ALT J, PIONEERS OF British indie rock, once played this arena. As did Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, the three greatest tennis players of all time, currently tallying 47 Grand Slam singles titles between them. Sushil Kumar, India’s finest Olympian, has played this arena. As has Vijender Singh, a man who singlehandedly (or, in Vijender’s case, with both fists) put India on the map of professional boxing. None of them, however, came close to receiving the applause and ovation that a balding, 48-year-old man—wearing just his underwear, who fakes wrestling moves for a living—received, simply for walking, very slowly at that, towards the centre of the Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium.
And when he did, when WWE’s iconic wrestler Triple H reached the edge of the ring and stood with his back against the ropes, grown men with weak knees wearing Triple H tee shirts hoisted children of all sizes wearing Triple H tee shirts, and both parties, men and infants, combusted into raptures. For, any second now, Triple H was going to spit a mouthful of water on them.
Only in this unique world born of a collision of acting and sports—or drama and testosterone to be more accurate— do superstars put out their trademark celebrations even before their ‘match’ begins. Hulk Hogan, the man who put the word ‘Entertainment’ in World Wrestling Entertainment well before it was called World Wrestling Entertainment in the 80s, would shred his yellow vest by his chest, perhaps to prove that he was indeed a hulk. Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart, this industry’s babyface (pro-wrestling for the good guy) in the 90s, used to place his radioactive red sunglasses on the nose of one lucky child in the stands, spinning heroically on one leg just after, like he had saved the world. Right through the 2000s, John Cena, an all-American hero, a walking talking GI Joe, waved five outstretched fingers in front of his face and flung an oversized, ‘U Can’t C Me’ T-shirt into the crowd.
Triple H, on the other hand— the man who has made playing the heel (the badass) cool and who has put Time to Play the Game, his entry song by Motorhead, in every gym worth its woofer—simply sprays water from his mouth. Not in some mystical, ‘How did that water appear?’ sort of way, but rather in a blatant, ‘I will carry a bottle of water, take a gulp by the ring and spit it out on the expensive seats’ sort of way. Here in Delhi, as he did just that, a thousand heads tilted back just like his and each of those thousand mouths pretended to eject invisible fountains of mist. Bottled water, you see, remains an elusive commodity for spectators in any sports arena across this country, and today at the IGI Stadium, some thanked God for that.
Triple H wears many hats; he means different things to different people. Before he found his calling in this make- believe world of pro wrestling, he was simply Paul Levesque, a small time bodybuilder in American state of New Hampshire. For some, he will always be Hunter Hearst Hemsley, the stage name he first took when he entered WWE in the gimmick of a Connecticut aristocrat (he even wore a tailcoat and held a staff). Most of his fans, though, will relate to him in his avatar of The Game—the villainous face of villainous stables such as D-Generation X and Evolution. Today he owns the role of the real son-in-law of the very real Vince McMahon, a shrewd businessman who turned the fortunes of his small-time company, taking it from a circus-like roadshow to a billion-dollar industry recognised the world over. It was in this role of the Next Vince that Triple H and his troupe visited India last week, with a single- minded drive to promote the ‘sport’ in this country.
Triple H perhaps would’ve noticed that there was little or no promotion needed. Long before he walked out for the headlining act—a match versus Jinder Mahal, a wrestler born and bred in Calgary, Canada, who now goes by the moniker ‘Modern Day Maharaja’—fans at the IG Indoor were well-versed even in the ways and storylines of the fillers. When a rookie called Jason Jordan made his way to the middle, singsong chants of ‘Who’s your daddy?’ roared across the hall, just like it would in America, and when an undercard called Elias worked the crowd with insults, each insult was punctuated with a resounding and customary ‘What!’ from the stands. Just as it would in America. They knew the difference between a leg-drop and a drop-kick and when one spectator wrongly screamed out ‘suplex’ during a certain move, he was immediately put to shame by his neighbours. “Yeh suplex nahin, DDT hai bhai.”
THE POWER OF WWE’s creative storylines, however, was going to face its sternest test in the final battle of the day, between its megastar Triple H and new generation villain, Mahal. The backroom writers behind the black curtains must’ve sighed with relief as the Indian crowd rejected the show’s ‘Indian’ face, booing Mahal when he was on top, arm wrapped around Triple H’s neck, egging on the old warhorse in one voice to break the chokehold. When he did, a wave of cheer crashed against the ceiling. And when Triple H set up his Pedigree, his finishing move, the crowd saw it from a mile away and nearly brought the roof down.
The match itself was low on quality moves and void of intensity. Unlike on TV, where we often witness wrestlers flying off the top-rope and crashing into tables, ladders and commentary booths, tour shows ensure that there are no broadcast cameras to record just how dull rehearsed action can really be. The superstars, hence, spent most of their time in the middle caught in a sleeper-hold or pressed limply against a turnbuckle. So when Triple H unleashed another Pedigree at the end of this 30-minute bout and pinned Mahal to the mat, the crowd, more relieved than ecstatic, screamed ‘one, two, three’ with the beat of the referee’s thrashing arm.
Had the show ended there, it would have been a resounding success. But the script called for Triple H to summon Mahal back to the ring and give WWE’s Indian face his Indian due. As Mahal walked back to the dressing room with the Singh Brothers, his enforcers (a spandex term for those who accompany a wrestler to the ring but play no role in the match), Triple H found a mic and said: “Jinder Mahal, don’t make me bring your butt back into this ring.” So, Mahal did.
“It’s been an honour to step in the ring with the Modern Day Maharaja,” Triple H said. “Many people may criticise you. But know this, you have earned my respect.” On hearing this, Mahal bent low to touch Triple H’s feet, who, in turn, pulled him in for an embrace. If that wasn’t ‘Indian’ enough for India, Triple H, the baddest of baddies, broke into a bout of Bhangra, his right ankle entwined with Mahal’s, four hands up in the air, their bodies twirling around the ring to Punjabi music. The spectators drained out of the stadium to the tea stalls outside with mixed feelings. Some purchased bottles of water and spat it out with disgust. Others spat it out, head tilted back, like Triple H.