The Great Gama: The Feared Punjabi Tiger
by Brian Solomon
The history of professional wrestling is skewed heavily toward the Western world, especially North America. Which is why it is remarkable that the greatest legitimate grappler to ever compete in the professional ranks may very likely have been a Punjabi Indian who spent the majority of his career in South Asia. At a time when the professional game in the West was in a period of transformation – still resembling a competitive sport but rampant with orchestrated outcomes and on its way to becoming more performance than competition – The Great Gama represented a link to wrestling’s distant past, and he scared the life out of most Western workers who were just trying to make a buck and avoid shooting as much as possible. Over half a century and countless matches all over the world, none of which was believed to have been any less than a pure shoot, he was never once defeated. To discover how dangerous and feared he really was, all one has to do is examine the list of people who spent years doing everything possible to avoid facing him.
Born Ghulam Mohammad Baksh on May 22, 1878 in the Punjabi village of Jabbowal during the British occupation of India, he came from a family of revered wrestlers, in a country where the sport of wrestling enjoyed a tradition dating back to ancient times. He began training from an extremely early age, and by age 10 had already won his first strongman competition. Taken under the wing of the Maharaja of Datia, his wrestling skills were honed with a grueling training regimen that included daily sparring with upwards of 40 different opponents, as well as thousands of squats and push-ups, often wearing his famous donut-shaped exercise disc, or Hasli (still on display in India’s National Institute of Sports).
His 5’7” and 240-pound frame often led opponents to underestimate him, which was a grave mistake. His first prominent match occurred at age 17, when he battled 7-foot veteran Indian Champion Raheem Baksh Sultani Wala to a draw, instantly making his name. After 15 years of besting nearly all the competition India had to offer, he turned his eye to Europe and America, where the sport of wrestling had become a major industry. Clearly, he knew that to be considered the best in the world, he would have to prove himself over there.
The problem was that by 1910, much of pro wrestling had already come to be controlled by gambling interests and unscrupulous promoters, and filled with athletes who, although all skilled wrestlers, had come to learn that by cooperating and “doing business”, there was a lot of money to be made. But Gama was having none of that, which Dr. Benjamin Roller, one year prior to winning the American Heavyweight Championship, discovered the hard way when Gama pinned him in two straight falls in under 11 minutes in London. The next day, he defeated twelve more wrestlers with ease. He boldly proclaimed that he could defeat any three wrestlers in under 30 minutes, and his open challenge was vigorously avoided by the likes of European Champion George Hackenschmidt, and the man who then stood atop the American grappling game, World Heavyweight Champion Frank Gotch.
He first battled Polish powerhouse Stanislaus Zbyszko in a historic bout on September 10, 1910, in the finals of the London tournament for the prestigious John Bull World Championship belt. After taking down Zbyszko in under a minute, Gama kept him on the mat for nearly three hours, until their match was ruled a draw. It was the toughest challenge any Western grappler had ever given Gama. Laying claim to a version of the world title, Gama returned to India, and as time went on, became less active as the sport of wrestling became less of a legitimate competition and its prominent stars continued avoiding him. After nearly two decades, with no one else willing to face him, he stepped on the mat once more with Zbyszko, by that point a former two-time undisputed World Champion. The highly anticipated rematch took place in the Punjabi city of Patiala before a crowd rumored to have approached 100,000 spectators. Gama won inside of a minute, after which the stunned Zbyszko referred to him as a ‘tiger’.
Although he would occasionally venture back on the mat, lack of competition eventually led to his full retirement in 1952 at age 74, settling in the new Islamic republic of Pakistan, where he was regarded as a national hero and supported by a government pension for the rest of his days. His legend lives on there to this day: of the man who conquered the wrestling world, the Punjabi tiger who made champions cower and legends run for cover, and a competitor who brought a fearsome dose of reality to a business of illusion.