The Great Gama: Indian wrestling’s undefeated phenom who inspired Bruce Lee

Born in Amritsar of undivided India in 1878, Gama is often considered the greatest wrestler who ever lived.

By Utathya Nag
Picture by 2004 Getty Images

In Indian and world wrestling alike, The Great Gama or Gama Pehlwan is peerless.

With an undefeated record in over 5,000 bouts over the course of his five-decade-long career, it’s near impossible to come up with enough superlatives to describe the Indian phenom’s feats. But Gama’s greatness is quite literally etched in stone.

At the Baroda Museum at Sayajibaug in India, there’s a massive stone with the inscription –

'This stone weighing 1,200kg was lifted by the Great Ghulam Mohammad, known as ‘Gama Pehlwan’, on December 23, 1902, at the age of 22, who lifted it up to his chest and walked around over a fair distance. In his life he remained undefeated and is acknowledged as the greatest wrestler ever born.'

Research shows Gama was only 5’7” tall and weighed around 250 pounds or around 115kgs at his peak.

Who was the Great Gama?

Born on May 22, 1878, Ghulam Mohammad Baksh Butt, who later came to be known as Gama, belonged to a Kashmiri family of wrestlers. His birthplace was Jabbowal village of Punjab's Amritsar district of erstwhile undivided India under British rule.

Due to his family background, Gama grew up around akhadas or traditional wrestling rings and was inclined towards strength training and wrestling from a very young age, much like many others in his community. But he was special.

Probably the first account of his several incredible feats date back to 1888 when Gama participated in a strongman competition in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. The event saw over 400 wrestlers and strongmen, several of national renown, compete but Gama, then aged 10, was the highlight of the show.

Despite his young age, Gama was among the top 15 and was eventually named the winner by the Maharaja of Jodhpur due to his age. Along with the prize money, the show earned Gama the patronage of the then Maharaja of Datia and the Maharaja of Patiala, who took up the expenses of Gama’s training.

Nasir Bholu, Ghulam’s grandson and a well-known wrestler himself, had later given a brief account of Great Gama’s diet and training. He reportedly consumed 15 litres of milk, three kilogrammes of butter, mutton, nine kilogrammes of almonds and three baskets of fruits daily.

The Great Gama’s daily training regimen featured doing 5,000 sit-ups, 3,000 push-ups and wrestling with over 40 wrestlers.

Legendary martial artist Bruce Lee later took inspiration from Gama’s training methods and incorporated several facets of it into his regimen, according to author John Little’s book titled Bruce Lee: The Art of Expressing the Human Body. The book is a record of Bruce Lee’s approach to building up his legendary physical prowess based on the icon’s own notes and records.

By the time he was a teenager, Gama had beaten every wrestler in India he had come across. In 1895, he came face to face with Raheem Bakhsh Sultani Wala, another Kashmiri grappler who was the erstwhile Rustam-e-Hind or the undisputed Indian wrestling champion.

More experienced and towering over 7 feet tall, Raheem Baksh was the clear favourite to defeat a 17-year-old Gama but the teenager, despite suffering profuse bleeding from his nose and ears, held his much-celebrated opponent to stalemates in back-to-back hard-fought bouts.

The Great Gama: World champion in London

Gama wasn’t declared the Rustam-e-Hind just yet, but he was recognised as the primary contender for the title after his performance against Baksh. By 1910, Gama had beaten every Indian wrestler of repute barring Raheem Baksh and his attention shifted to the world stage.

The Indian grappler travelled to London to participate in an international event but was denied entry because of his short stature. Infuriated, Gama threw an open challenge that he could beat any three wrestlers of any weight class in 30 minutes. However, no one took the Indian seriously.

After a lengthy wait, Gama finally found a challenger in popular American wrestler ‘Doc’ Benjamin Roller, who was also a doctor and a professional football (American) player. Gama pinned Roller twice – in one minute 40 seconds in the first bout and nine minutes and 10 seconds in the second.

The wins established Gama as a legitimate competitor, and he ended up defeating 12 wrestlers back to back the next day.

Gama’s first big challenge of the tour came in the form of world champion Stanislaus Zbyszko of Poland who faced the Indian in the final for the John Bull Belt and £250 in prize money on September 10, 1910. A minute into the match, Gama took down Zbyszko but the Pole held his defensive position on the mat for almost three hours to manage a draw.

The performance didn’t win Zbyszko any fans but did make him one of the very few wrestlers to have held the Great Gama to a stalemate in an official match. The two were scheduled for a rematch seven days later, but the Pole was a no show, which handed Gama the John Bull belt and the tag of world champion.

Zbyszko would meet Gama in Patiala in 1927 for a follow-up bout but was defeated in under a minute. The Pole would go on to refer to Gama as a tiger after the bout.

Prominent wrestlers like Switzerland’s Maurice Deriaz and Johann Lemm of Switzerland, the then European champion, and Sweden’s Jesse Peterson, another world champion, also fell at the hands of the Great Gama as he expanded his dominance over the world stage.

Gama had also issued open challenges to Japanese judo champion Taro Miyake, Russian wrestler George Hackenschmidt and American great Frank Gotch, all of whom had laid claim to the title of world champion at the time, but none accepted the invitation to face the Great Gama inside the ring.

Shortly after his English sojourn in 1910, Gama returned to India and faced Raheem Bakhsh Sultani Wala again for the title of Indian champion. Raheem Bakhsh, though ageing at the time, put up a tough fight but Gama eventually came out on top after hours of tussle.

Despite defeating several world champions, Gama maintained that Bakhsh was the toughest man he had ever faced inside a wrestling ring.

In February 1929, Gama beat Jesse Petersen, which was the last recorded fight of his career. Though 51 at the time, more than age, it was the lack of opponents which ended Gama’s career. No one wanted to face him inside the wrestling ring.

The Great Gama’s great fight outside the wrestling ring

After India’s partition in 1947, Gama decided to relocate to Pakistan’s Lahore.

He reportedly settled down in Lahore’s Mohni Road, a region with a sizable Hindu population at the time. As the shadows of communal riots engulfed both sides of the border during the partition, Gama took it upon himself to safeguard his Hindu neighbours from the rioting mobs.

He and his fellow wrestlers would patrol the neighbourhood during these tumultuous times and even reportedly fought off armed mobs on occasions. Several accounts corroborate that Gama once sent the leader of one such rioting horde flying with a single slap and smiled at the oncoming mob, making them flee in fear.

As the situation worsened, though, Gama knew his capacity to protect his neighbours was becoming more and more limited.

So, Gama did the next best thing he could and safely escorted as many as he could safely to the border personally. He even bore all expenses and provided everyone with a week’s ration.

Gama’s final days were difficult as he struggled to make ends meet with very nominal government support. He also fathered five sons and four daughters but all his sons died at a young age. The Great Gama died on May 23, 1960, at the age of 82 after a prolonged battle with illness.

On the occasion of his 144th birthday, the wrestling icon was commemorated with a Google Doodle. Google Doodles are spontaneous artistic changes made to Google’s logo on the search engine giant’s official home page to celebrate notable global events, holidays, anniversaries and lives of famous personalities.

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