Stop, drop and roll: Inside India’s pro-wrestling academies
When a wrestler weighing 250 lb jumps off the ring ropes onto his opponent in a professional- or pro-wrestling match, everyone knows it’s not real. The big, burly men and women oozing sweat and aggression are playing their part in a carefully scripted show. The triumphs and losses are staged. But the dangers can be very real and one does not become a pro wrestler just by jumping into a ring.
It takes training, determination and practised choreography. And as more Indians make it to the big leagues, there are now academies popping up that promise to help recruits become the next Rock, John Cena or Great Khali.
Professional wrestling came to Indian television in the 1990s. Remember those trading cards, featuring a massive Yokozuna (Chest: 50 inches) and a very surly The Rock (Biceps: 32 inches); the drama and aggression, betrayals and intricate backstories?
“When I was about five, I remember sitting with my family in front of the television in our house in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar. My grandparents were big fans and they sort of got us kids, my two sisters, my brother and me, interested too,” says Vinayak Sodhi, 28, who now runs Wrestle Square in Noida that trains and promotes pro-wrestlers in the country.
In 2002, WWF became WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment), following a legal conflict with the UK-based World Wide Fund for Nature, or WWF. A new batch of stars like Batista, Randy Orton and John Cena debuted. As the entertainment business boomed, however, WWE faded into the background in India.
Over the past three years, World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc, has made a concerted effort to change that. “India is a jewel for us,” WWE’s chief strategy and finance officer, George Barrios, said in an interview in 2017.
In 2007, the 7’1” Dalip Singh Rana aka The Great Khali became the first Indian on the WWE world championship circuit. Indian representation at tryouts has grown; at the 2017 round in Dubai, 10 of the 35 aspirants were Indian. There have also been attempts to woo the Hindi-speaking audience, via a partnership with Sony Ten 3 that offers live Hindi commentary and weekly reruns of flagship shows.
A year after The Great Khali’s contract ended and he exited the enterprise in 2014, WWE inducted another Indian, Satender Dagar aka Jeet Rama. Four more — Rinku Singh Rajput, Saurav Gurjar, Amanpreet Singh, and their first Indian woman, Kavita Devi — were recruited between October 2017 and February 2018.
“I believe that many Indian athletes will make it to the elite level,” Paul Levesque aka Triple H, executive vice-president for talent at WWE, added to HT. “This will ensure we have more localised content and athletes, which will encourage fans to tune into WWE.”
And as Indians join the big leagues, fans are turning adoration to aspiration.
“I was passionate about pro-wrestling in my youth but my father was against it, so I would get together with friends and mimic moves we saw on TV,” says Ramesh Kashyap aka Shaka, 44, who runs an electronics store in Delhi and now trains at Wrestle Square in Noida. “There were no pro-wrestling training schools then; now things are different. I’ve got my two daughters married and have enough free time to pursue my dream of becoming a wrestler.”
INDIA IN THE RING
There are currently a handful of training academies in India — most are based in Noida, Haryana and Punjab, but they’re holding exhibition games and recruiting bouts in states like Jammu and Kashmir, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Some are small, free and operate out of a basement; others train hundreds every years on campuses sprawled across acres.
Continental Wrestling Entertainment (CWE) Academy in Jalandhar, established by Khali in 2015, trains 200 students each year on its 8-acre campus. Kavita Devi aka Hard KD trained here.
Noida’s Wrestle Square, also launched in 2015, offers six-month courses and the opportunity to participate in bouts and fight pro-wrestlers from the US, Thailand and Japan, at public exhibition matches. Freak Fighter Wrestling (FFW) in Haryana has been organising pro-wrestling events across the country since 2010.
Though the methods and moves are different in each academy, the aim is the same — to promote pro-wrestling in India, create wrestlers with a distinct identity and domestic fan base, and then hope at least a couple will end up at the WWE tryouts as Kavita did.
“In the past, WWE executives have travelled over the globe and scouted athletes locally. That’s how we found Kavita Devi,” explains Levesque. These efforts have become more structured, with the launch of a WWE recruitment website last week that lets applicants apply online. “We want to find the best there is in India and around the world,” Levesque says.
For those running the academies, this is good news. “The idea of setting up a pro-wrestling academy is to explain to people that you don’t have to be a Khali to make it big, you just need to have jazba (zeal) and junoon (passion),” says Khali.
There are those who would argue, however, that it makes more sense to focus on the real sport of wrestling and the struggling akhadas. “This is not a sport; there are no regulations. There is no real competitiveness, as there is in akhada-style wrestling,” says wrestler and Arjuna awardee Geetika Jakhar.
