You know you're somebody when you've appeared on an Indian dangal poster — in other words, in a wrestling advertisement.
The site of my first dangal was Seoni, India, the birthplace of Rudyard Kipling's character Mowgli, and the fight forever will be known as the "dangal in the jungle."
I began the adventure with Zhengtong, my wrestling teammate from Shanghai University of Sport, when we embarked on a 30-hour jaunt from Shandong, China, to Delhi, India. The three-and-a-half-hour time difference between the two nations only added to our fatigue. We arrived in Delhi, slept three hours, then got up and drove eight hours to Chandigarh for training.
Our coach Deepak Pehlwan explained that constant, lengthy, cheap and uncomfortable travel like this is a fact of life for Indian wrestlers. During dangal season, they try to compete as much as possible to earn money. That often entails wrestling one day and traveling to their next bout the following day. A wrestler who's just starting out makes between 500 rupees and 1,500 rupees ($7 to $20) per bout — which explains why they have to travel and sleep as cheaply as possible.
The fact that Zhengtong and I were in a car with our coach, rather than riding on trains and buses in the worst seats available, was considered a huge luxury.
After training on that second day, we drove eight hours back to Delhi, slept three hours, then drove an hour to the airport so we could take a two-hour flight and a three-hour drive to Seoni. From the moment I arrived in India, I longed for a chance to unpack, take a shower, do laundry and sleep — but it was one obligation after another. And they all involved long, uncomfortable travel with as many as four people crammed in the back seat of a compact car.
When we finally arrived in Seoni, it was 11 a.m. on the day before the fight. I had hoped we would just check into the hotel and be able to rest. Instead, we had to drive to a meeting with the dangal committee, followed by lunch.
Back at the hotel, someone handed me a newspaper that announced the arrival of wrestlers from the United States, China and the nation of Georgia. I also spotted social media advertisements in which they'd changed my fight name from "Brooklyn Monk" to "Shaolin Monk." I surmised it was an effort to capitalize on my association with the famed Chinese temple. I didn't mind, but I bet the Shaolin monks would if they knew. (Please don't tell them.)
It was 3 p.m., and we were told we were off until the fight the next day, but it was difficult to rest because members of the committee kept entering — without knocking — to shake hands and take selfies. Finally, some men walked in and asked if I was ready for a press conference and a meet-and-greet. I was not, but I had no choice.
We joined a small caravan of expensive automobiles that carried the dangal committee and their security guards. Along the way, people were waving at us. At stop lights, they'd run up to the car I was in, knock on the windows and ask to take selfies.
When we arrived at our destination, I saw that people had set up a small reception, where we shook more hands, took more photos, drank tea and were adorned with floral wreaths. When the conference finished, we tried to get back to the cars, but a crowd had formed. The security guards had to clear a path for us.
Whenever I wind up in this kind of press of humanity, I find it a bit frightening, and this time was no different. It would have been easy to just run to the vehicles, ignoring everyone, but these public appearances were part of what the organizers had paid for and what the crowd wanted. So as much as I could — even when we were being pushed into the cars — if I saw kids in the crowd, I would take a few seconds so they could take selfies, shake hands and ask for autographs.
All the pre-fight excitement, coupled with the star treatment, made me think I was a gladiator in ancient Rome. Everyone was so nice to us today, but tomorrow, we might die. OK, OK, it was a wrestling competition we were preparing for and not a gladiatorial contest or even an MMA match, so we probably weren't going to die. But the point was that we were stars today even though tomorrow we might get beat up.
Next, we drove to a cricket match. As soon as we stepped out of the cars, we were mobbed by people wishing us luck. It was flattering and exciting, but also overwhelming and unexpected. Our security detail was very good about shepherding us away from uncomfortable situations and pushing the crowd back when needed. They led us onto the cricket field, where both teams had lined up to shake our hands. Most of the players welcomed us to Seoni, and many indicated that they wanted to take photos with us. I wished each of them good luck in their match. Meanwhile, fans ran onto the field, getting between us and the players. The guards had to remove them so we could complete our handshaking.
The guards then herded us toward a dais occupied by politicians, high-ranked businessmen and other dignitaries. One of the VIPs was a former wrestling champ who'd become a member of parliament. This confirmed to me the incredible importance Indian people attach to wrestling. Deepak later said that about 10 percent of parliament came from a wrestling background, having parlayed their fame and support network into election victory.
As other press events and fan greetings followed, Zhengtong and I talked about how unpopular wrestling is in other countries compared to India. When we wrestled at Shanghai University of Sport, we used to joke that the average attendance at a match was eight people, at least three of whom were waiting for the rain to stop so they could go watch tennis. In Seoni, Indian officials said they expected 40,000 to 50,000 people.
In addition to the two of us, there was a foreign wrestler from Georgia named Tedo. The previous year's champ, he was a mountain of a man who weighed more than 240 pounds. Through him and his coach Dobo Romin, I learned that wrestling programs in Georgia were incredibly developed and churned out skilled grapplers but, as in most countries, there was no way for them to make money. Somehow, Dobo, a former world champion, discovered that wrestlers in India could make good money, so he invited Tedo to compete.
In his first year in India, Tedo had some losses. In his second year, he wrestled for small money. By his third and fourth years, he was getting thousands of dollars per match. In contrast, Zhengtong was receiving $500 for his match, while I was getting $300. Tedo, meanwhile, said he was promised $2,000 this time.
If you compare Indian wrestling money to MMA money, Tedo's $2,000 wasn't great. However, he had an advantage over MMA fighters: He could compete 30 times a year. Some Indian wrestlers have as many as 50 matches a year. This is in sharp contrast to the three to four matches a year that MMA fighters have. In India, a wrestler can maintain peak earnings for about five years. And just being a popular foreign wrestler can command additional dollars for each match.
Now, $2,000 a fight for five years in exchange for a lifetime of training, sacrifice and injury may not seem like a lot, but the average Indian makes about $1,600 a year. So Tedo was earning more than a year's salary in a single night. After three matches, he netted more than the average Georgian makes in a year.
About the low pay scale relative to American standards, a friend said, "This proves you do it for love, not money."
I replied, "There is no other reason to fight. Ninety-percent of fighters everywhere struggle financially. So they must be doing it for love."
Then I remembered that Tedo's monthly earnings might reach $20,000, which caused me to amend my comment: "Maybe there are two reasons to fight — love and money."
(To be continued.)
Antonio Graceffo's book Warrior Odyssey is available at shop.blackbeltmag.com.
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