Early in 1979, the people of Lahore learned that Antonio Inoki, the best known wrestler in the world at the time, was coming to their city for a return fight with the family of Gama and Bholu Pehlwans, the pride of the city. The family were self-acclaimed Rustam-e-Zaman – a name that people often saw on the posters displayed around the town announcing upcoming wrestling fights. Inoki was to be the biggest name coming to the town.
Inoki had already won world fame in wrestling. He had then wrestled Muhammad Ali, the greatest name in boxing, and forced him to a draw. Six months later, in December 1976, he turned his attention towards the Indian style of wrestling.
Inoki arranged a match with the family of the great Gama Pehlwan, the most respected name in the sport and defeated Akram Pehlwan, the person chosen to take up the family banner against him.
Now, over three years later, in June 1979, the Japanese wrestler was coming for a return match – this time with another scion of Gama Family. Antonio Inoki was visiting Lahore to wrestle against Zubair alias Jhara, a nephew of Bholu and a grandnephew of the great Gama.
Much was at stake here: a century-old family name, national honour and, above all, Lahori pride. At stake was also the Indian way of wrestling against the Graeco-Roman style. The Indian style was developed during the Mughal Empire with the influences of the Persianate pehlwani tradition.
People in Lahore admired Inoki: they were avid followers of wrestling, with centuries of tradition.
Three years earlier, he had defeated Akram alias Akki at Karachi National Stadium in the third round of a fight that was slated for six rounds. 50,000 spectators, and many more on their television screens, watched an aging Akram become immobilised by an unbreakable Chicken Wing arm lock that Inoki had applied. Akram refused to surrender, and the continuous pressure dislocated his shoulder; ending his wrestling career. While the residents of Lahore and Gujranwala – two centres of wrestling – smarted under this loss, they had respect for the worthy Japanese fighter.
These wrestling fights held especial significance for the family of this author. His maternal grandparents and the family of Imam Bakhsh – the younger brother of Gama – both belonged to the Kashmiri clan and had lived in close vicinity in pre-partition Amritsar. This author’s mother had studied the Quran as a child from a lady of the Pehlwan family. In 1947, the Pehlwans settled in Mohni Road and Said Mitha in Lahore. My maternal grandparents settled in Gowalmandi. The Pehlwans often sent free passes to their fights for this author’s maternal uncle, whose marriage was attended by Bholu himself.
As the wrestlers, their attendants and the spectators waited for the result to be announced by the referees, Inoki acted in the most sportsman-like manner
The Inoki-Jhara fight took place on 17 June 1979. In the days leading up to the contest, the city was in a festive mood, with banners and loud-speakers doing the rounds of streets in tongas (horse carriages). The full capacity of Gaddafi Stadium was sold out. Nearly 40,000 people turned up to watch the fight, with minimum entry ticket set for Rs. 100 – quite a big amount in those days when a cricket match ticket was sold for about Rs 10. Jhara and his entourage entered the ring attired in their tradition kurta, pajama and a turban. Akram alias Akki was in the ring too, as a coach for his nephew. They did their one-legged triumphant dance under the beats of Punjabi drums. Inoki entered the ring next, waved to the crowd and went to his corner.
The fight was set for five rounds, with five-minute intervals in between the rounds.
As the fight began, it was clear that it would be very different from the one-sided match in Karachi against Akram. The wrestlers started on a fast note, but soon it was apparent that Inoki didn’t want to be near Jhara, who remained aggressive throughout the fight. He slammed Inoki on the mat and pushed him on the ropes. Inoki appeared tired and clueless whereas Jhara was spirited and confident. The age difference that had worked against Akram Pehlwan three years earlier, was now in favour of Jhara who, at 17 years of age, was half the age of 34-year-old Inoki. In between the rounds, Inoki rested his hands on the ropes while Jhara paced around, waiting for the bout to restart.
The second round belonged to Jhara, who once again floored Inoki, and sitting on his chest, tried to apply arm locks. Lahoris danced when Jhara employed the well-known trick of Dhobi-Patka and slammed Inoki in the ring on his back.
We again rejoiced when, at one stage, Jhara threw Inoki out of the ring, who took half a minute to come back in. Inoki now appeared to have realised that it was difficult for him to overpower his opponent. From there on, he remained defensive in an attempt to save the fight.