The impact on health is a concern too. In most pro-wrestling training sessions, there are no doctors present. “Bumps and bruises are part of any sports training, but wrestlers need to be extra cautious about neck, lower back, shoulder and knee injuries, which can even be fatal,” says Dr Ameet Pispati, director of orthopaedic surgery at Mumbai’s Jaslok hospital. “Whiplash, dislocation and hamstring injuries are common; they need time to heal. All this needs medical supervision.”
CHECK OUT THREE OF THE TRAINING SCHOOLS
CWE, Jalandhar: We teach how to fight and entertain, says The Great Khali
“You don’t want that neck to snap, do you,” growls coach Xavier Justice as he rushes to the centre of the ring. Two bulked-up boys in their early 20s just attempted an unsuccessful bulldogging headlock, where the wrestler grabs an opponent’s head and jumps forward, so that he lands in a sitting position and drives the opponent’s face into the mat. “No one becomes a wrestling star by dying in the practice ring,” says Justice. The 15 students standing around the ring laugh nervously.
Justice, whose real name is Joseph Byrd, coaches 200 trainees through three batches, six days a week, at Jalandhar’s Continental Wrestling Entertainment Academy (CWE). Set up by the former WWE champion The Great Khali in 2015, the training school in Kangniwal village looks like any other two-storey residential building from the outside.
The differences begin at the entrance, where you are greeted by giant posters of Khali. Inside, the main hall has two wrestling rings, for practice sessions as well as the weekly Saturday Night Show. These shows are open to locals; regular champions have dedicated fan bases — for some, it’s the 7-ft-tall Shanky Singh, for others it’s Super Khalsa.
Shanky Singh aka Gurvinder Singh Malhotra, 27, is an accountant-turned pro-wrestler from Haryana, who is the current CWE champion and is half-teasing called The Next Khali by his peers. Super Khalsa or Inderpreet Singh, 25 is another local favourite, with over 15,000 subscribers to the YouTube channel that broadcasts his matches.
“Each Saturday match is also streamed live on Khali’s Facebook page and gets 3,000 to 4,000 views,” says Dinesh Kumar, a former CWE student and assistant trainer at the institute.
Justice has been head coach here for two months. “These kids here show a different league of dedication,” says the American, and founder of USA’s Pure Pro Wrestling Academy in Michigan. “Some have left cushy jobs to pursue this passion. They’re up early and always working at it. In America, the schedules are not this hectic, and students aren’t battling traffic or balancing housework and catching inter-city buses to get here.”
After Kavita Devi, there are two women training at the institute. Divya Aale, 23, from Singrauli in Madhya Pradesh and Rita Rani, 26, a black belt in karate from Ludhiana. Aale, who goes by the name Cheeni Aalia, is the current CWE Diva Champion; Rani aka Rita Wrestler likes to joke that she faces plenty of challenges outside the ring too.
“I commute three hours a day to and from the academy, but I’ve at least managed to convince my folks that I am going to be a famous wrestler one day. That’s half the battle won,” she says.
The day here usually starts at 10 am, with 30 minutes of cardio to build endurance and stamina. The diet is a customised to each student, by a dietician who reports to Khali.
The daily meals are regular vegetarian and non-vegetarian fare by a local cook for the residential trainees. “We give them diet charts on how much carbohydrate, protein and fat they can take in a day. And we monitor weight gain,” says trainer Kumar.
Professional wrestling is all about discipline and entertainment, adds Khali. “Just being strong or big won’t do. You are a performer and you need to know how to entertain, which is what we prepare them for.”
The youngest student this year is 17-year-old Dhruv Sharma aka Prince. “I grew up watching Khali on TV,” he says. “I dropped out of school in Class 8 because I knew this was my calling. I came here last year after convincing my parents that this is where I belong. I want to be the next Khali, or as famous as him at least.”
How likely is that? “There are big turnouts at local events, but the sport just doesn’t have enough exposure,” says Khali, as he watches the young men train.
Wrestle Square Underground, Noida: Akhada moves, quirky characters
“We began in 2015, as an event management company that promoted and organised wrestling events,” says Vinayak Sodhi, wrestler and founder of Wrestle Square Underground. “But at every event, I met fans who begged me to give them a shot at becoming a wrestler. That’s when I realised that there is too much talent here and most of them were eager to hone their skill.” That’s when he added a training academy to his offerings, and leased a residential bungalow in Noida’s Sector 50.
