“It’s odd,” Mike Mooneyham mused to me over the phone while discussing the recent death of Indian superstar Dara Singh, “but The Great Khali is the only Indian wrestler today’s fans know.””It’s ironic,” I said, “but Khali would have been the perfect opponent for Singh to draw a crowd of 100, 000.””Yes,” rebutted Mike, “some of his greatest draws were against wrestlers much bigger than he.” But then the life of Dara Singh may be described as the victory of the ultimate underdog; a cultural icon and the stuff of which Hindu legends are born. After making his mark in the world of wrestling, Singh broke into movies in 1952, becoming India’s greatest action star. If that wasn’t enough, he later entered the world of politics, becoming the first sportsman to be nominated to the Rajya Sabha (upper house of the Indian Parliament) by the Bhartiya Janata Party (somewhat analogous to England’s Tory, or Conservative, Party) from August, 2003, to August, 2009. Not bad for a man who began his wrestling career in Singapore as a young man down and out on his luck.He was born Deedar Singh Randhawa on November 19, 1928, in the village of Dharmuchak in northwestern India, formerly British Punjab. His father, Surat Singh, was a middle-class farmer and merchant, and his mother, Balwant Khur, was a homemaker. Because he was large for his age (he would eventually measure out at 6’2″ and 250 lbs.), Singh was encouraged to take up sports, particularly Pehlwani, an Indian style of wrestling contested in milky sand pits called akhada. Pehlwani is more than mere grappling; it is more a cultural tradition, combining two distinct earlier styles of wrestling: Indian malla-yuddah (which can be simply described as a form of submission wrestling, concentrating on the joints) and Persian Varzesh-e Bastani (a traditional form of folk submission wrestling guided strongly by Sufi principles of mysticism, with levels or degrees of ability) and is tied to the Sikh faith, which is the dominant faith in Punjab.Some of the greatest wrestlers in history were devotees of Pehlwani. The most famous is Ghulam Muhammad, “the Lion of the Punjab,” who became famous as The Great Gama. Although he stood only 5’7″, he defeated any and all opponents that came across his path. After conquering everyone in India except the nearly seven foot tall Grand Champion Raheem Bakhsh Sultani Wala, with whom he had secured two draws, Gama toured England, challenging the famous wrestlers of the day, including Frank Gotch, George Hackenschmidt, Dr. Benjamin Roller and Stanislaus Zbyszko. Gotch never made the tour, and Hackenschmidt steered a clear course away. Roller accepted the challenge and was thoroughly beaten, while Zbyszko managed a three-hour draw by curling up in a defensive position on the mat so that Gama could not budge him. A rematch saw Zbyzsko forfeit the match and the prize, the John Bull belt, along with 250 pounds, was awarded to Gama.According to legend, Gama wrestled for 50 years and was undefeated. His brother, Imam Bux (Imam Baksh Pahalwan) was said to be even better as a grappler. Gama passed his title of Indian Champion in 1918 to his younger brother at a major tournament Kolhapur. Afterward, Gama named a stipulation for anyone that wished to challenge him: the challenger must first defeat Bux. Reportedly, no one accepted the offer. When India and Pakistan were partitioned upon independence in 1947, Gama and his family remained in the Pakistani portion of Punjab and disappeared from the forefront of Indian culture from that point onward.As a sidebar, I had a co-worker and good friend of Indian heritage. His father came here from India as a young man. In India he was a fanatic wrestling fan and would travel miles to see his favorites in action. He told me in a phone conversation that the “defection” of Gama to hated Pakistan was so devastating to Indian wrestling fans that Gama was practically erased from the collective consciousness of Indian wrestling fans. In line with this thinking, and possibly as a consequence of Gama’s action, the career of Dara Singh was inflated to the point where it was reported that he wrestled over 500 matches without ever losing. This isn’t true, of course, but was reported as such in the Indian press. It’s proof of the quote from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence that “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” This is valuable information, especially when it comes to wrestling history.This was the world Dara Singh entered, and a world where he excelled. He made a decent living performing at carnivals and fairs for the enjoyment of princes of Indian states. He was awarded the titles of Rustam-E-Punjab in 1966 (Champion of Punjab) and Rustam-E-Hind in 1978 (Champion of India) in recognition of his wrestling ability.But now, here is where the story becomes hazy. In 1947 Singh ventured to Singapore, reportedly to visit relatives. One story has him working in a factory; another has him at a stand as a shoeshine boy, an unlikely occupation given his family’s wealth. And yet another story has him studying wrestling under a Chinese master. Apparently, no one ever thought to ask Singh what he did in those years. There is one thing of we are sure: while at Singapore, Singh was discovered as a wrestler. The man that discovered young Dara Singh was none other than Emile “King Kong” Czaya, a legend of pro wrestling in Southeast Asia and Australia and a nefarious character whose underworld activities ominously overshadowed his wrestling career. Czaya was born in Hungary in 1909. It has become a staple of Internet information that he began his wrestling career in India around 1937, but in truth, Czaya was trained in the art of Greco-Roman wrestling in Hungary. It is thought that he wrestled in the European continent until the storm