BALTIMORE — Satnam Singh’s favorite wrestling move is the helicopter. Using biceps larger 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 on the Chesapeake Employers Insurance Arena would see him effortlessly withstand an elevated swan dive into his chest from Samuel Ratsch, who is best known by his wrestling moniker, Darby Allin.
“I feel completely satisfied,” Singh said in a deep baritone as he stood near an elevator that may lead him backstage. Then he shook his fist and declared, “I feel indignant, like I’m going to kick someone.”
That’s a very good thing, because it’s his job to get indignant and kick people — or at the very least pretend to. At 7-foot-2, he has an imposing presence. His size is beneficial in wrestling, but difficult when he’s purchasing 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: attending to the N.B.A.
Before he joined A.E.W. last 12 months, Singh was best known for being the primary Indian-born player drafted into the N.B.A., in 2015 by the Dallas Mavericks. (The 12 months before, Sim Bhullar, who grew up in Canada, became the primary player of Indian descent to sign with a N.B.A. team. Bhullar appeared in three games in the course of 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 game in India. It was also an enormous moment for Singh, 27, the second of his family’s three children in Ballo Ke, a village within the Indian state of Punjab. Suddenly, Singh had “a lot weight on my shoulders,” he said, because he was “the just one on the earth” drafted from his country.
Seven years later, that burden is gone — though not totally by alternative. All Singh had wanted out of life was to represent his country within the N.B.A. He desired to grab rebounds just like the 7-foot-1 star Shaquille O’Neal, one in every of his favorite players. But after Singh struggled to catch on within the N.B.A., his basketball profession was derailed by a failed drug test that he said was a mistake. His seek for an alternate path led him to a recent dream, and a quest to once more represent India on the worldwide stage.
“He did thoroughly in basketball, and now he’s doing well in wrestling,” said his father, Balbir Bhamara. “By grace of God, he’s making his name.”
‘Had so many eyes on me’
Bhamara introduced Singh to basketball as a young boy after a friend’s advice. (Singh goes by his middle name professionally.) Bhamara is a farmer, but like Singh he’s around seven feet tall. He saw a chance to place his child’s height to good use in a way he hadn’t been in a position to do himself.
“He’ll do great and make me proud,” Bhamara recalled considering, in an interview from Ballo Ke through a Punjabi interpreter. Within 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 the best way to play.
Basketball was nowhere near as popular in India as cricket and soccer when Singh was growing up. When he met an N.B.A. executive in Punjab on the Ludhiana Basketball Academy in 2010, only an estimated 4.5 million people were playing basketball in India, a rustic of greater than a billion. But Singh loved the N.B.A. stars O’Neal and Kobe Bryant and had already turn into a minor celebrity in his own right. As a young teenager, he was in comparison with Yao Ming, the influential 7-foot-6 Houston Rockets star from China.
“From the Day 1, I spotted he was a person like God sent him specially to us,” Teja Singh Dhaliwal, the final secretary of the Punjab Basketball Association, said in a 2016 Netflix documentary about Singh’s life titled “One in a Billion.”
Troy Justice, the pinnacle of the N.B.A.’s international basketball development, was the manager who met Singh in 2010. As they became close, the N.B.A. 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 simply sort of find an open space and keep moving forward until you reach your destination.’”
Because the N.B.A. made inroads in India, Singh made his approach to the US. When he was 14, he enrolled at IMG Academy, a highschool in Bradenton, Fla., known for developing elite basketball talent. Removed from home and attempting 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 N.B.A. prospect. He declared for the draft in 2015 and worked out for several teams, including the Rockets. Singh was in highschool for five years — a results 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 an extended shot because he was stiff and slow.
“He was very easy to rule out just from the workout, which is dangerous and teams have been burned,” said Daryl Morey, who was the Rockets’ general manager on the time and now works for the 76ers. “But he definitely didn’t seem like he belonged on an N.B.A. floor.”
Many members of Singh’s village traveled to the local gurdwara, a Sikh place of worship, to hope 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 primary round went by. So did a lot 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 4 or five years, if he continues to progress as he has, he may very well be the face of basketball in India, easily,” Cuban said within the “One in a Billion” documentary about Singh. “I’d expect that to occur. He’s got that much upside.”
