By Hemant Gairola for Youth Ki Awaaz:
From a real-life fight with Big Show to WWE’s attempts to diminish his appeal, Khali bares it all in a candid chat.
The Great Khali’s arrival in the WWE sent shockwaves across the world back in May 2006. Understandably so. A mountain of a man, he towered above seven feet, weighed more than 190 kilogrammes and blew away a legend like The Undertaker as if he were a house of cards. The world sat up and took note.
WWE superstars like Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, The Undertaker, Triple H and John Cena have all acquired cult status worldwide. For fans in India, to see an Indian share the spotlight with these pop culture phenomena, defeating many of them by planting his large foot on their fallen bodies, hands raised in the air, as the referee thumped to three, was a thrilling, proud experience.
A desi guy thundering in a WWE ring in rustic Hindi as the world looked on in awe.
Dalip Singh Rana—Khali’s real name—understood how much he was loved in his country. That was one of the reasons he moved back to India to start his own wrestling academy when his contract with the WWE expired in November 2014.
While his family (wife and a two-year-old daughter) lives in Houston, Texas, where he owns a liquor store, Khali has shifted base to Jalandhar, Punjab. Here he has set up Continental Wrestling Entertainment (CWE) to train aspiring Indian wrestlers.
In March 2016, his wrestling promotion organised a few shows in India, featuring himself, his students and a dozen wrestlers from the West.
After the tournament wrapped up, I caught up with Khali at his academy to talk about his new venture and his crazy days with the WWE. What transpired gave glimpses of how sharp, as also naive, he is. Attempts to explore his hobbies and preferences in movies, music and food drew a blank. Activities outside of wrestling do not interest Khali. But ask him about wrestling, and it’s like opening up the floodgates.
Talking about his students, Khali revealed how the phenomenon of John Cena—the biggest star to come out of the WWE in the past decade—followed him to India too.
“Bahut saare wrestler… Student aate hain, toh seedha hi mainu bolte hain ki maine toh John Cena ka style karna hai. John Cena ka knicker daalna hai, John Cena ka banner daalna hai, John Cena ka roop… Matlab ‘You Can’t See Me’, (I get many wrestlers and students who straightaway say they want to learn John Cena’s style, wear the sort of knickers he does, his banner…),” he said with a chuckle.
Fans of Randy Orton, another top wrestling superstar, were even more persistent. “Anyone who says that I am directly going to go for the RKO, that means he’s a Randy Orton fan.” The RKO is a deadly closing move in a wrestling match, one Orton is known for.
Khali said he explained to such aspirants the flaw in their understanding of the profession. Some understood, others did not. The latter did not want to have anything to do with wrestling if they could not hit the famous Randy Orton finishing move.
Khali said it reflected their mentality. That these people wanted instant fame: “Tum wrestling nahi seekhna maangta hai, tum bas seedha star banna maangta hai (You don’t want to learn how to wrestle. You just want to be stars).”
Of course, there was also no dearth of those wanting to emulate ‘The People’s Champion’, The Rock!
CWE has finished its first series of live shows in the country. But before starting CWE, Khali was a bundle of nerves. Family and friends discouraged him, telling him it was unwise to leave everything behind in the US.
“When I first came to India to start wrestling, I was a little afraid. Will it work or won’t it? What will be the response, you know,” he candidly admits.
But starting a wrestling school was a desire he had been nursing from as far back as 2000. So, he went ahead and did what he always wanted to do.
The ocean of rabid, vocal fans at the CWE shows washed away all apprehensions. “Public ka josh! ‘Maaro-peeto! Yay!’ Yeh na… Brilliant!”
That set the spirit of foreign wrestlers too soaring. Initially, they were pussy-footing over the idea of performing in India, unsure how the event would be organised and received, but the volatile crowds knocked their socks off, Khali gushes proudly.
Khali said his confidence in his endeavour has multiplied, that the same people who’d advised him to build a hotel or a wedding resort on his land were now telling him he’s on the right track, that he felt ecstatic, vindicated and successful.
From CWE to talking about WWE does not take too much. WWE promoted him heavily for the first few years. Why, he even had a dream debut against The Undertaker. The Deadman himself! “This is, bolte hain, dream coming true. You know.”
However, the year 2008 saw a mind-boggling makeover in The Great Khali’s on-screen character.
He was now the Punjabi Playboy. He’d invite random women from the live audience of WWE shows and lock lips with them in a segment dubbed ‘Khali Kiss Cam’. From sexy sirens to a woman dressed as a witch, to an 88-year-old WWE veteran, he’d smooch them all. He explains how he was out of the main event picture and now was being used for comic relief.
His contract with the WWE was due to expire in 2008. When negotiations to renew it began, he quoted a certain figure. He said his remuneration was 4-10 times of other performers’ and he would get perks they would not, like a car, pick-ups etc.
Khali shared that the company felt he had become too demanding to keep, but at the same time, knew it would be unwise to let go of him before diminishing his appeal so that no rival company hired him. He says his new, silly on-screen character was the WWE’s ploy to gradually make him irrelevant.
But, said Khali, it was he who won the bout. “Main yeh soch raha tha, maine kaha, saalon… Kiss bhi karao aur paise bhi do! I was thinking, fools, I’ll kiss and I will make money off it too! I took it differently. Positively, even. I said I had no issues with it.”
Conspiracy theories aside, WWE audiences took a fancy to the segment and it became a talking point.
Khali said there is rampant racism in the WWE. Far more than in India as per him. And WWE has a poor perspective of India. The next storyline he was given suggests there might be some truth in his allegations: An NRI wrestler who went by the name of Jinder Mahal would slap Khali around, insult him and have him do his bidding. It was explained away by saying that Mahal was the husband of Khali’s sister and if Khali didn’t obey him, he’d desert his wife and put their family back into poverty.
