A rheumatoid arthritis patient since he was three-year-old, Sangram Singh defied all odds by battling financial and physical battles, and went on to become the world’s best wrestler in 2012.
After defeating Canadian wrestler Joe Legend in the Commonwealth Heavyweight Championship at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in South Africa last month, Sangram became the first Indian to win the title. He had signed a death contract for the championship (He’s the only Indian sportsperson to do so), absolving the organisers of any fatality during the last-man-standing fight.
In an exclusive interview with Nation Next, Sangram Singh spoke about his struggle as an arthritis patient for decades and his ambition to make wrestling a sport as popular as cricket in India.
You had rheumatoid arthritis and you were on a wheelchair for eight years, yet you became a wrestler. How was this life-transforming journey of yours?
The journey was really tough. I hail from a very small town Madina in Rohtak district of Haryana. I was always weaker in comparison to other kids. I was very young, when I sensed pain in my legs, only to find out that I had rheumatoid arthritis, which was almost incurable. As a kid, I had a tough life. I couldn’t even go to toilet independently. We couldn’t even afford a wheelchair, so I was made to move on a charpai (four legged bed). I once went to an akhada (wrestling ring) for wrestling, where everybody started laughing at me. My mentor asked me what I was doing there, to which I replied by saying that I want to become a wrestler. He said that if I can become a wrestler, anybody can become one. It broke my heart. I felt inferior in comparison with my elder brother who was also a wrestler but my mother supported me through thick and thin. Whatever I am is all because of her.
In such a small town like Madina, it must have been difficult to get a good treatment. Were any medical benefits provided to you?
No medical benefits were provided to us and we couldn’t afford expensive doctors. We were in dire need of money but no one helped us then. It was only after I became a known personality, people came forward to help us. Doctors usually don’t recommend massage for arthritis patients but still my mother left no stone unturned to make me stand on my feet. She would massage my body with kerosene oil, mustard oil, etc. My recovery was completely through natural process. I consumed a lot of tulsi (basil), aamla (gooseberry), and dry fruits. I believe that medicines only reduce your pain; they don’t heal you completely. Only natural treatment can heal you from within and can help you regain your inner strength. Fighting with an ailment requires immense motivation and a ‘never give up’ attitude. I either win or I learn in life. There is nothing like failure in life. I believe that people should never lose hope or give up in life because no matter how dark the night is, there is always going to be a tomorrow. Despite having had a paralytic attack where I couldn’t speak, close my mouth or even stop my saliva from dripping, I’ve a come a long way today. I feel it’s my duty to return the favour of almighty by helping those in severe need. When I look back, I feel, had anyone helped us then, things would not have been so difficult for my family. I’m not a great personality but I make sure I help children, who have a desire to study. I recently adopted a school when I learnt that children there weren’t enrolling because of financial crunch. We all live for ourselves but what are we going to achieve by being so rich? We won’t eat ‘gold rotis!’ You come empty handed in this world and leave empty handed. All one can do is leave a respectable name behind, for people to remember, by doing something good for others.
Not everybody knows your real name is Sanjeet Kumar. Why did you change your name to Sangram Singh?
Colors TV approached me for a reality show, where I learnt about professional wrestling. I was a bit apprehensive because I was new to the television industry and I had some wrong negative notions about it. I’m lucky to have met a lot of nice people here. My colleagues in the show said that my original name doesn’t suit me, which took me aback. I asked them to give me a new name and now the world knows me by Sangram Singh. My career took off after that, so I assume the name’s lucky!
Why did you quit your Delhi Police job?
I tried my hand everywhere possible for a decent living. I had a brief stint with Delhi police. I got a lot of respect there but later I had to quit because I couldn’t get timely leaves for my wrestling tournaments. I wanted to invest more time in wrestling. I wanted to pursue it with full dedication.
In between Delhi police and wrestling, how did reality shows happen?
Things kept happening with the flow. I did few wrestling shows like De Dhana Dhan, etc, which got me money and fame. My first big show was ‘Survivor India,’ where I met Payal Rohatgi. I was also offered the seventh season of Bigg Boss. I had initially declined Bigg Boss but then I had to pay my house’ installments, so I went ahead with show, thereby becoming one of the finalists. After Bigg Boss, I did some bigger shows. Discovery channel also covered my life journey. I’m soon launching my own show that would generate a livelihood for many needy families. The show would be a motivation for people who are fighting physical and mental battles and how to cure themselves through natural therapy. TV and films are extremely influential as they are the greatest sources to impart knowledge. I’m doing a biographical movie on a wrestler’s life. I’m glad that Salman Khanji and Aamir Khanji have done wrestling oriented movies, which would make the sport more recognisable.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi felicitated you for your Commonwealth Heavy Weight Professional Championship victory. How did that feel?
I was overwhelmed. Modiji said that I am a motivation for the country’s youth. Not only did I battle against the hardships of life but I also fought with rheumatoid arthritis in that condition. He congratulated me for overcoming a serious medical condition and gaining worldwide recognition as a wrestler. They’ve introduced scholarships in my name. Seventh standard syllabus has a chapter on my life journey now. I have a dream before I die; I want wrestling to be a popular sport in India. Indians are inclined towards cricket more than any other sport. I want to change this mindset.
You signed a death contract with the Commonwealth Heavy Weight Championship organisers.
It was a contract, which stated that if I died in the ring, it would solely be my responsibility. Frankly, it’s fine and I feel it was the media, which hyped it.
Your fiancé Payal Rohatgi was quite upset with you signing the death contract…
I respect her feelings but wrestling is my life. If you remove wrestler from my name, then who am I? Whatever I have achieved and wherever I have reached in life today is because of my passion for wrestling. It is my first love. When I was crippled, I dreamt of achieving what all I have achieved today. If not anything else, I always wanted to stand on my feet independently. And I’ve got much more than that because of wrestling. However, signing a death contract is easier than handling a girlfriend! (Laughs)
Is marriage on the cards any time soon?
I feel ‘marriage’ is just a word if you are really committed to a person. If you are gilded in love, marriage can wait. One should get married only when he/she is professionally stable. Right now I’m extremely tied up with my career so I don’t see marriage happening in 2016 at least. Next year may be! I have an upcoming show, a movie and my tournaments, so I need to focus on my career for now. I don’t believe in temporary relationships. I want to settle down with Payal, and she knows this since we have a great mutual understanding.
Don’t your films and TV shows hinder your fitness regime and wrestling?
For past 16 years, I have been eating post workout only. My fitness regime has helped me heal, and now I look at it as a way of life, so it’s always going to be my priority. No matter what, I make sure I work out twice a day. I don’t sleep for more than six hours a day. If you want to stay fit, you should eat less, work more and go the natural way.
Then how do you manage shooting for TV and films?
Like I said, my first priority is wrestling. There is so much to learn in this world and I’m still learning. TV shows are a part of the learning process. I got cold feet before I did Nach Baliye, but I think I can now shake a bit. Besides my wrestling, I can do on one big show in a year. I’ll be soon launching my show; also I have a biopic lined up. I’m open to movies but I believe in quality work over quantity.
You’ve been also working on your wrestling academy…
I feel it’s my duty to reciprocate whatever I’ve got from wrestling. I want to take it forward as a sport. I’m initiating a sports centre at my village Madina, for young wrestlers. If I’m able to make a difference in few people’s lives, I’ll be content. I want to establish many wrestling academies in India. I don’t want any child to go through financial crunch like I did. I’m no big shot but I strive to make a difference in children’s’ lives.