Ghulam Mohammad Baksh Butt, afterwards known as Gama Pehlwan, was born on May 22, 1878 in a Kashmiri family. His birthplace was Jabbowal hamlet in the Amritsar district of Punjab in British-ruled, undivided India.
Due to his family history, Gama Pehlwan grew up surrounded by akhadas or traditional wrestling rings. He was drawn to strength training and wrestling at a young age, much like the majority of his community. But he was exceptional.
Early Childhood of Gama Pehlwan
In 1888, when Gama competed in a strongman competition in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, it started his numerous astounding achievements. The tournament featured over 400 wrestlers and strongmen, several of whom were nationally renowned, but 10-year-old Gama stole the show.
Due to his youth, Gama was in the top 15 and was ultimately proclaimed the winner by Maharaja of Jodhpur. In addition to the prize money, Gama received the sponsorship of the Maharaja of Datia and Maharaja of Patiala.
By the time he was a teenager, Gama had defeated every Indian wrestler he had encountered. In 1895, he met Raheem Bakhsh, a fellow Kashmiri wrestler who was the former Rustam-e-Hind or uncontested Indian wrestling champion. The more experienced and taller Raheem Baksh was the apparent favourite to upset 17-year-old Gama. Despite enduring extensive bleeding from his nose and ears, he held his well-known opponent to consecutive draws in hard-fought bouts.
Gama Pehlwan’s Diet and Training
Gama consumed 15 ltrs of milk, three KGs of butter, lamb, nine KGs of almonds, and three fruit baskets everyday. The Great Gama’s daily training consisted of 5,000 sit-ups, 3,000 push-ups, and almost 40 bouts of wrestling.
The Great Gama, champion of the world in London
Gama was seen as the leading contender for the Rustame Hind after his performance against Baksh. By 1910, Gama Pehlwan had defeated every notable Indian wrestler except Raheem Baksh. Then he moved his focus to the international scene.
He travelled to London to compete in a global competition, but was denied admittance due to his little stature. Infuriated, Gama issued a challenge to any three wrestlers of any weight class that he could defeat in 30 minutes. In spite of this, nobody took the Indian seriously.
Gama finally found a worthy opponent in the form of the popular American wrestler ‘Doc’ Benjamin Roller. Roller was also a physician and professional football (American) player. In the first bout, Gama pinned Roller in 1 minute 40 seconds, and in the second, 9 minutes 10 seconds.
The victories established Gama as a real competitor, and the following day he defeated 12 wrestlers consecutively.
Gama Pehlwan’s Challenge to Wrestling Champions
On September 10, 1910, Gama challenged world champion Stanislaus Zbyszko of Poland in the final for the John Bull Belt. Zbyszko was the reigning world champion. Gama submitted Zbyszko one minute into the battle, but the Pole maintained his defensive stance. He maintained this stance for nearly three hours to secure a tie.
Zbyszko is one of the very few wrestlers who have held Gama to a draw in an official match. The rematch was arranged for seven days later, but the Pole did not appear. Therefore, Gama was awarded the John Bull belt and the title of world champion.
In 1927, Zbyszko met Gama in Patiala for a rematch, but he was destroyed in less than a minute. After the match, the Pole would refer to Gama as a tiger.
As the Great Gama Pehlwan stretched his domination on the international arena, he defeated notable wrestlers. These include Switzerland’s Maurice Deriaz and Johann Lemm of Switzerland, the European champion at the time, and Sweden’s Jesse Peterson, another world champion.
Gama also made challenges to Japanese champion Miyake, Russian Hackenschmidt, and American Frank Gotch. All of them claimed to be world champions at the time, but none accepted the invitation to fight.
Back in India
Shortly after returning to India from England in 1910, Gama again challenged Raheem Bakhsh for the title of Indian champion. Even though Raheem Bakhsh was ageing, he put up a tough fight, but Gama ultimately prevailed after hours of combat.
Raheem Bakhsh Sultani Wala
According to Gama, Bakhsh was the toughest opponent he had ever faced in wrestling, despite having defeated multiple world champions.
In February 1929, Gama defeated Jesse Petersen in the final bout of his career. Gama, who was 51 at the time, halted his career due to a lack of opponents, not his age. No one wanted to wrestle him inside the ring.
Migration to Pakistan
Following India’s split in 1947, Gama opted to relocate to Lahore, Pakistan.
He reportedly settled on Lahore’s Mohni Road, which at the time had a substantial Hindu population. During the partition, when communal violence loomed on both sides of the border, Gama resolved to protect his Hindu neighbours. He and his fellow wrestlers would monitor the neighbourhood during these chaotic times. They even reportedly battled off armed rioters on occasions. Gama once sent the leader of a rioting mob flying with a single slap, causing the rest to run in terror.
However, as the situation deteriorated, Gama realized his ability to protect his neighbors was diminishing.
Therefore, Gama did the next best thing and personally escorted as many as he could to the border in safety. He even paid for everyone’s expenses and provided a week’s worth of food.
Gama Pehlwan’s Death
Gama’s dying days were challenging as he fought to make ends meet with minimal government assistance. He had five boys and four daughters, but all of his sons passed away at an early age. The Great Gama passed away on May 23, 1960, at the age of 82, following a lengthy battle with sickness.