Armwrestling: India’s own Over the Top band - Hindustan Times
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Armwrestling: India’s own Over the Top band

ByRutvick Mehta, Mumbai
Aug 07, 2023 02:46 PM IST

It is power to the arm for a select bunch in the country who are finding joy in the heat of competition like the Pro Panja League

From the outside, Rahul Panicker is your typical mid-thirties, middle-class working Indian. The engineer lives in Kochi where he works with a multinational firm. He keeps around three hours a day aside for his gym workouts, where some of his exercises, Panicker says, makes “people look at me” because “it appears weird”.

Rahul Panicker (left), who has been to two World Armwrestling Championships, competes in the Pro Panja League in New Delhi. PREMIUM
Rahul Panicker (left), who has been to two World Armwrestling Championships, competes in the Pro Panja League in New Delhi.

Panicker, 35, is a professional armwrestler, and those exercises are specific to his sport. For an act that often evokes an image of a fun show of strength game between friends, armwrestling in India has a domestic structure and a professional league to boot. Panicker is currently competing in the Pro Panja League, a platform that has brought together 180 armwrestlers from across 14 states — including Meghalaya, Assam, Odisha — in a six-team league spanning 17 days in New Delhi.

A chunk of those armwrestlers had no idea such a thing existed as a serious competition before they actually saw it. Most of them didn’t grow up wanting to be an armwrestler, drifting from powerlifting or weightlifting.

Like Yogesh Chaudhary, a 40-year-old mother of two who competes in the women's 65+kg category. Born in Palwal, Haryana to a family of farmers, Yogesh took to powerlifting and did that for much of her life until she came across armwrestling in an event in the Capital in 2020. “I immediately liked armwrestling a lot more than powerlifting,” Yogesh said.

Ditto with Parmpreet Kaur, who grew up in Ludhiana pursuing weightlifting until frequent injuries to her back forced her to look elsewhere. “Yeh (armwrestling) bhi power wala game hai, woh (weightlifting) bhi power wala game tha. In this, the risk of injuries wasn’t that high,” she said.

Like Yogesh, Parmpreet began competing in the nationals within a couple of years of first witnessing armwrestling in a competitive setup. Like other mainstream sports, armwrestling has a well charted growth ladder in the country. “District level is the first step, which is open to all and across weight categories. The top performers there qualify for state championships, and the top ones from there compete in the nationals. There are other open tournaments as well,” Panicker said.

The Indian Armwrestling Federation held the 45th National Arm Wrestling Championship in May this year in Srinagar. At the global level, the Asian and World Championships take place, the latter organised by the World Armwrestling Federation. Panicker, who first won a national medal — silver — in 2010, represented India in the 2019 world event. Left to figure out his own funding, he was sponsored by his company for the elite competition in which he came ninth. “I experienced the next level of armwrestling there,” he said.

Panicker — his father was a powerlifter and uncle a national weightlifting coach — was a tiny kid disinterested in any sport. In a home gym set up by his father who would scold his son to use it, Panicker began his armwrestling journey that he took to his college in Coimbatore.

More than mere pinning

Training for armwrestling, he believes, involves a lot more than meets the eye.

“From the fingers to the whole body, we utilitise every muscle for it,” he said. “There are plenty of exercises that we do, each very specific based on our styles.”

Armwrestling has different moves — hook, top roll, press, backpressure, etc. — which require different training methods. “The focus is more on wrist and shoulder exercises in armwrestling, and it requires a lot of flexibility,” Parmpreet said.

That, Yogesh said, separates training for armwrestling from powerlifting or weightlifting. “Powerlifting involves a single lift; we use the entire body weight for that one lift. In armwrestling, we need power, stamina and stability of the entire body. Plus, mind alertness,” she said. “A lot of people believe that training for armwrestling only involves the arms. That is far from the truth. It needs strength workout and core workout. Jitni aapki body strong hogi, utni hi aapki armwrestling strong hogi.”

Both Yogesh and Parmpreet work as gym trainers. Yogesh has two sons aged 17 and 15, but not once, she said, has her family questioned the hours she spends in the gym honing her armwrestling skills. Parmpreet’s training time has significantly reduced after becoming a mother one year ago, but not her motivation levels. “Armwrestling has become more important for me after the baby. I want to do something in life,” she said.

Juggling between his engineering and armwrestling life, Panicker is chasing a dream that grew stronger when he got a taste of the World Armwrestling Championship. “My greatest ambition is to win an armwrestling medal for India at the World Championship,” he said.

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