Many players drafted that late never make the N.B.A., but Singh’s stardom at home reached recent heights. Amitabh Bachchan, one in every of the most important movie stars in India, congratulated him on Twitter, saying, “India goes to NBA .. now time for NBA to return to India ..!!” Bachchan’s, son, Abhishek, also a well known actor, offered to play Singh in a movie.
But Singh’s American basketball profession fizzled. He never appeared in an N.B.A. game within the regular season, and barely played for Dallas’s developmental team over two seasons. The N.B.A. was moving away from slow big men and toward a more athletic kind 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 N.B.A.
“He was heartbroken,” Gill said. “That’s all he talked about every single day.”
‘You may open so many individuals’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 complement that he didn’t realize contained a banned substance. A 12 months later, India’s antidoping agency barred Singh from competition for two years, including the 12 months he had been provisionally suspended.
Asked in regards to the ban now, Singh was reluctant to debate 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 wish to tell everyone to watch out.”
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 may open so many individuals’s dreams to return true.”
Singh had never been much of a wrestling fan, though he did enjoy Dwayne Johnson’s character, The Rock. Skilled wrestling, just like the N.B.A., had been attempting to cultivate a fan base in India, and Singh — an enormous like the favored Indian-born wrestler Dalip Singh Rana, generally known as The Great Khali — looked like he could help.
In 2017, while Singh was with the Mavericks’ developmental team, W.W.E. invited him for a workout. He had a good time, but he was still focused on attempting to get to the N.B.A. That 12 months, W.W.E. made Yuvraj Singh Dhesi — generally known as Jinder Mahal — the primary W.W.E. champion of Indian descent. By 2021, with Singh’s basketball ambitions dulled, he was ready to present wrestling a try.
His mother, Sukhwinder Kaur, was initially fearful.
“She saw wrestling matches on television and everybody 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 might be amazing.’”
When Singh approached A.E.W., Tony Khan, who founded the corporate in 2019, saw a chance.
“There are only a few wrestlers from India or Pakistan in my life,” said Khan, 40, who’s of Pakistani descent and the son of the Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan. “Wrestlers of brown-skinned descent are sometimes portrayed as villains or terrorists or some terrible atrocity.”
Paul Wight, an A.E.W. wrestler best known by his W.W.E. name The Big Show, said Singh was a great 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, generally known as Q.T. Marshall within the ring, trains Singh at his Atlanta-area wrestling school, the Nightmare Factory. He said much of his job is “teaching him how to not injure someone while looking such as you’re attempting to injure someone.”
“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 nearly big muscles and smashing opponents. It’s about charisma and connecting with the audience. It’s about rip-roaring promos, blasting the opponent and getting audiences to roar, for higher or worse.
“It’s hard, right?” Cuellari said. “Because he’s got such a deep voice and such a unique tone. And on top of that, like, English not being his first language. So we just attempt to make him feel as comfortable as possible and just be himself.”
Singh made his debut in April in a gaggle 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 so often; glower on the camera. Off camera, he has a boisterous personality that has endeared him to his recent 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 some ways, Singh faces the identical challenge in wrestling that he did in basketball: Success is increasingly less about brawn than speed and athleticism.
“The track record of giants in skilled wrestling as quality in-ring technicians shouldn’t be long,” said Retesh Bhalla, who plays Sonjay Dutt. Bhalla can be an A.E.W. creative executive.
But Khan, the A.E.W. founder, is optimistic about Singh. “We’ve seen a rise 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 an image of Bryant, the previous Los Angeles Lakers star, Singh said his basketball profession is over. He continues to be willing to mentor players in India, and he has coached on the N.B.A.’s Basketball Without Borders camps there.
“He’s and was and still might be an inspiration,” said Justice, the N.B.A. executive.
Singh seems at peace together with his recent road — “I’m so surprised, but I’m so completely satisfied,” he said — more concerned with increasing his bench press max from 500 kilos than sharpening his jumpers. He desires to go into acting, the non-wrestling kind. A technique or one other, he’s once more aiming to be a bridge on behalf of India.