Olympic wrestling is like an old Nokia phone.’
‘WWE is like an iPhone.’
The Great Khali’s academy turns pro-wrestling dreams into reality, reports Dhruv Munjal.
The green marble flooring looks unremarkable.
The vast room is brightened only by rays of sunlight glancing in through the rolled-up shutter at the entrance. The chairs — not more than seven or eight of them — are wobbly, the type without which a thrifty wedding party would seem incomplete.
Outside, the exterior walls are in dire need of a fresh coat of paint; the colours that make up the mustard-pink theme seem to be well past their expiry date.
It is here, in a structure that mirrors a smallish airplane hangar, far away from the razzmatazz that made him famous, that the everyday life of The Great Khali, India’s professional wrestling trailblazer, now plays out.
His raspy — sometimes indecipherable — voice can be heard from through the meshed windows.
Inside, his hair curled up in a bun, Khali, dressed in a blue training vest, khaki trousers and impossible-to-miss size 16s, seems comfortable atop a table despite its tiny size.
Circling him are 30-odd youngsters, most of them burly men still in their 20s. They listen to him with the attentiveness of dutiful disciples, and not star-struck wrestling aspirants.
“It’s the small things that will make you successful. Mere talent is just not enough,” says Khali. His audience nods.
Seconds later, he welcomes me with a firm handshake as our driver enjoys a hysterical fanboy moment.
“I set this up so that young wrestlers can get the opportunities and training that I never did,” says the 45-year-old Khali.
His now-famous battle with hardship early in life perhaps meant that the opening of a professional wrestling school — the Continental Wrestling Entertainment (CWE) Academy — was more a case of inevitability than choice.
A little over two years ago, soon after he had made India his permanent home following the expiration of his World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) contract, Khali opened CWE in Jalandhar’s Kangniwal village, a semi-urban zone marked by slick roads and expansive mustard fields. He started with just three students; he now has more than 250
The rise in enrolment at CWE is a fair reflection of the swelling popularity of professional wrestling in Punjab.
In homes — rural and urban — across the state, watching WWE shows on television is a ubiquitous feature, one that has increasingly found more favour since Khali made his own WWE debut back in 2006.
It also coincides with the ascent of Jinder Mahal, a rakish entertainer who has established himself as one of the hottest properties in the WWE.
Mahal, an Indo-Canadian, is the nephew of Gama Singh, another former professional wrestler who enjoyed a stellar career as a wicked mainstay on Stampede Wrestling in Calgary in the 1970s and 1980s.
“The craze is like never before. Kids now have started seeing this as a serious career option,” says Khali, who has now climbed into the ring, posing for photographs.
After enjoying several years at the top of his sport, Khali well understands the qualities needed to truly excel at the dangerous art of professional wrestling.
“You need to have the overall package. The fact that you can fight won’t get you too far. At the end of the day, you have to entertain,” he explains.
That’s why Khali set out to build not just a wrestling academy, but also an entertainment company that could resemble the WWE.
“Olympic wrestling is like using an old Nokia phone; it’s fairly basic. This is like operating an iPhone; there are way too many elements.”
The mobile phone analogy is Khali’s last contribution for the afternoon. Soon, he departs for his siesta. “Don’t disturb him now,” I’m told.
Gurvinder Singh Malhotra, 27, has a smooth, hairless face. He could, in fact, pass off as an ordinary 18 year old still in school. Till he rises from his chair.
Malhotra, at 7 feet, is almost as tall as Khali, minus his robust physique. “I’m still a work in progress,” he smiles.
Folks here call him by his ring name, Shanky Singh. In fact, almost everyone here has a zany alter ego.
One of Malhotra’s training mates is Inderpreet Singh, or Super Khalsa.
“Khali sir gave me the name. That’s what everyone calls me now.”
For a couple of hours at least, this makeshift wrestling venue and its buffoonish protagonists dazzle the village gathering made up of curious visitors who’ve always dreamt of catching a WWE Raw or WWE Smackdown show live.
Their number on most Saturdays is around 150; Khali likes to put that figure at 500. But given the paucity of space, the latter seems an unlikely scenario.
Such interest is further evidence of the Indian audience’s fixation with the WWE.
In fact, according to Wrestler Observer Newsletter, India is the most lucrative target market for the WWE. More than 60 million viewers tune in to watch its weekly shows.
Many even saw the awarding of the WWE title to Mahal as the organisation’s attempt at cementing a fan base in the region. Last year, WWE launched a weekly round-up show exclusively in Hindi.
“Khali sir once made me do 15 bumps — crashing against the canvas leading with your elbow — and I fainted. I’m trying to get better now,” she says with a hint of embarrassment.
But what made this girl from Singrauli, Madhya Pradesh, leave a well-paid job in London to take up a wrestling course in a faraway pastoral setting?
“I grew up watching this on television. When the academy opened, I saw it as a chance to try my hand it at. It’s really exciting.”
While Kumar is also a former national handball player, other young hopefuls who walk in here are mostly weightlifters or powerlifters.
With many of them medal winners in their respective sports at the national level, they say that money and fame act as prime motivators now.
“How long can you keep languishing there?” wonders Sarabjit. “Professional wrestling gives us recognition.”
Passion here is supplemented by monumental parental support. Since the wrestlers here make virtually no money, the lack of family backing can sometimes prove a hindrance.
“When you don’t know when you’ll start earning, such support becomes everything. My father still pays my fees here,” says Delvinder Singh, 25.
Training at CWE doesn’t come cheap.
Coaching, food and lodging — the building’s second floor has rooms that can accommodate about 150 people — costs Rs 23,000 a month, a hefty sum for a place that offers the bare minimum for a professional wrestler.
The gym upstairs is by no means state of the art and, apart from Khali himself, only one coach is at the trainees’ disposal.