeats US champion Johnny Valentine in just three minutes, earning $6,800 for the fight. “My eldest son was born, and upon receiving the biggest payment of my life at that point, I rushed to the hospital in a brand new car to take my newborn son and wife home,” recalls a misty-eyed Tiger.
“The world champion boxer, Muhammad Ali, is a friend of mine so I decided to name my son after him. My son, Tiger Ali Singh, is also a wrestler,” he shares. Tiger senior has three sons — one of them is a homicide detective and the other is a hotelier.
Journey to Japan
By the mid ’70s, Tiger is picked up by a Japanese wrestling promoter and taken to Japan, which according to Tiger, is the Mecca of wrestling. Upon reaching Japan, Tiger becomes an overnight celeb after a brawl with Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki. “After this incident, I became a craze in Tokyo. Photos of the incident were splashed across newspapers and 40 years later, I was awarded with the title of living legend,” Tiger says.
“There is even a clothing line and wine brand named after me,” beams the former pro wrestler.
By now, a big time star, Tiger wins title after title, earning major moolah in Japan. “I defeated Japanese wrestler Wajima and remained a champion for 20 years consecutively,” shares the champ as he runs his eyes over his shiny medals that hang in one corner of his home.
Tiger shifted to Milton (a town in Southern Ontario, 30 kilometres west of Toronto) from Vancouver 40 years ago. There, he built his mansion spread over a 100-acre plot where he resides with his wife, three sons, and seven grandkids.
His contribution towards wrestling and his efforts towards social work in Canada are recognised by the local administration of Milton and a school is established in his name called Tiger Jeet Singh Public School, in which he is also the chairman.
A restaurant in Milton has displayed all the medals and belts won by the Indian-origin wrestler. “Earlier, my fans used to come directly to my home to see my medals. Now, they can view them at the restaurant,” shares Tiger, who is wearing his trademark printed turban (he purchases his turbans from Patiala). His son, Tiger Ali’s medals are also on display at the restaurant.
Tiger enjoys equal admiration in Milton City Hall. Not only is he on the wall of fame there, as he enters the building, everyone bows down out of respect. And, as he walks into the mayor’s office, he even makes himself comfortable in the mayor’s chair.
Tiger gives back
After being actively involved in wrestling for almost half a century, Tiger Jeet Singh and his son, Tiger Ali Singh, created the Tiger Jeet Singh Foundation, a charity registered in Canada.
The purpose of the foundation is to provide assistance to public schools and hospitals where government funding falls short. Recently, it has been promoting two charity events to assist this effort — TigerFest and Troy’s Toy Drive. The primary objective of TigerFest is to promote youth to stay away from drugs, utilising the popularity of professional wrestling to draw big crowds.
The objective of Troy’s Toy Drive is to promote the spirit of giving among all faiths and religions. It supports Halton Women’s Place, Salvation Army, the Hospital for Sick Children and McMaster Children’s Hospital. Donations collected support families and the young patients at the hospital.
In addition to delivering toys to the patients at the Hospital for Sick Children, Tiger senior and junior have lead reading sessions for the patients at the hospital.