BALTIMORE — Satnam Singh’s favorite wrestling move is the helicopter. Using biceps bigger than newborns and thighs as thick as fire hydrants, he lifts his opponents above his head, whirls them around and tosses them like rag dolls onto the mat.
He described the move as he was preparing for work one night: a taping of “AEW: Dynamite,” the signature television show for All Elite Wrestling, an upstart competitor for World Wrestling Entertainment. That night, the audience at the Chesapeake Employers Insurance Arena would see him effortlessly withstand an elevated swan dive into his chest from Samuel Ratsch, who is better known by his wrestling moniker, Darby Allin.
“I feel happy,” Singh said in a deep baritone as he stood near an elevator that would lead him backstage. Then he shook his fist and declared, “I feel angry, like I’m going to kick someone.”
That’s a good thing, since it’s his job to get angry and kick people — or at least pretend to. At 7-foot-2, he has an imposing presence. His size is useful in wrestling, but challenging when he is shopping for his size 20 shoes or flying on airplanes. But for much of his life, his height was his key asset as he chased a singular goal: getting to the NBA
Before he joined AEW last year, Singh was best known for being the first Indian-born player drafted into the NBA, in 2015 by the Dallas Mavericks. (The year before, Sim Bhullar, who grew up in Canada, became the first player of Indian descent to sign with a NBA team. Bhullar appeared in three games during the 2014-15 season with the Sacramento Kings.) But Singh’s drafting was a seminal moment for the league’s fledgling efforts to grow the sport in India. It was also a big moment for Singh, 27, the second of his family’s three children in Ballo Ke, a village in the Indian state of Punjab. Suddenly, Singh had “so much weight on my shoulders,” he said, because he was “the only one in the world” drafted from his country.
Seven years later, that burden is gone — though not totally by choice. All Singh had wanted out of life was to represent his country in the NBA He wanted to grab rebounds like the 7-foot-1 star Shaquille O’Neal, one of his favorite players. But after Singh struggled to catch on in the NBA, his basketball career was derailed by a failed drug test that he said was a mistake. His search for an alternate path led him to a new dream, and a quest to once again represent India on the global stage.
“He did very well in basketball, and now he is doing well in wrestling,” said his father, Balbir Bhamara. “By grace of God, he is making his name.”
‘Had so many eyes on me’
Bhamara introduced Singh to basketball as a young boy after a friend’s recommendation. (Singh goes by his middle name professionally.) Bhamara is a farmer, but like Singh he is around seven feet tall. He saw an opportunity to put his child’s height to good use in a way he hadn’t been able to do himself.
“He will do great and make me proud,” Bhamara recalled thinking, in an interview from Ballo Ke through a Punjabi interpreter. In the family’s one-bedroom flat, a poster of Michael Jordan hangs on a bedroom wall. Bhamara said Singh put it there as he was learning how to play.
Basketball was nowhere near as popular in India as cricket and soccer when Singh was growing up. When he met an NBA executive in Punjab at the Ludhiana Basketball Academy in 2010, only an estimated 4.5 million people were playing basketball in India, a country of more than a billion. But Singh loved the NBA stars O’Neal and Kobe Bryant and had already become a minor celebrity in his own right. As a young teenager, he was compared to Yao Ming, the influential 7-foot-6 Houston Rockets star from China.
“From the Day 1, I realized he was a man like God sent him specially to us,” Teja Singh Dhaliwal, the general secretary of the Punjab Basketball Association, said in a 2016 Netflix documentary about Singh’s life titled “One in a Billion. ”
Troy Justice, the head of the NBA’s international basketball development, was the executive who met Singh in 2010. As they became close, the NBA was ramping up efforts to expand in India, opening its Mumbai office in 2011 and starting scouting programs and training academies . The league hosted two preseason games in Mumbai in 2019.
“My best friend there said, ‘Troy, do basketball and business like we do traffic in India,'” Justice said. “’We don’t have lines. You just kind of find an open space and keep moving forward until you reach your destination.’”
As the NBA made inroads in India, Singh made his way to the United States. When he was 14, he enrolled at IMG Academy, a high school in Bradenton, Fla., known for developing elite basketball talent. Far from home and trying to learn English, Singh had a difficult time adjusting, said Sonny Gill, Singh’s childhood best friend.
But Singh’s size made him an intriguing NBA prospect. He declared for the draft in 2015 and worked out for several teams, including the Rockets. Singh was in high school for five years — a result of the language barrier — and was thus eligible for the draft. The Bollywood star Akshay Kumar called him “an inspiration.” But some saw him as a long shot because he was stiff and slow.
“He was very easy to rule out just from the workout, which is risky and teams have been burned,” said Daryl Morey, who was the Rockets’ general manager at the time and now works for the 76ers. “But he definitely didn’t look like he belonged on an NBA floor.”
Many members of Singh’s village traveled to the local gurdwara, a Sikh place of worship, to pray for him to be drafted. On the night of the draft, Singh recalled, his feet and hands were shaking. Gill, now Singh’s manager, remembered watching his friend sweat and rub his hands together as each pick was announced at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. The first round went by. So did most of the second.
“All of India who knew,” Singh said, “everyone had so many eyes on me.”
But at pick no. 52 of 60, Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, decided to take a shot.
“In four or five years, if he continues to progress as he has, he could be the face of basketball in India, easily,” Cuban said in the “One in a Billion” documentary about Singh. “I would expect that to happen. He’s got that much upside.”
