Considered as one of the best pehlwans ever to have stepped into a ring, he remained undefeated in a career spanning over 50 years.
On the afternoon of September 10, 1910, a mustachioed thick-necked wrestler from British-ruled India descended onto the Shepherd Bush Stadium in London before a crowd of 12,000 spectators.
Ghulam Buksh Muhammad Butt, more commonly known as The Great Gama, was there to compete with Polish pro Stanislaus Zbyszko.
On his part, Gama had already acquired legendary status in India where he was an undisputed champion who had pinned down hundreds of opponents in sandpits.
Now in the UK, the 32-year-old bulky man wanted to prove his mantle against European challengers in the Greco-Roman style of wrestling.
The muscular Zbyszko was a formidable opponent. He ranked among the world's top four wrestlers alongside Frank Gotch.
The Gama Vs Zbyszko fight was one of the biggest clashes in the history of wrestling. But as the two heavyweights engaged in grappling, Zbyszko was pinned down to the mat within the first minute. Gama locked him from behind in a half-nelson move.
Such was the pressure from Gama that the Polish fighter remained on his hands and knees for almost three hours, unable to break Gama's hold. As the match proved to be a one-sided spectacle, the referee blew the full-time whistle.
The match ended with a draw as the victor had to press his opponents shoulders on the mat. A rematch date was set but Zbyszko didn’t show up. Gama returned home as the champion.
Back in British-led India, Gama was hailed as a hero who had defeated several white wrestlers.
Historic photographs of the 'wrestling' match where Zbysco remained in a motionless kneeling position for 2 hours and three quarters & didn't wrestle Gama disappointing the large crowds who had come to see a wrestling match. Their jeers & boos failed to make him wrestle Gama. https://t.co/8EApjP5cHk pic.twitter.com/5Si3MuUZjZ— Nafees Ur Rehman Durrani (@NafeesRehmanDr) May 22, 2022
Wrestling enthusiasts remember Gama as the greatest pehlwan who ever stepped foot inside a ring.
Six decades after his death, Google celebrated his 144th birthday with a doodle on May 22. Since then a flurry of articles have appeared online as interest surged in his life and achievements.
“What makes him great is that in his long career spanning five decades no one was able to beat him,” Muhammad Umar, a former Pakistani wrestling champion, tells TRT World.
“People loved him. He could take on much bigger and heavier wrestlers without a worry.”
Travel to any village in Pakistan and people still remember him. Gama and his family moved to Pakistan in 1947 after the partition of colonial India.
But when it comes to Gama’s legend, the line between fact and fiction often blurs.
A kushti prodigy
The exact year of Gama’s birth remains disputed. Most sources say it was May 22, 1878.
What we do know for sure is that he was born in Amritsar, and his family hailed from Kashmir where they had practiced the art of kushti, a Greco-Roman form of wrestling, for generations.
Even as a kid, he had acquired prominence.
At the age of 10, Gama took part in a competition organised by the ruler of Jodhpur princely state. Almost all the wrestlers and their akharas (gymnasiums) at the time were patronised by maharajas.
More than 400 wrestlers from across undivided India had gathered to compete with each other. Athletes were required to perform squats until the last man standing was declared winner. Gama was among the top 15 and he was unstoppable for hours. The maharaja declared him the victor considering he was the youngest wrestler in the lot.
By the early 20th century, Gama must have established himself as a formidable pehlwan because his name and a feat he was able to pull off was literally etched in stone.
In 1902, a twenty-something Gama apparently lifted a 1,200 kilogramme (that’s 1.2 tons) heavy stone, which is still on display at the Sayaji Baug Museum in Baroda, India.
Gama was India's first sporting superstar, says Rudraneil Sengupta, the author of Enter the Dangal, a book on Indian wrestling history.
“India did not have the unified sporting star of Gama’s stature where everyone knew the person’s name across the land.”
From Bhopal, Indore to Lahore, Gama went on winning tournaments held under the patronage of different maharajas year after year.
No one was able to escape Gama’s iron hold and that’s a fact well documented, says Sengupta.
“You'd find snatches of literary references to Gama in various people’s guides and writings from that era. It’s very consistent that every time somebody makes a reference to Gama from their own personal experience or knowledge of having seen him is always as the best wrestler or undefeated wrestler of India.”
The making of many legends
Kushti remains one of the most popular sports in villages and rural towns in India and Pakistan. Fought in sandpits, this type of wrestling is more than just a show of strength – it’s also about endurance and character.
One opponent that Gama was never able to overcome was a formidable wrestler Rahim Baksh Sultaniwala, who had earned the title of Rustam-e-Hind (the champion of India) at the time.
Sultaniwala was a giant at 6’9 and over 130 kilos compared to 5’7 stature of Gama. “Yet, Gama was able to fight him. The match ended in a draw but it went on for 2 hours. And Gama didn’t give up. He was really brave,” says Umar, the Pakistani wrestler.
Gama trained like traditional wrestlers who spent long hours in akaras lifting weights and practicing fighting techniques with each other.
Unlike the modern-day wrestlers sweating out in the gym to acquire ripped bodies, traditional wrestlers generate immense strength from their bulky frames, pot bellies and humped shoulders.
“To watch him doing the dipping exercise was a revelation. There was power put into every movement, up and down… It was easy to understand, watching the regular rise and fall of the smooth brown body, the bending and straightening of the rounded limbs, to what extent not only the arms and the shoulders, but the muscles of the chest, abdomen, back and loins participated in the vigorous execution,” wrote British journalist Percy Longhurst who witnessed Gama’s training routine.
While there’s a consensus that Gama remained undefeated in a career that spanned over 50 years until his death in 1960, the record of his fights is hard to come by, says Sengupta, who has searched the archives of former princely states such as Patiala.
It’s also an exaggeration to call him Rustam-e-Zaman (champion of the world).
Gama had travelled to the UK in 1910 on a tour promoted by R. B. Benjamin, an English businessman who was affiliated with the entertainment business and owned a circus.
The Indian wrestler didn’t participate in any tournament. There were a few fights which owner of an English language magazine John Bull had sponsored.
“It was not a tournament as we understand it today,” says Sengupta.
Gama fights were covered by small-time English newspapers.
And as opposed to the hero's welcome that Gama received upon his return to India, his bout with Zbyszko was negatively received by the British spectators and the press, which saw the fight as a waste of time.
“It was disgraceful, a mockery of wrestling; and by it the game, which, it had been hoped, had received a healthy stimulus and recommendation to the public interest, has received one more bad shock,” The Sporting Life wrote.
There’s also the overlooked career of Gama’s younger brother Imam Buksh who defeated well-known Swede wrestler John Lemm within minutes.
Buksh, who many people think employed better wrestling techniques than Gama, had also travelled to England.
“After Gama had risen to prominence, every fighter first had to go through Buksh to reach Gama. So we don’t know who was a better wrestler,” says Sengupta.
There’s also uncertainty about the exact number of Gama’s fights. Some sources put the figure at 5,000, without supporting it with any evidence.
The story about Gama lifting 1,200 kg stone is also presented as a fact and has been reproduced verbatim over the decades. “I think that’s an exaggeration. Has anyone even weighed that stone?”
But despite these gaps in the Gama story, he continues to inspire fighters from across the world.
Martial arts great Bruce Lee incorporated Gama’s push-ups technique and deep knee-bending exercises into his own routine. Pehlwans still look up to him for inspiration.
“In a century of fights since Gama’s time, there hasn’t been a single wrestler who has not lost at least one bout. Now that’s greatness,” says Umar.