Dara Singh (sitting in the centre of the picture) India's biggest wrestling legend passed away today. Photo via upload.wikimedia.org.
Once again, another wrestling legend, 83 year old Dara Singh, has passed away earlier today at his home after suffering a heart attack over the weekend.
Singh is not a name well known to American wrestling fans, but in his homeland of India, he was a legend of the stature of El Santo in Mexico and Rikidozan in Japan. Like Santo, he parlayed his wrestling fame into becoming a muscular action hero in movies, appearing in a whopping 144 Bollywood films over the last five decades.
Though his greatest stardom was found in India, he toured the world as a wrestler in his heyday of the 1950s and 60s, headlining shows in Canada, Great Britain, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore.
As Dave Meltzer explains in his latest Wrestling Observer Newsletter, Singh must have been a legitimate shooter and talented worker, as four time NWA World Heavyweight Champion Lou Thesz, the opponent he had his biggest matches with in the UK and India, spoke fondly of his abilities in the past:
Lou Thesz always spoke highly of Singh's ability and he wasn't very loose with praise for people's wrestling ability. When Thesz left the National Wrestling Alliance in 1957, giving up the world title to Dick Hutton, and going to Europe with his belt and billed as world champion, his top foe at the time was Singh.... Thesz noted that there was nobody else there of his caliber and he wished there were others so he could do a three-way program.... He said his program with Singh drew well, but because there was nobody else, after a while things slowed down because there was nobody else at that level who could keep it fresh.... After Thesz dropped the NWA title again in 1966, Singh brought him in and they played it up that there were return matches from the England series. During a heyday of pro wrestling in India in the late 60s, Singh had one or two cricket stadium shows with Thesz that drew 50,000 fans with Thesz dropping what was billed as the world title to Singh.
Unfortunately there's no video footage around to corroborate that opinion, though some scenes of Singh wrestling in movies do remain.
His death is being treated as a huge news story in India. So big, that even India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has offered his condolences to Dara's family:
I am deeply saddened to learn of the passing away of Shri Dara Singh, who has been an inspiration and icon to many generations in our country. A self educated son-of-the-soil, he rose to the heights of the entertainment world, sports arena and public life with humility and grace. His contribution to the Hindi and Punjabi cinema, wrestling and the Upper House of the Parliament will be remembered by millions. I wish to send my deepest condolences to the family of Shri Dara Singh and to his countless admirers in India and abroad.
Moreover, a multitude of Indian celebrities, including top cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, have paid tribute to the wrestler via Twitter.
Due to his unique dual fame, Singh's death has also been picked up by a lot of international news sites too, including the BBC and the New York Times via the Associated Press. A lot of stories unfortunately portrayed his matches as being real, suggesting that his strength led to him remaining undefeated in all of his 500 or so "professional wrestling fights". Of course, it is highly unlikely that Singh didn't lose any bouts during his career or that any of them weren't worked, but I guess kayfabe remains strong in India at least.