Gama the Lion
Master of the Arts
by John Gilbey
Black Belt Magazine, Summer, 1963

  For years people have asked, "Is Gama still alive?" Now it can be said: Gama is gone. One of the finest wrestlers of all time, the "Lion of the Punjab" (whose proper name was Mian Ghulam Mohammad) died after a lingering illness in Lahore, Pakistan, on 21 May, 1960. He was 80.

   The writer learned of his death only recently in a Strength and Health article. What a sad commentary: a name known to sports enthusiasts throughout the world and his death goes unnoticed by news media! True, in recent years his worsening health and poverty-ridden circumstances had been reported in the West, but, as far as the writer knows, no word of his passing was ever given. For years the writer has been entranced by the exploits of Gama and had planned this year to go to Pakistan to see him. Now this is not to be. He is gone. Belatedly, homage is paid in this article.

   Born in 1880 in the West Punjab (now West Pakistan), home of the great wrestling families of Kashmiri stock, Gama started wrestling at an early age. Since the grappling art is the national sport of India, the youngster found no dearth of talented opponents. He submitted nay, embraced- the rigorous regimen imposed since time immemorial on Indian wrestlers. His daily training schedule- which budding Gamas practice in the 600 wrestling gyms in Lahore today- followed these lines:

  • 3 A.M. Rise and begin literally thousands of baitaks (squats) and dands (cat-stretches). After a five-mile run and some swimming ("wrestling with water"), weights of stone and sandbags are lifted and exercises on the malla-stambh (vertical pillar) done.
  • 8 A.M. Competitive wrestling under the vigilant eye of the teacher is begun and continues for two hours. This is done in dirt pits carefully spaded for the purpose.
  • 10 A.M. A complete oil massage is given followed by a rest until 4 P.M.
  • 4 P.M. Another massage is given after which conclusions are again tried with other wrestlers until 8 P.M.  

To cope with such a spartan routine (and even the sumotori or giant wrestlers of Japan do not work as hard)

   Gama ate prodigiously, consuming daily two to three gallons of milk, five pounds of crushed almonds, and considerable quantities of beef, soup, and vegetables. Thus Gama struggled through the early years improving strength, stamina, and technique, exemplifying those wonderful lines:

"Adequate, erect
With will to choose or to reject;
And I choose-
Just a throne."

   As he climbed toward his goal- champion of all India- he must have been spurred by the great names of Indian wrestling. Sadika, the gentle superman, who chastised his brother's attacker by killing an ass with a single blow in front of the miscreant; Kikkar Singh, in the latter half of the 19th Century, who uprooted an acacia tree with his bare hands; and Ghulam who, after beating Singh, went to Paris in 1900 to answer the challenge of the giant Turk, Cour-Derelli, whom no one else would meet. In the first minute Ghulam showed everyone including the Turk that he was complete master. Cour-Derelli ran and stalled, hugging the mat ( exactly like Zbyszco was to do ten years later with Gama) and was thus able to finish the match.

   However, the experts who witnessed the match were unanimous in saying that no man alive could stand five minutes against Ghulam. Unfortunately, Ghulam contracted cholera in the same year after coming home and died in Calcutta. Soon after the age of 20 Gama began to emerge as a successor to these champions. Wrestlers from all over India felt his fury and before he was 30 the Lion had achieved his goal, the championship of India.

All over in six seconds. Rare photograph shows Gama, right, and Zbyszco facing off for historic match in 1926.

His stickiest moments were in three draw matches with Rahim, the great pupil of Ghulam. These were grueling two-and three-hour goes with neither man stepping back. Gama interrupted the series in 1910 by traveling to London, one of the wrestling centers of the world, to do battle with the best of Europe.

   There is a story current which says that because he was small by European standards he was not permitted to enter the Tournament of Champions in London that year and was forced to rent a hall where he fought as many as 12 wrestlers a day, some 200 in all, before he finally met and beat Zbyszco. This makes exciting reading but the writer can find no basis for it.

   Irrespective of this, the real facts are just as exciting. On 8 August, 1910 he met B. F. (Doe) Roller, one of the finest American wrestlers, who had wrestled the American champion, Frank Gotch, to a draw in 1906. Gama weighed an even 200 pounds against Roller's 234 pounds but was so much shorter (5'8") that he looked puny next to Roller. Two hundred pounds were wagered for the best two out of three falls. Some of the spectators gave Gama little chance because of the weight disadvantage, the surroundings- the Alhambra was quite different from the Indian dirt pits- the curious calisthenics Gama engaged in before the match started. But with the bell when Gama smote his thighs (like Cyrus on a memorable occasion), their misgivings vanished. In one minute Gama with his relatively small hands threw Roller between the mat and the footlights- the fall, being off the mat, not counting. Roller got up a bit shaken and returned to the fray only to be thrown and pinned in the total time of 10 minutes. After a short rest the second round began with Roller diving for Gotch's famed toehold. But Gama with his fluid physique easily frustrated the try and then toyed with the American before pinning him in five minutes.

