The Great Gama: Wrestler par excellence

Growing up in India and Pakistan, I am sure most kids would have heard of Gama Pehlvaan – specifically in North India. Who was he? Have you wondered? I did. I finally got something about this guy from an interesting blog of a Zakintosh. He is known for a great fight with a Polish wrestler which ended in 42 seconds.

Polish wrestler Stanisław Jan Cyganiewicz (aka Stanislaus Zbyszko), having had a dubious ‘draw’ in an earlier encounter, held a return bout in 1928 with the great Ghulam Mohammad, better remembered as Gama Pehlvaan, in Patiala. Zbyszko went down in 42 seconds (the earlier, ‘drawn’ bout had lasted 3 hours!) …

Gama chose to migrate to Pakistan in 1947 and trained his nephews in wrestling. When the freestyle wrestling took over the old akhaara style fights, then their influence and wealth withered away. Gama died without much fan-fare in his adopted country.

The Great Gama died in the mid- or late 50s, uncelebrated in the country he chose, with little money for treatment. During his last days a small news item, buried in the pages of Dawn, informed us that Georg Zbyzsko, nephew of Gama’s rival, had sent a donation towards his medical costs, having heard his uncle always praise Gama’s strength and sportsman spirit.

The greatness of Gama is difficult to comprehend now. But given his day and age and his confidence with which he challenged the best and the biggest from India and the world without formal training or diet – it is indeed amazing that he did so well through his life! Sadly his end was not deserving of this great man. Here are some of his exploits and fights

First Encounters with Raheem Sultani Wala

Fame came to Gama at the age of 19 when he challenged the then Wrestling Champion of India, Raheem Baksh Sultani Wala. At 6’9″ tall with an impressive record, Raheem was thought to easily defeat the 5’3″ Gama, but 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 title Champion of India. In the first bout Gama remained defensive, but in a second match, Gama was more offensive. Gama was bleeding from his nose and ears but he managed to destroy the lungs and heart of Raheem Baksh.

Winning the John Bull Belt

By 1910, Gama had defeated all the prominent Indian wrestlers who faced him except the Champion Wala. At this time, he focused his attention to the rest of the world. Accompanied by his younger brother Imam Bukhsh, Gama sailed to England to compete with the Western Wrestlers. 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 promoter R.B. Benjamin. For a long time no one came forward to accept the challenge. In order to break the ice, Gama presented another challenge to specific heavy weight 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 Benjamin Roller. In the bout, Gama pinned Roller in 1 minute 40 seconds the first time, and in 9 minutes 10 seconds the other.

The next to accept Gama’s challenge was Stanislaus Zbyszko and the date of bout was set to be 10 September 1910. 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. The two men were set to face each other again on 17th September 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.

Final Encounter with Raheem 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 about who was his strongest opponent, Gama replied, “Raheem Bakhsh Sultani Wala”.

Rematch with Zbyszko

After beating Raheem Bakhsh Sultani Wala, Gama beat Pandit Biddu, who was one of the best wrestlers in India of that time (1916).

In 1922, during a visit to India, the Prince of Wales presented Gama with a silver mace.

Gama did not have any opponents until 1927, when it was announced that Gama and Zbyszko would face each other again. The day finally came in 1928 when both wrestlers met again in Patiala. The result of the bout was drawn quickly when Gama threw Zbyszko in only 42 seconds. He was now known as the “Great wrestler” of the Indian subcontinent.

After soundly beating Zbyszko in 42 seconds, Gama beat Jesse Petersen in February 1929. This bout lasted only one and a half minutes.By the mid 1940’s Gama continued to put out challenges but added a stipulation. The stipulation was that anyone who wanted to wrestle the great Gama had to wrestle and defeat Imam first. No one did. This was the last bout that Gama fought during his career and although he did not retire until 1955, he did not find any opponent and retired undefeated as the World Champion. Once he even challenged to stop a train from moving but instead asked the British government in India to make an 11 km stretch fare free for all the Indians but the challenge was put down by the British government.

Before he left Europe Gama not only defeated the Europeans but also defeated many renowned Japanese judo and grappling experts including the famous Matsuya Mada.

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