These wrestling fights held especial significance for the family of this author. His maternal grandparents and the family of Imam Bakhsh – the younger brother of Gama – both belonged to the Kashmiri clan and had lived in close vicinity in pre-partition Amritsar
Jhara nearly floored him in the third and at one point visibly dazed Inoki by a head butt. Inoki was used to the finer tactics of modern wrestling, but feared the hold of a grappler. At that stage, many people also thought that the naked-footed Jhara was at a disadvantage because of poor foothold in the hard-floored ring against heavy-booted Inoki. In the fourth round, Inoki appeared clueless and was mostly on the ground, working with his legs in an effort to deny Jhara get close to him. He seemed exhausted too, whereas Jhara remained energetic till the end.
The result of defensive fight by Inoki and Jhara’s failure to break his opponent’s guard resulted in a pointless bout for the first four rounds. The fate of the fight hinged on the last, fifth round. This round started, as had become the norm for the fight, with Inoki shuffling towards Jhara and the later jumping around the former. Early in the round, when both fighters had their hands locked around each other’s necks, Jhara gave a hard head-butt but failed to get behind Inoki to get a lock. Inoki tried an arm and then a finger lock on Jhara, which the later broke easily. Neither of the wrestlers tried a flying kick in the entire fight. Towards the end of the round, Jhara swung his right leg around Inoki’s legs and, much to the delight of the fully-involved crowd, threw him on ground. A few seconds later, the feat was repeated. It didn’t earn Jhara any points but must have raised his morale.
For the rest of the fight, Jhara had Inoki pinned face down – with Inoki’s legs folded under him. In the dying moments of the bout, with Inoki lying under Jhara face up, the later rolled the Japanese’s legs over his shoulders in a forced back-roll. We all thought that Inoki’s shoulders had touched the mat, but that had been avoided by a whisker. The bell rang to signify the end of the match.
As the wrestlers, their attendants and the spectators waited for the result to be announced by the referees, Inoki acted in the most sportsman-like manner. He had not lost the battle but had clearly come out behind. He went forward and raised the hand of Jhara, acknowledging that the Pakistani had performed better. Jhara, his corner and the spectators sitting close, erupted with shouting and dancing. The large crowd in the stands became aware of the full events a bit later.
Late in the night, when everyone had digested the conclusion of the fight, Lahore was rife with rumours that the match was fixed and that Inoki had taken money to accept defeat. That was unfair to the wrestlers. Inoki had acted in the best traditions of wrestling. Jhara, too, could have shown some humility instead of claiming victory but the young blood had been propped to restore family honour and he was not found wanting.
The family of the great Gama had added another scalp to their treasure of victories, this time from the land of sumo and jujutsu. The fight was as great as Gama’s contest in London in 1910 against the Polish wrestler Zbyszko, and one that the people of Lahore still remember fondly.
Inoki died on first day of this current month. Akram left this world in April 1987 and Jhara died young in September 1991.
May they all rest in peace. They gave a new life and pride to wrestling in Pakistan.
Was under the impression that the Jhara Inoki encounter was an exhibition match. The real fight Inoki had come for, was with Tiger Jeet Singh of Canada that happened later during the week, a brutal encounter, that ended with a “double knockout. “
Inoki fought Tiger many times, before and after Jhara fight. During research for this article, I watched on YouTube their bloody fight in LA in Oct 79. That showed their rivalry.
Against Muhammad Ali and Jhara, Inoki was careful because of their different styles of fight.
I am really impressed the way author has penned down Inoki/Jhara wrestling match. Not only he is an extremely good writer but as his maternal grandparents lived in the vicinity of Amritsar where great Gamma pehlvan also resided so his knowledge about desi wrestling seemed to be his blood. All rounds of fight are
thoroughly examined and thrashed. Apart from rumormongers as the fight was fixed it was a good and real fight and enjoyed by people throughout Pakistan and abroad. Credit must be given to the author for presenting intricacies of wrestling in such a nice way. Alas all three great pehlvan are gone to eternity but they
left their wrestling legacies for ever.
Excellent write up sir. Nostalgia overtook me, I was just a boy, when the famous Jhara-Inoki fight took place. Pre-fight wait with ever rising adrenaline and day of fight with very high expectations, whole family glued to black n white tv in my grand mom’s house was an event to be remembered for always. Those were the days.