The basement is the training area — a ring space, a photography zone (where they do dummy photoshoots, interviews and ‘public interaction’, for practice) and a ‘chill out’ zone with a large TV where the trainees can let off steam while sipping on protein shakes and watching wrestling videos.
On the ground floor, two bedrooms, a kitchen and a sparsely furnished hall accommodate up to six trainees at a cost of ₹6,000 each a month. Sodhi currently has a total of eight wrestlers training here. His aim, he says, is to offer the global stage a distinctly Indian WWE champion.
“In Mexico there is a Lucha Libre style characterised by wearing masks in the ring. The British style is very technical, involving a lot of grappling or hand-to-hand combat and the Japanese is ‘shoot style’, very quick, and aims to be very realistic to increase the thrill factor,” he says. “India is famous for its akhada-style wrestling, so we decided to draw on it and use their submission holds and wrist-lock techniques along with grappling and realism instead of focusing on obvious moves like punches.”
While most of the trainees are students, in their early twenties, trying to carve a career out of pro-wrestling, there is also 44- year-old Ramesh Kashyap who has taken to pro-wrestling, a little late in life.
Zorawar Singh aka Zorro, a 25-year-old MBA aspirant from Jammu, takes time off from practicing bumps to run through his notes in a corner of the room. He has a psychology paper in three hours.
“I can cram just before the exam, but I can’t miss training. A wrong move in the ring could cost me my dream of becoming a pro-wrestling champion,” he says. His family is supportive, he adds, on condition that he finishes his education on the side.
“Girls in my college dig the fact that I am into pro-wrestling,” says Malkeet Singh, 24, from Fatehabad, Haryana. He goes by the name Malkeet Brawler; his quirk is picking fights in the ring, playing dirty, taunting the opponent. But outside it, he’s so soft-spoken, you can barely hear him.
“One of the most important parts of pro-wrestling is creating a personality and a character for every wrestler,” says Sodhi. “Malkeet has a theatre background and can slip into his character beautifully once in the ring. Otherwise, it’s true, he is a shy guy.”
Practice takes up four hours daily, starting with 30 minutes of cardio exercise. Timings are flexible. Recommended meals focus on protein shakes, fruits and lots of leafy vegetables. “We don’t want wrestlers to gain too much weight. We want them just fit enough to intimidate, and perform high-endurance moves,” says Sodhi.
Freak Fighter Wrestling: Raising hulks in Haryana
Freak Fighter Wrestling in Sampla, Haryana, was set up by Veer Sachin Aadvanshi, 33, a one-time aspiring wrestler who realised in 2010 that he was better off organising wrestling events instead.
Borrowing from a relative, land that once held a lime factory, he now conducts weekly training sessions for eight students aged 19 to 26. The training is free, as long as the students agree to perform at Freak Fighter events — about six big-ticket bouts a year, the most recent of which was held at the Sher-e-Kashmir indoor stadium in Srinagar in May, for an audience of 800.
Sachin’s brother Prince aka Prince of Aggression, 32, who has been participating in these events for eight years, is the coach. At 242 lb, he is the biggest guy around, but the Pumping Brothers, Jai and Nikhil Singh, both 23, have just performed the suplex on him, lifting him and slamming him onto his back. Lying flat, he mutters in Hindi, “In wrestling, the better you get, the more you can take a pounding.”
The Pumping Brothers are twins born with a condition that has left them with only 15% vision. They are driven to practice four times a week by their father, Baljeet Singh, 58, a businessman, from their home 44 km away in Delhi. He waits four hours, then drives them back.
“Since they were kids, they loved watching WWE on TV. If this makes them more confident and is their true calling, I’d gladly wait a few hours more,” he says.
Everyone in FFW has a character and lives it as much as they can. Rakesh Kumar aka Rocko, 26, concludes every move by yelling, ‘Believe that’, because he believes wrestling helped him with his stammer. “I decided I could use it in my backstory too,” he says.
Tarzan the Animal Man usually ends his match with a triple suplex on the opponent; Shane the Stylish Man does the Spear, a shoulder ram into the abdomen to take his opponent down.
“It’s vital to stay in character,” explains Prince, “WWE star Bill Goldberg barely smiled during public events.” Prince says he builds aggression over 24 hours before each event. “I start snapping and become irritable,” he says. “My family hates it.”
Diet is crucial too, he adds. “I eat 1 kg chicken over lunch and dinner and about 10 egg whites for breakfast. It’s easy to reach the perfect body mass, but maintaining it is hard, because you have to work out just enough to balance out all you eat.”