Amidst IPL matches, MMA fighter Prashant Kumar launches a panja league
Mumbai-based MMA fighter Prashant Kumar launches a panja league to take the sport beyond campus tables
It's a Friday night and most restobars in the city have chosen to beam IPL matches on giant, wall-mounted LED screens. But, at Khar's Raasta, the drama is being played out in front of us at the venue. On an elevated platform is an arm-wrestling table, where contestants, mostly burly men in black T-shirts, have come to grips and are out to pin the other down. As a warm-up, the challenge is thrown open to the guests, but this is soon followed by intense wrist-fights between the official teams, Punjabi Panjas and Haryanvi Panjas, and later between Mumbai Panjas and Pune Panjas. The matches are explosive and addictive and are wrapped up in a matter of milliseconds.
Not a cockfight
It's exactly what Prashant Kumar, one of the original members of the Indian MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) community, had envisioned for the launch of the Ultimate Panja League (UPL) a year ago. That he had finally chosen to do so in the throes of the IPL season was hardly a deterrent. "I had been planning this for a while now and after locking the format, I didn't want to sit on the project any longer," he says. An advertising professional, Kumar holds a black belt in taekwondo, and arm-wrestling has been more than a hobby for him. Like most people, he played the game in school and college, but its charm lingered. "I was drawn to it because, unlike popular perception, it's not a frivolous sport. It requires technique and skill like any other competitive game." It's not something that can be taken lightly. "It's like a fighter going for a fight. He's coming to put you down. You better be serious about it." He felt it was time the masses did, too. Fortunately, Kumar did not have to try too hard to sell the concept, at least among peers.
In fact, most of the participants in the room are sportspersons Kumar has known for years. Take Khushnoor Jijina, captain of the Mumbai team, for example. At 5'9", weighing 97 kg, he appears to be the Parsi counterpart of Popeye. When Kumar broached the subject of a panja league, Jijina decided to come aboard "in a heartbeat". Having grown up in a quintessential Parsi home, Jijina was familiar with different arm-wrestling styles early on. "You see, the culture of arm-wrestling is embedded in the Parsi community. No visit to the gymkhana is complete without a panja match. I have even competed with an 80-year-old, and almost lost," he laughs. The four-time national-level judo champ, an MMA fighter and a fitness trainer even wanted his 15-year-old daughter to compete in the league, but the idea was turned down because the entry is only for those 18-plus.
Roping in seasoned athletes
Kumar is clear he wants "professionals" in the league because that would lend it an aura of a serious sport. Attempts to popularise panja among regular Joes was done as an experiment in 2010 by UTV Action, the action channel when it launched a panja championship. The competition was "inter-agency" and restricted largely to media companies across cities. It ran its course after two seasons. But Kumar doesn't see this as a precedent, because he believes the format and the nature of participants in UPL are entirely different. "They got regular folks to play, whereas we have roped in athletes who come with solid experience." Despite the dominance of men in the arena, Kumar has managed to find female arm-wrestlers to try and balance the ratio: every team has one female player. The format is divided into weight categories. For women, it starts at 55 kg and for men from 65 kg onward. The matches are a best of three.
One of the first names that popped up in his mind was Samita Sonawane, now part of the Mumbai contingent. He had watched her lift and do pull-ups before MMA matches. "Samita can put even a seasoned male wrestler to shame," he says. Kumar's words ring true when we watch Sonawane compete. The 27-year-old is focused and unrelenting. The key, she thinks, is to strengthen the wrist and the hand, while using the rest of your body for leverage and strength. It's something she learnt through trial and error.
"I always competed with men because there were barely any women in the field," says Sonawane, who quit a career in engineering to become an athlete. Her parents were miffed then, but have now come around. "Now, they even support my panja matches," she laughs. The support that the league has managed to garner is visible in the turnout of spectators. The UPL Instagram page already has over 25K followers. And the challenge, for Kumar, is to now get sponsors onboard. This one is self-funded. "While many have shown interest, they want proof of whether the league will pay off." It's for this reason that he has packaged the league in "a fun way". There's house music playing in the pub and you can buy a drink as you watch the match. "This way, it becomes easier to break through an audience. I plan to take this to other venues across the city."
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