“…the pro-wrestling world will be the Era of the Global WWE Coalition vs. Anti-WWE Alliance.”, Takaaki Kidani, President of Bushiroad (Parent Co. of NJPW), December 16, 2016
As the three great factions in The Great War begin to mobilize, the territories on the map become more expansive. Long gone are the days when wrestling promotions would be divided into State regions in the United States – now they encompass entire global geographics. NJPW is entering the United States this year with it’s own individual events and the WWE, NJPW-ROH and Impact Wrestling are all cementing footholds and partnerships in the red hot UK wrestling scene. The latest battleground to be involved in the Great War is one of the world’s largest wrestling audiences, the 1.3 billion populace of India, with both the WWE and Impact Wrestling making strides in 2017 to stake claims in the country’s wrestling audience.
Wrestling has been a part of Indian culture for millennia, going back at least 5000 years, with the creation of the wrestling form known as Malla-yuddha. This ancient form of combat was a huge part of the Indian and Pakistani culture, with trials by this form of combat an integral part of much of the mythology of the time, particularly the epic story of Mahabharata, featuring Bhima face Jarasandha, and the Ramayana epic, where a king’s duel between Vanaras king Bali and the Lanka king Ravana. By around 5th century BC, with the influx of Persian influence into the region, Malla-yuddha was merged with the Persian wrestling style to create a form of wrestling called Pehlwani, which is still practiced today.
For decades, professional wrestling has been a spectacle in India, with the WWE first entering the Indian market back in 1996. Since then, they’ve had sporadic stops on the WWE tour schedule, as well as Impact Wrestling, who even briefly ran a promotion, Ring Ka King, from 2011 to 2012. But with social media and the expansion of the internet’s reach, wrestling viewership in a country the size of India is exploding. It currently boasts the 2nd largest television viewing audience in the world (behind the United States) and has the highest social media presence in regards to followers in the entire world. India is a financial windfall for any promotion who can capitalize on the increasing boom in popularity of professional wrestling.
While it’s taken time for major promotions to hit India with great regularity, India has still had it’s share of wrestling stars throughout pro wrestling’s history, either by birth or by heritage. Throughout the 1950’s until the 1980’s, Dara Singh was arguably the countries top performer, even beating World Champion Lou Thesz in Bombay in 1968, as well as his brother, who performed as Randhawa. Tiger Jeet Singh was one of the top heels in the 1970’s through the 1990’s, with runs in NJPW and All-Japan – his son, Tiger Ali Singh, was a WWE Superstar himself during the Attitude Era. The WWE struck gold with The Great Khali during the mid-2000’s – although the former WWE World Champion was often met with apathy from North American fans, he was a bonafide megastar in his homeland. Since leaving the WWE in 2014, Khali has since opened India’s main wrestling promotion, Continental Wrestling Entertainment (CWE), which features top local talent (most often trained at Khali’s wrestling school) as well as international stars like PJ Black (aka Justin Gabriel), Brian Cage and Mike Knox.
But so far 2017 looks to be the year that both the WWE and Impact Wrestling plan to make large strides in India, as both have projects underway this year to make India a regular part of each of their programming.
It’s been no secret that WWE’s recent push of career enhancement talent, Indo-Canadian WWE Superstar Jinder Mahal to the top of the ladder on Smackdown Live has been to fill the void that the WWE has had since Khali’s departure three years ago, and that is to have a bonafide Superstar of Indian heritage. His partnership with CWC entrants and NXT Tag Team The Bollywood Boyz – since rebranded as The Singh Brothers – has created a stable that has huge potential in India’s emerging WWE marketplace, regardless whether they are heel or face. In India, they will be national heroes. In NXT, the Singh Brothers were also “scouting” another Indian wrestler, NXT developmental wrestler Jeet Rama, possibly for inclusion into the stable down the line.
At the recent WWE tryouts in Dubai, several more Indian wrestlers were invited, mostly from Khali’s CWE promotion, including 6’11” Gurvinder Singh and women’s wrestler Kavita Devi, plus wrestler and actor Saurav Gurjar, whose 6’8″, 300 lb frame is an ideal candidate for WWE shows.
Last month, WWE announced the appointment of Sheetesh Srivastava as Vice President and General Manager for WWE India, to oversea the exponential new growth expected. Srivastava joins the WWE from Walt Disney India, so he has experience with spectacles of this size and nature. With the rumoured WWE Asia tournament (and subsequent show) similar to the WWE UK one, there’s a fair chance that Indian wrestlers will make as much of a mark (if not more) than even the Japanese.
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Impact Wrestling has shown more ambition than the WWE early out of the gate, when Jeff Jarrett lead the new Impact-backed promotion Ring Ka King in 2011. Unfortunately, the promotion was defunct a year later, but Impact has kept close ties to India, maintaining strong viewership ever since. Former RKK Champion Mahabali Shera made the jump to Impact in 2014 and has been a solid mid-card performer at times, but Impact clearly has big plans for Shera as they continue to expand globally in other markets as the year unfolds. Impact Wrestling will be beating the WWE with televised events from India at the end of this month, when they hold the next set of Impact tapings on May 30 and 31 from Mumbai, India.
One thing of note is that NJPW has made no moves yet into India and that could most likely be due to their format and style. While Japan audiences are far more concentrated on the technical in-ring work, Indian audiences are nearly the exact opposite. Much like the grandiose splendor of their famed Bollywood film productions, Indian wrestling fans applaud the pomp and display of the production as much (if not more than) the actual wrestling itself.
As the wrestling battlegrounds shift to the continent of Asia, most speculate that the biggest battles would be in Japan. But on sheer audience and financial opportunity, they would be wise not to overlook the influence of India as the Great War continues.