clouds of the coming war caused him to relocate to the Indian subcontinent. The first results we have of him as a pro wrestler come from India and Singapore, where he was an immediate sensation because of his enormous size (6’0, 440 lbs.). Czaya prospered in the laissez-faire atmosphere of Singapore, India and the Dutch East Indies. In between booking wrestling tours he was a smuggler and drug runner par excellence. He also ran a kidnapping ring both in Singapore and Jakarta.During a private conversation discussing his autobiography, Hooker, Lou Thesz filled me in on working with the likes of Czaya. “He had a finger in a lot of bad pies over there. He smuggled drugs and stolen jewelry, items you can easily hide. He also bought daughters from Indian fathers for what would turn out to be brothels in Singapore and Malaysia.” Thesz also mentioned that Czaya was his own promotion’s policeman, but also added that any wrestler would have to be nuts to defy him, or to even squabble about the payoff. Czaya was looking for fresh talent for his shows when he noticed Singh, who certainly stood out in the crowd due to his build. Always on the lookout for Indian grapplers for the lucrative Indian market, he took Singh under his wing and taught him the ins and outs of the pro game. Czaya took one gander at Dara’s matinee idol looks and decided he would be nothing but a babyface. He christened him “Dara Dass,” and in his first match he drew the Italian “champion” Napolitano. In 1950 Czaya changed Singh’s moniker to “Dara Singh,” after a local Indian wrestling legend who stood seven feet tall. (After his brother was killed in a land dispute this Dara Singh returned to India and was jailed by authorities for gaining revenge on both of the killers. He wrestled while in jail and was reportedly pardoned on the intervention of Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who while in the company of Prime Minister Nehru, happened to attend one of his matches.) Seeing the immense potential in his new charge, Czaya nurtured his discovery like a hothouse flower, bringing him along slowly and avoiding overexposure. Singh’s first taste of wrestling’s good life came when he was put over as champion of Malaya in 1947, defeating Tarlok Singh. (Yet another Internet nugget would have us believe that pro wrestling in Singapore and Malaya began with British servicemen, who brought their taste of England’s All-In wrestling with them. But the Japanese occupied Malaya and Singapore from 1942 to 1945. One of the only outlets available to the imprisoned population was wrestling, extremely popular with the large Indian minority. The more one surveys the Internet for reliable information, the more one will come up empty.)When the time was right, Czaya brought his protégé – now and emerging superstar – back to India. With Singh’s size, finding suitable Indian opponents was difficult, so it was decided to match him with larger and better known foreigners. In 1952 Czaya entered into a business partnership with businessman Goostad D. Irani. Czaya would supply the talent and Irani would provide the financial backing. A tournament was scheduled for Bombay, and among the “entrants” was the newly arrived Dara Singh.I could not find any results of the tournament, but soon after, Singh was matched with the 350 lb. Super Swedish Angel Tor Johnson. Their match did so well that it was repeated at many other locales. Over the years throughout Southeast Asia, Singh faced such stars as John DaSilva of New Zealand, Firpo Zbyszko (aka George Gordienko), British heavyweight Bill Verna, Harold Sakata, Wong Bok Lee, Tiger Joginder Singh, Al Costello, and Primo Carnera. His biggest and highest grossing matches, however, were against his mentor, Czaya. They first met in 1953 at a small village outside Delhi before a crowd estimated at 30,000. It took less than 15 minutes and ended with Singh hoisting the huge King Kong aloft with an airplane spin and slamming him to the mat. (From the description of the finish, I can only guess that this was the finisher, and knowing Czaya’s promotional style, it fits nicely.) In reality there was no way Singh could have lost the match. Czaya knew that if he won, Singh would suffer a mortal wound as a drawing card, and worse, Czaya might not make it out of the arena in one piece. Money is a wonderful salve for wounds to the ego.They would meet again over the years at different venues, but the result was always the same: a victory for Singh, usually by disqualification or count out. Singh discovered that, no matter how big of a drawing card he was, there was little money to be made from wrestling. Looking for a lucrative sideline, he got into movies as an actor in 1952. His first film was Sangdil, a rather loose adaptation of Jane Eyre. Singh was billed fourth, though I could find no other information on his character. His next film was three years later, Pehli Jhalak, a tale about a woman who flees her arranged marriage for a fling with a petty gambler. Singh plays himself, a wrestler. He made two more films after that, with one role uncredited. It wasn’t until 1962 that his movie fortunes changed.Singh toured Japan in 1955, finishing tied for third place with partner Said Saifshah in a tournament to determine the JWA tag team championship. In Osaka he suffered a rare loss when Rikidozan pinned him. In 1956, following another extravaganza versus King Kong, Singh toured England, where he faced Bert Assirati and Lou Thesz, who he wrestled to a 60-minute draw.Singh and Thesz apparently formed a fast and bonding friendship. Later, Thesz convinced his new friend to bail on a tour of Australia and come instead to Canada for Eddie Quinn and Frank Tunney. Singh played all the cites: Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, and Winnipeg. Tunney made sure to