   The Times of London commenting on the match, in which some of Roller's ribs were broken, stated that Gama would beat Zbyszco and Gotch also. Only in Japan would Gama really be tested. All the leading European wrestlers, said the Times, are hiding in the Swiss mountains or in Berlin (where police had stopped their "championships" a few weeks before).

   But S. Zbyszco, all 254 pounds of him, didn't hide. A month later the Pole, one of the finest Greco-Roman style wrestlers of all time, was seated opposite Gama in a ring at Shepherd's Bush. Zbyszco wrote the writer recently that he had trained with and greatly respected Roller and, after seeing what Gama did to the American, "I knew I had work on my hands." The match, however, was disappointing. The press stated that the Pole lay passive for two hours and 34 minutes, taking the offensive only twice. Zbyszco put it this way to the writer:

By their necks ye shall know them: Gama at the height of his career.

  "From the beginning I played it defensive as I had against Poddubny (an outstanding Russian wrestler Zbyszco beat in 1907), watching for a sign of weakness. At one point I did manage to lift Gama and drop him onto his shoulders which should have constituted a fall but, because of my defensive tactics, the referee did not accept it."

   The press, however, does not mention this action by the Pole. Apparently, Zbyszco knew that he could not trade techniques with the Indian and from the outset he hugged the mat, using his weight advantage, and thus was able to thwart Gama- who had never met such a tactic before. When darkness intervened and the bout was called a no decision affair the Indian was baffled and frustrated. The sequel was scheduled for the following Saturday. Zbyszco, however, failed to show up on that day and Gama was declared the winner and presented the John Bull Championship Belt.

   Immediately afterward Gama returned to India. Because he failed to stop in the U. S. en route, some American wrestling authorities have conjectured that he wished to avoid Frank Gotch, arguing that Gama realized he had not been able to pin Zbyszco whom Gotch had pinned three months earlier. This is to be doubted. First, Gama probably would not have been stymied a second time by Zbyszco's novel stalling tactics. Second, Gotch was, like Roller, Gama's type of wrestler: dynamic, offensive, and rough.

   However, although the writer believes Gama would have beaten Gotch decisively, it might be best to let Zbyszco, the man who wrestled both, compare them:

  "Gama was supreme in the standing wrestling. I doubt that any wrestler existed who could stand in front of him any length of time. He was endowed with prodigious energy, ferocious strength, and marvelous coordination. Gotch on the other hand was a better craftsman and master of holds. But could he have applied those holds against the strength of the Lion? I doubt whether Gotch could have pulled him into the mat and, if he did, he could not have held him.

  "The year before my match with Gama (25 November 1909 when Zbyszco stayed an hour with Gotch, thus winning a handicap contest) while a novice at free style wrestling, I freely mixed with Gotch. With Gama, however, I could not get going at all and was obliged to fight defensively."

  When Gama returned to India he was given a hero's welcome and made the protégé of the Maharaja of Patiala. In November 1910 he met for the final time his old antagonist Rahim, and after 45 minutes Rahim called a halt due to injuries and Gama was declared the winner.

   Other adversaries came forward- all wanting to rub his face in the dirt. A serious champion, he yielded not, treating every match as his first and last one. Thus he swept the field, never tasting defeat (along with Ghulam the only undefeated wrestler in Indian wrestling annals), and amassed a sizable fortune in the process.

   In 1928 Zbyszco, still going strong in the Western World, was invited to India to wrestle Gama again by the Maharaja of Patiala. The match was Indian style conducted in a loose dirt wrestling pit, the first man thrown off his feet to be declared the loser. Zbyszco was determined to avenge his London loss and came out fast. But Gama, as usual, came out faster and threw him with a magnificent turn of the hips in the remarkable time of 49 seconds!

   One press account said: "He went, he saw, he was conquered. Zbyszco was as strong as a bull, but in the hands of Gama he was about as much use as Fay Wray in the grip of King Kong."

   Commenting later on the match Zbyszco stated: "It was like wrestling with a wild animal. Courage availed nothing in this case."

   Other than an easy five minute win over the European Peterson in Patiala in the same year, the second Zbyszco match was Gama's last with a Westerner. Heavier now (260 pounds) and older, he nevertheless continued to turn back the threat of the Indian youngsters. In 1933 at the age of 55 he still reigned supreme. A few years later he retired undefeated, the holder of an unequaled record in legitimate wrestling. In the mid-30's an American journalist, in noting that Gama could beat the 10 best Americans within a half hour, stated that he was content to stay in India "unconscious that we have at least four champions of the World in the United States!"

   In the bloody partition of India in 1947, Gama, a Moslem, lost his fortune moved to Pakistan, and was given a small plot of ground but no pension ( as a state wrestler of Patiala he had formerly received $300 a month pension). Beset by poverty, he was forced to sell most of his silver and gold trophies. Of the seven maces he received for important victories, only one was with him when he died. Illness, however, took the most telling shots at the superman of the ring. High blood pressure, heart trouble, and asthma finally combined to do what no man could do.