Such regressive portrayal of India had many in India balking. Khali said this was yet another plan of the WWE to leave his Indian fans scandalised and alienated. He said WWE’s vision was to groom Mahal as the next Indian superstar, a plan that failed. A few years later, Mahal was let go from the company.
But wasn’t Khali wary of letting down his fans in India by agreeing to such a distasteful storyline?
“Who cares! Log mera bill pay nahi karte (People don’t pay my bills),” he responded.
For all that, Khali said he never considered jumping ship, saying he was clear that as long as he would wrestle, it would be with the WWE. With that he made it clear that Dalip Singh Rana was a practical man who had his priorities sorted.
Dalip’s parents hail from Dhiraina village in Himachal Pradesh. A young Dalip and his six brothers-sisters grew up in poverty. So much so that he had to break stones to make ends meet. He also held the job of a security guard, which is how an officer of Punjab police spotted him and saw to it that he joined the police in Jalandhar.
This was the turning point in Dalip’s life, as the support and exposure he thus received enabled him give wings to his dreams. A framed photograph of the cop who had spotted him, M.S. Bhullar, who went on to become the DGP Punjab, hangs prominently in his cabin in the academy.
Khali’s first brush with WWE goes back to 1998. He had just bought a second-hand TV from his neighbour for Rs. 1,000. He was 25. He saw a “fillum” where white dudes were beating each other up. His gym buddies told him it must have been WWF (back then, WWE was WWF).
He started watching WWF RAW every week and was fascinated. He made up his mind about wanting to do this. But then he was told training could get back-breaking, literally.
“I thought how tough are these guys really. I am as tough as any of them. I had full confidence in myself.”
Armed with this confidence and an unbridled zeal, he went to the US to pursue his newfound passion. To cast a strong first impression on his coach, he offered a handshake so firm that the coach had to warn him to be careful, lest he crushed someone’s hand.
While The Great Khali’s in-ring exploits entertained fans worldwide, he and Big Show gave fellow WWE superstars the pleasure of witnessing a rare event: a legitimate backstage fight!
Here’s what transpired. Big Show had been miffed with Khali for long, as Khali would not heed when told not to use Show’s moves in the ring. At a house show in Puerto Rico in 2009, the two faced each other in a six-man tag team match. Khali, Undertaker and Kane against Big Show, Chris Jericho and CM Punk. In the match, Khali yet again used a move that Show felt should be exclusive to him. This got Big Show’s goat and when they ran into each other in the locker room, he got into Khali’s face. Well, that escalated quickly and soon they were throwing punches at each other. Wildly swinging, Big Show tripped, with Khali on top of him. That was when the people in the locker room intervened and broke up the fight.
Jericho has given a hilarious eyewitness account of the scuffle in his book, calling it “King Kong versus Godzilla”. Years later, he and Big Show went over it at length in a podcast, with the giant saying it was the worst fight of his life, but perhaps they needed it to let the steam out.
For the first time ever, I was able to get Khali’s account of this famous (infamous?) incident.
Khali said many people cheered him on in that match. “The people were with me. Big Show was like – ‘Why? I am the white-skinned American here, so why is this audience with the Great Kha-li?'”
After the locker room bystanders broke up the fight, Khali said Big Show sat in a corner and silently wept. “He just cry! Look like a baby, matlab. Undertaker bhi serious, matlab! He’s just, ‘Fuck!’ He said, ‘Fuck! Idiot! Why! Why he try to hit! Why now he’s cry! This is fucked.'”
As exultant as he sounded while recounting this notorious incident, he made it clear he felt terrible about the entire episode.
Khali says he might return to WWE if invited, or if he ran out of money. “One day I’m going back,” he said with a caveat on his terms & conditions.
He said he has other reasons why he might return to WWE: a) He has a vast fan base in and outside India, people who love and support him; b) he believes the WWE has been failing in India, of late, and could do with his services.
As a case in point, he cited WWE’s live shows held in Delhi in January. Clearly unimpressed, he said the audience headcount in his CWE shows was at least 10 times more. Khali went on to say that the WWE had requested him to make an appearance in their Delhi shows, but he had turned down the offer. He wanted WWE to promote his CWE in return.
Khali said he’s a “film star” (he played bit parts in three Hollywood films), which was why he was given privileges in the WWE and was untouched by locker room politics.
“I’ve done movies in Hollywood and so I’m better than the others. Who else do they have like me? Just name one.” He reasons that The Rock appears only rarely in WWE and the movies starring Cena, Orton etc. don’t count because they are produced by the WWE itself. “Who cares this thing, matlab!”
I can’t really comment on whether Khali was getting carried away, or how preposterous his SWOT analysis was. But what’s for sure is that while he might be unrealistic here and there, The Great Khali is not pretentious. What’s on his mind will be on his tongue. Like when he frankly asked me 25 minutes into the interview:
“Are you writing this or just here to have fun?” he asked, fiddling with the recorder that was taping every word he uttered.
It’s just that Khali happens to be an eyes-on-the-prize businessman. He’s squeezing time out for publicity, so he wanted to be sure the interviewer was not wasting time slacking. At another instance, he snapped he’s going to talk only about himself.
That’s Dalip Singh Rana for you. A straight-talking man. Simple, but guileless.
Hemant Gairola is a Dehradun-based independent journalist and a senior member of 101Reporters.com. He has worked with national dailies for five years. He quit the newsroom to become a musician. When not making music with his band, he hunts for story ideas.