get publicity for Singh’s tour of Toronto, where he was sure to be popular with the large Indian population in that city. And although his tour was only about six months, he and Yukon Eric teamed to capture the Canadian Open tag championship on July 10, 1958, in Toronto from Ivan and Nikita Kalmikoff (Edward Bruce and Alexander Mulko, respectively). They held onto the belts until August 8, 1958, when yet another “brother” team, that of Reggie and Stan Lisowski (Stan Holek), captured the titles, again in Toronto.Lou would later return the favor when he wrestled Singh in India in 1968. Thesz was dazzled by the size of the crowds and their dedication to their idol. Like King Kong Czaya before him, he saw the practical benefits of losing to the popular Indian idol – the benefit being in keeping one’s life. “I was no fool,” Thesz told me. “I knew that if I won I’d never get out of the place alive. Besides, it was no disgrace to do a business match with someone of Dara Singh’s ability.” A defeat of Thesz before 60,000 fans in New Delhi earned Singh the title of “World’s Champion.” At least World’s Champion of India. They would meet again to large and enthusiastic crowds in 1973.Singh would return twice more to Canada, defending his World’s Championship (as “World Cup Holder”) in what was billed as World Cup Wrestling. On July 7, 1974, he made a successful defense against “U.N. Champion” Danny Lynch in 12:32. Others appearing on the card were Tiger Jeet Singh (“International Champion”), Pat Roach (“English Champion”), Prince Mann Singh (“Malaysian Champion”), Randhawa Singh (“Indian Champion”), Than Yen Chang, Majid Ackra (billed as from Pakistan), Kashmir Singh, Tony Parisi, Chris Tolos, Golden Boy Apollo, and Terry Yorkston. On August 18, 1979, he returned for the last time to Toronto and defeated Brute Bernard.It was after winning a tournament held in Delhi inaugurated by then Prime Minister Rajiv Ghandi himself that Singh announced his retirement as a wrestler.But it wasn’t wrestling where Singh made his financial fortune – it was the movies. In 1962 he starred in a B-movie titled King Kong, where he played the lead, a son forced to flee with his mother and brother when his father, the Maharaja, is ousted, and who grows into a championship wrestler. Given the title “King Kong” by a prince, he angers the real wrestler King Kong and the two battle it out twice in the movie. Add men-in-dinosaur suits, a rescued princess, and numerous plots against Our Hero, and we have all the makings of a laugh riot. But it was no laughing matter to the audience, who flocked out to see it again and again, propelling its star, Singh into the stratosphere of Bollywood popularity. Oddly, in an interview with Indo-Asian News Service (quoted by historian Greg Oliver in his Slam! Wrestling obituary of Singh), the star claims he was forced to do the movie. He received 1,000 rupees a day for the movie, but his heavily Punjabi-accented voice had to be overdubbed.Other action films soon followed: Rustom-E-Baghdad (1963), Samson (1964, playing the title role), and Hercules (also 1964) soon followed. Hercules, which was another mega-hit, not only featured more men in ridiculous dinosaur suits, but two King Kongs for Hercules to fight: both the wrestler and the giant ape. In 1965 he played the title role in Tarzan Comes to Delhi, but later that same year co-starred in Tarzan and King Kong as one of Tarzan’s opponents (the other, of course, was King Kong himself). Many of his films were preceded by a short film of one of his many wrestling matches, mainly against King Kong, so one could go to an Indian cinema and see Singh featured in a newsreel, a short film of one of his matches and a movie starring himself! Singh was permanently burned into the popular consciousness of India when he co-starred in the 1986 television series Ramayan, a lengthy adaptation of the Indian mythical saga, the Ramayana. Singh portrayed Hanuman, a Hindu deity, an ardent devotee of Rama, and the son of the Indian deity Vayu. To say it was a hit would be a gross understatement. It was said that all India came to a standstill, buses stopped running and religious services were re-scheduled so everyone could tune in for each 30-minute episode every Sunday morning. Singh became permanently indentified with the god and portrayed him twice more: in the even more popular 94-episode series Mahabharat (1988-90, although he was in only one 45-minute episode), and the 39-episode Luv Kush (1988), which covers the last book of the Ramayan. An astute businessman, Singh saved his money and founded Dara Pictures in 1970. This allowed him to direct, write and produce several of his starring vehicles, directly reaping the fruits of his labors and giving him an important bargaining chip in negotiations for his services with other studios. In 1978 he opened a film mini-city called Dara Studios at Mohali in Punjab. All in all, Singh appeared in close to 150 movies. As his fame and acting ability grew, so did his choice of roles, and in the later years of his life he appeared in dramas and romantic comedies. There was one foe that not even Dara Singh could defeat, and that was Time. He suffered what was described as a “major cardiac attack” and was admitted to Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital, where he was placed on a ventilator. He was released from the hospital on July11 in deference to his family’s request and died the next day, July 12, at his home in Mumbai. He was cremated at Juhu Crematorium with a funeral service attended by thousands.Singh was so beloved that his ultimate tribute possibly was when a child born a day earlier in Singh’s hometown of Dharmuchak was christened “Dara” after the father learned the news of the hero’s demise. Not too many heroes can claim that sort of adoration.