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

Gama, who was born in Amritsar, India, in 1878, is widely regarded as the greatest wrestler of all time. The Great Gama, or Gama Pehlwan, is unrivaled in Indian and international wrestling.

With an unbeaten record in over 5,000 matches throughout the length of his five-decade career, it’s difficult to find enough superlatives to characterize the Indian phenom’s achievements. However, Gama’s grandeur is practically engraved in stone. A large stone with the inscription – in the Baroda Museum in Sayajibaug, India

‘On December 23, 1902, at the age of 22, the Great Ghulam Mohammad, known as ‘Gama Pehlwan,’ raised this stone weighing 1,200kg and walked around for a short distance. He was unbeaten during his career and is often regarded as the best wrestler ever born.’

According to research, Gama was just 5’7″ tall and weighed roughly 250 pounds (115kgs) at his best.

Who was the Great Gama?

Ghulam Mohammad Baksh Butt, better known as Gama, was born on May 22, 1878, into a wrestling family from Kashmir. His birthplace was Jabbowal hamlet in Punjab’s Amritsar district under British control of former undivided India. Gama, like many others in his village, grew up around akhadas, or traditional wrestling rings, and was drawn to strength training and wrestling at a young age as a result of his familial history. But he was unique.

Gama’s extraordinary abilities were perhaps first documented in 1888, when he competed in a strongman tournament at Jodhpur, Rajasthan. Over 400 wrestlers and strongmen competed, including numerous national champions, but Gama, at 10, was the show’s centerpiece. Despite his youth, Gama finished in the top 15 and was proclaimed the winner by the Maharaja of Jodhpur owing to his age. Along with the prize money, Gama’s performance garnered him the sponsorship of the then-Maharaja of Datia and the Maharaja of Patiala, who paid for Gama’s tuition.

The Great Gama’s daily workout

Ghulam’s grandson, Nasir Bholu, a well-known wrestler himself, subsequently gave a brief account of Great Gama’s diet and training. He allegedly drank 15 litres of milk every day, three kilograms of butter, mutton, nine kilograms of nuts, and three baskets of fruits. The Great Gama’s daily workout routine included 5,000 sit-ups, 3,000 push-ups, and wrestling with almost 40 wrestlers.

According to author John Little’s book Bruce Lee: The Art of Expressing the Human Body, legendary martial artist Bruce Lee eventually took inspiration from Gama’s training techniques and integrated various parts of it into his program. Based on Bruce Lee’s own notes and records, the book chronicles his method to developing his famed physical strength.

Nasir Bholu, Ghulam’s grandson and a well-known wrestler himself, then provided a brief summary of Great Gama’s diet and training. Every day, he allegedly consumed 15 litres of milk, three kilograms of butter, mutton, nine kilograms of nuts, and three baskets of fruits.  Daily workouts for the Great Gama comprised 5,000 sit-ups, 3,000 push-ups, and wrestling with over 40 wrestlers

According to author John Little’s book Bruce Lee: The Art of Expressing the Human Body, famed martial artist Bruce Lee eventually drew inspiration from Gama’s training techniques and incorporated various elements of them into his curriculum. The book describes Bruce Lee’s strategy for gaining his legendary physical power, based on his own notes and records.

The Great Gama: World champion in London

Gama has not yet been crowned Rustam-e-Hind, but his performance against Baksh has established him as the leading candidate. By 1910, Gama had defeated every reputable Indian wrestler except Raheem Baksh, and his focus had switched to the international scene.

The Indian wrestler traveled to London to compete in an international event but was refused admittance due to his small height. Gama became enraged and issued an open challenge to beat any three wrestlers of any weight class in 30 minutes. No one, however, took the Indian seriously.

Gama eventually found a challenger after a long wait in renowned American wrestler ‘Doc’ Benjamin Roller, who was both a doctor and a professional football (American) player. Gama pinned Roller twice, first in one minute 40 seconds and once in nine minutes and ten seconds. The victories confirmed Gama as a real competitor, and the next day he defeated 12 wrestlers in a row.

On September 10, 1910, Gama faced his first major test of the tour in the shape of world champion Stanislaus Zbyszko of Poland, who challenged the Indian in the final for the John Bull Belt and £250 in prize money. Gama brought down Zbyszko a minute into the bout, but the Pole retained his defensive posture on the mat for over three hours to earn a draw. Zbyszko’s effort did not earn him any fans, but it did make him one of the few wrestlers to have held the Great Gama to a draw in an official bout. 

The two were supposed to rematch seven days later, but the Pole did not show up, giving Gama the John Bull belt and the title of world champion. In a rematch in Patiala in 1927, Zbyszko was beaten in under a minute by Gama. After the fight, the Pole referred to Gama as a tiger.

Prominent wrestlers like as Switzerland’s Maurice Deriaz and Johann Lemm, the then European champion, as well as Sweden’s Jesse Peterson, another world champion, were all defeated by the Great Gama as he increased his domination on the international stage. Gama had previously made open challenges to Japanese judo champion Taro Miyake, Russian wrestler George Hackenschmidt, and American legend Frank Gotch, all of whom claimed to be world champions at the time, but none accepted the opportunity to fight the Great Gama inside the ring.

Gama returned to India

Gama returned to India shortly after his English exile in 1910 and battled Raheem Bakhsh Sultani Wala for the title of Indian champion again. Raheem Bakhsh, despite his age at the time, put up a good fight, but Gama finally won after hours of tussling.

Despite defeating multiple world champions, Gama claimed that Bakhsh was the most difficult opponent he had ever faced in a wrestling arena. Gama defeated Jesse Petersen in his final documented fight in February 1929. Despite being 51 at the time, Gama’s career was cut short by a lack of opponents. Nobody wanted to wrestle him in the wrestling ring.

The Great Gama’s great fight outside the wrestling ring

Gama opted to go to Pakistan’s Lahore after India was partitioned in 1947. He allegedly settled on Lahore’s Mohni Road, which at the time had a significant Hindu community. During the partition, as sectarian violence swamped both sides of the border, Gama took it upon himself to protect his Hindu neighbors from the rampaging crowds.

During these turbulent times, he and his fellow wrestlers patrolled the neighborhood and battled off armed rioters on several occasions. Several tales confirm that Gama once slapped the leader of a raging horde and smiled at the incoming throng, causing them to retreat in fear.

However, as the crisis worsened, Gama realized that his ability to protect his neighbors was becoming increasingly constrained. So Gama did the next best thing and personally accompanied as many people as he could to the border. He even covered all expenditures and gave everyone a week’s ration.

Gama’s dying days were challenging, as he battled to make ends meet with little government assistance. He also had five boys and four daughters, but all of his sons died while they were little. After a protracted struggle with sickness, the Great Gama died on May 23, 1960, at the age of 82.

The Great Gama Birthday

On his 144th birthday, the wrestling legend was honored with a Google Doodle. Google Doodles are impromptu creative modifications to Google’s logo on the search engine giant’s official home page to commemorate significant world events, festivals, anniversaries, and the lives of renowned people.

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