Sometime in early 2016, India’s own answer to extremely popular World Wrestling Entertainment grabbed eyeballs on the internet.
During one of its early episodes of Continental Wrestling Entertainment, Bulbul issued an open challenge addressing the crowd that had thronged the arena in Jalandhar for a fight. A well-built woman draped in salwar kameez stepped in the ring and to everyone’s shock, pummeled Bulbul, an acclaimed pro wrestler.
The two had to be separated by officials but a statement was made. And, the sequence of events that led to the spicy face-off became some sort of a sensation. That video garnered nearly a million views.
The focus instantly shifted to the gutsy woman who took the fight to Bulbul: Kavita Devi, an acclaimed weightlifter who was a two-time National and National Games Champion. She had also clinched gold in 2016 South-Asian Games in Guwahati.
It is easy to think that the Bulbul-Kavita clash was staged. WWE fans have seen these storylines written into a feud innumerable times over the past few decades. Superstars affiliated to the company, which has steadily gathered a vast global fan following since the 1950s, have suddenly emerged from the crowd to unleash a stealthy attack on their opponent.
But Kavita’s version of events unravels a different story. “I got to know about CWE and went with my kid and uncle to Jalandhar,” Kavita told Scroll.in during an event organised by WWE.
The 32-year-old was merely blowing off some steam there. Despite picking up plenty of medals in weightlifting, Kavita was disillusioned with life. “My husband used to make me watch WWE but I was never drawn towards it,” she said.
“In fact, I was surprised to see women wrestling at CWE. It was just a spur-of-the-moment thing, you know. I was confident and took up the challenge when I was in the crowd. I had the belief that I could lift and throw people around as I already had a weightlifter’s body.”
Kavita’s strength and technique during her two-minute scuffle against Bulbul convinced CWE to rope her in as a full-time wrestler. Her life would change for the better after meeting former WWE’s former heavyweight champion Dalip Singh Rana, the seven-foot beast better known as The Great Khali. CWE is Rana’s brainchild.
In a whirlwind turn of events, Kavita was the only woman in a nine-member Indian contingent that flew to Dubai to audition for the WWE. She was the only member from her country to make the cut at the end of the trials. “WWE had come for a tryout in CWE and, I guess, they were impressed with my abilities. Then, I flew to Dubai to train with them,” she said.
Kavita fought her way through when some of her compatriots quit the rigorous training programme mid-way through. “Even I bow down and clasp my knees to catch a breath, these people [the WWE] will brush us aside by saying, ‘oh! these Indians’. So, I was determined to make a name for my country,” said the 32-year-old who was soon fighting in USA at the Mae Young Classic, a WWE promotional event where opponents included former champion Kaitlyn.
But life was not that easy for Kavita just a few years ago.
Bagging a gold in the South Asian Games should have been a springboard for greater success for her. But, Kavita felt something was amiss. “I had the spirit to succeed but was frustrated with what was happening with my career in weightlifting – despite slogging it out for so many years.
“These are the prime years of my life and I had to quit the sport briefly after my son was born,” Kavita opened up about her journey over the past decade. “I went for camps, competed on the continental level as well but I didn’t get what I was looking for. Every sportsperson wants that: a stable family, a stable job. I always wanted to do something different.”
Balancing a young family and working towards becoming a top-level athlete was clearly taking a toll on Kavita. “My husband, who worked in the armed forces, was working separately, my son was also staying away. Mentally, I felt finished. My brother and husband also noticed that I was not happy and had even resigned from my job in Delhi to focus on my game.”
Despite the sacrifices and toil, Kavita eventually became a victim of a fractured system that has seen many a talent fall by the wayside. Enough was enough. “Every player has faced this,” an emotional Kavita recounted her trials and tribulations during her weightlifting stint.
“It’s either the administration, coaches, or the politics that surrounds it. That’s why people quit. I come from a family of farmers.....we don’t quit our training regimen even for a day and despite working so hard, we still need to get our hands dirty. It came to a point when I decided that I don’t have to do this [weightlifting] anymore.”
The shift from weightlifting to wrestling has been a commercial success, but Kavita admits its not been all hunky-dory.
She now lives out of a suitcase, attending innumerable promotional events and giving interviews round the clock. A big test though, awaits her in March. Kavita will know whether she will become the first Indian woman to be a part of WWE during another career-defining tryout.
However, there are times when she ponders if she is getting her balancing act right. Her husband, Gaurav Tomar, and six-year-old son are frequent travel partners. “There are difficult decisions to be made,” Kavita says, reflecting on her career. “There are times when I wonder if I am doing the right thing; if I am being unfair to my child. Every mother wants to see her child growing up. I have to console myself during these times. There are occasions when my husband also gets frustrated with my schedules,” she smiles.
In the wrestling ring, Kavita is determined to maintain her own identity, and continues to fight in a salwar suit. “This is our culture and I want to promote it. I want to show the women in India that they can do it too. There has been an impact because of that, and for March [WWE trials], there are plenty of girls wishing me luck,” she adds.
Within touching distance of creating history and becoming a trailblazer in sports entertainment in India, Kavita could soon be seen challenging the likes of Ronda Rousey, Becky Lynch, Nia Jax and Charlotte Flair.