NEW DELHI (AFP) – Athletes flex muscled biceps before going hand-to-hand in a newly televised arm-wrestling league seeking to take the sporting spotlight in otherwise cricket-mad India with a glitzy Bollywood-style makeover.
Contestants fight under bright studio lights with a cheering audience as opponents push down the other person’s arm in the Pro Panja League (PPL) at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Stadium.
The Indian Arm Wrestling Federation launched in 1977, but the sport, known as panja in India, has been given new lease of life by league owners and Bollywood acting couple Parvin Dabas and Preeti Jhangiani.
“Our athletes are literally sons and daughters of our soil. Somebody is a government servant, a gym trainer, somebody is a mechanic,” Dabas told AFP.
“They come from all walks of life and come from small-town India, and that’s what we love about it, that’s what the audience is getting attracted by.”
Arm wrestler Shaikh Tawheed worked as a stone mason, motorbike mechanic and gym cleaner before finding PPL fame in the 90 kilogramme (kg) category.
A charming smile on his well-sculpted body adds to the 23-year-old Tawheed’s appeal as he defeats opponents in a quick strike – and then celebrates by blowing kisses to his fans.
“It’s a dream living in fancy hotels, having good food, and some money,” Tawheed told AFP, adding he had earned around INR75,000 (USD900) during the competition period so far, a 10-fold jump on his previous earnings.
“I couldn’t have asked for more”.
The six teams have to include men, women and people with disabilities – including athletes who use wheelchairs with impressive upper-body strength – with the winning team getting INR2 million (USD24,000).
Launched in 2020 with some exhibition matches and tournaments, this is the first league season to be shown live on Sony Sports Network in India and Willow TV in the United States between July 28 and August 13. The top four teams will play in the semi-finals and the winners will clash in the final on Sunday.
Sylvester Stallone’s 1987 film Over the Top made arm wrestling popular around the globe but the ancient sport in India remains rooted in Hindu mythology and is widely popular – making Tawheed a local star.
Tawheed has moved from a one-room rented house in his home city of Aurangabad in Maharashtra state, and bought his own home.
“The fame I got from arm wrestling helped me in my career as a gym trainer which in turn got me the cash,” he said.
“Pro Panja has changed arm wrestling,” he said. “We travel in flights in contrast to moving in unreserved train coaches for tournaments.”
League owners are confident of the growing popularity of arm wrestling after the success of Indian sports leagues including the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL), which has made stars out of humble villagers.
Among the athletes is also 38-year-old mother Farheen Dehalvi, who went from participating in local competitions in the state of Madhya Pradesh to taking down her opponents in a bright-coloured team jersey in front of a large television audience.
Decades of cleaning, cooking and household chores left Dehalvi with powerful arms – and she has put them to good use.
“Girls who stay at home including housewives are more powerful because they work and have power in their hands,” said a part-time teacher and mother to a 17-year-old son Dehalvi.
Dehalvi, who competes in the 65+ kg women’s category, won her opening match by defeating a 19-year-old, winning on points over several wrestles.
“I went to see an arm-wrestling match in my district and people urged me play the sport as they thought I am powerful,” Dehalvi told AFP.
“In our region daughter-in-laws are not allowed to step out of their homes, but my husband backed me to display my power in the sport. And here I am.”
Her success has inspired others, she said.
Two gyms have opened in her village after her league entry and girls have started working out.
“It was tough juggling between household duties and pursuing the sport, but I kept my hopes high,” Dehalvi said.
“People watch me on television back home and it has inspired them to go to the gyms and I tell them to come to Pro Panja”.
Future PPL seasons could witness a player auction, like the hugely successful Indian Premier League (IPL) T20 cricket tournament, which has spawned the growth of other sports leagues.
The PPL, like IPL, boasts of foreign coaches for all six teams – mostly from Kazakhstan, where arm wrestling is widely popular.
“There are lot of people in India, there are lot of people in Kazakhstan,” seven-time world champion and PPL coach Yerkin Alimzhanov told AFP. “From both sides we can try to get the game to the Olympics”.