Many players drafted that late never make the NBA, but Singh’s stardom at home reached new heights. Amitabh Bachchan, one of the biggest movie stars in India, congratulated him on Twitter, saying, “India goes to NBA .. now time for NBA to come to India ..!!” Bachchan’s, son, Abhishek, also a well-known actor, offered to play Singh in a movie.
But Singh’s American basketball career fizzled. He never appeared in an NBA game in the regular season, and rarely played for Dallas’s developmental team over two seasons. The NBA was moving away from slow big men and toward a more athletic style of play. Singh opted to play in Canada and for the Indian men’s national team as he tried to make it back to the NBA
“He was heartbroken,” Gil said. “That’s all he talked about every day.”
‘You can open so many people’s dreams’
In late 2019, while Singh was preparing for the South Asian Games with the Indian national team, he failed a drug test and was provisionally suspended by the National Anti Doping Agency in India. Gill said Singh took an over-the-counter supplement that he did not realize contained a banned substance. A year later, India’s antidoping agency barred Singh from competition for two years, including the year he had been provisionally suspended.
Asked about the ban now, Singh was reluctant to discuss it.
“End of day, whatever happened happened,” Singh said. “I don’t want those bad things in my life again, but end of day, I just want to tell everyone to be careful.”
Later, he brought the incident up on his own. When he received the ban, Singh said, he saw his free time as a newly cracked door. He thought to himself, “You can open so many people’s dreams to come true.”
Singh had never been much of a wrestling fan, though he did enjoy Dwayne Johnson’s character, The Rock. Professional wrestling, like the NBA, had been trying to cultivate a fan base in India, and Singh — a giant like the popular Indian-born wrestler Dalip Singh Rana, known as The Great Khali — looked like he could help.
In 2017, while Singh was with the Mavericks’ developmental team, WWE invited him for a workout. He had fun, but he was still focused on trying to get to the NBA That year, WWE made Yuvraj Singh Dhesi — known as Jinder Mahal — the first WWE champion of Indian descent. By 2021, with Singh’s basketball ambitions dulled, he was ready to give wrestling a try.
His mother, Sukhwinder Kaur, was initially fearful.
“She saw wrestling matches on television and everyone keeps getting thrown out of the ring,” Singh said. “My mom said, ‘I hope he isn’t hurt.’ I told Mom: ‘Don’t worry. Your son will be amazing.’”
When Singh approached AEW, Tony Khan, who founded the company in 2019, saw an opportunity.
“There are very few wrestlers from India or Pakistan in my life,” said Khan, 40, who is of Pakistani descent and the son of the Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan. “Wrestlers of brown-skinned descent are often portrayed as villains or terrorists or some terrible atrocity.”
He thought Singh could be different. In September 2021, a month after AEW signed a broadcasting deal with Eurosport India, the company announced that it had signed Singh.
Paul Wight, an AEW wrestler best known by his WWE name The Big Show, said Singh was an ideal fit for wrestling. “A basketball player and a tennis player will adapt to wrestling footwork faster than most athletes,” said Wight, who mentors Singh.
Michael Cuellari, known as QT Marshall in the ring, trains Singh at his Atlanta-area wrestling school, the Nightmare Factory. He said much of his job is “teaching him how not to injure somebody while looking like you’re trying to injure somebody.”
“Because he’s so big and he’s so strong, obviously he’s going to be very stiff right out of the gate,” Cuellari said.
‘just be himself’
Wrestling isn’t just about big muscles and smashing opponents. It is about charisma and connecting with the audience. It is about rip-roaring promos, blasting the opponent and getting audiences to roar, for better or worse.
“It’s hard, right?” Cuellari said. “Because he’s got such a deep voice and such a different tone. And on top of that, like, English not being his first language. So we just try to make him feel as comfortable as possible and just be himself.”
Singh made his debut in April in a group with the characters Jay Lethal and Sonjay Dutt. In June, Singh pulled off the helicopter move in his first match. He has been used sparingly as he trains: Take the occasional dive bomb; chuck a human like a shot put every now and then; glower at the camera. Off camera, he has a boisterous personality that has endedared him to his new co-workers.
Though there have been successful giants, like Andre the Giant, The Undertaker and The Big Show, fans have largely gravitated toward relatively smaller characters, like The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin and Rey Mysterio. In many ways, Singh faces the same challenge in wrestling that he did in basketball: Success is increasingly less about brawn than speed and athleticism.
“The track record of giants in professional wrestling as quality in-ring technicians is not long,” said Retesh Bhalla, who plays Sonjay Dutt. Bhalla is also an AEW creative executive.
But Khan, the AEW founder, is optimistic about Singh. “We’ve seen an increase in traffic when Satnam is involved in segments,” Khan said, adding, “A ton of our YouTube traffic comes from India, and he’s a driver.”
Singh said the last time he picked up a basketball was in 2019, when he was suspended. Though his cellphone case has a picture of Bryant, the former Los Angeles Lakers star, Singh said his basketball career is over. He is still willing to mentor players in India, and he has coached at the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders camps there.
“He is and was and still will be an inspiration,” said Justice, the NBA executive.
Singh seems at peace with his new road – “I am so surprised, but I am so happy,” he said – more concerned with increasing his bench press max from 500 pounds than sharpening his jumpers. He wants to go into acting, the non-wrestling kind. One way or another, he’s once again aiming to be a bridge on behalf of India.
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