Athletes flex muscled biceps before going hand-to-hand in a newly televised arm-wrestling league seeking to take the sporting spotlight in otherwise cricket-mad India with a glitzy Bollywood-style makeover.
Contestants fight under bright studio lights with a cheering audience as opponents push down the other person’s arm in the Pro Panja League (PPL) at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Stadium.
The Indian Arm Wrestling Federation launched in 1977, but the sport, known as “panja” in India, has been given new lease of life by league owners and Bollywood acting couple Parvin Dabas and Preeti Jhangiani.
“Our athletes are literally sons and daughters of our soil. Somebody is a government servant, a gym trainer, somebody is a mechanic,” Dabas told AFP.
“They come from all walks of life and come from small-town India, and that’s what we love about it, that’s what the audience is getting attracted by.”
Arm wrestler Shaikh Tawheed worked as a stone mason, motorbike mechanic and gym cleaner before finding PPL fame in the 90 kilogram category.
A charming smile on his well-sculpted body adds to the 23-year-old Tawheed’s appeal as he defeats opponents in a quick strike — and then celebrates by blowing kisses to his fans.
“It’s a dream living in fancy hotels, having good food, and some money,” Tawheed told AFP, adding he had earned around 75,000 rupees ($900) during the competition period so far, a 10-fold jump on his previous earnings.
The six teams have to include men, women and people with disabilities including athletes who use wheelchairs with impressive upper-body strength with the winning team getting two million rupees ($24,000).
Launched in 2020 with some exhibition matches and tournaments, this is the first league season to be shown live on Sony Sports Network in India and Willow TV in the United States between July 28 and August 13.
The top four teams will play in the semi-finals and the winners will clash in the final on Sunday.
Sylvester Stallone’s 1987 film “Over the Top” made arm wrestling popular around the globe but the ancient sport in India remains rooted in Hindu mythology and is widely popular making Tawheed a local star.
Tawheed has moved from a one-room rented house in his home city of Aurangabad in Maharashtra state, and bought his own home.