When Premchand Degra’s father passed away, he was still in the fifth standard and it changed his priorities completely. He decided he needed to look for work and only go to school after work.
But even while growing up, Degra’s strength was impressive. He never took part in any formal sport in his early years but there was always some wrestling to be done in his village and that was a talent that served him well.
He took to wrestling and won medals for his school and at the district level too. After joining the Punjab police in 1975, he continued to wrestle until one day, a former teacher suggested that he should start bodybuilding.
It was a strange suggestion because Degra didn’t know much about bodybuilding and neither did his teacher. Still, it wasn’t until August 14, 1980 that the bug truly bit Degra.
It is a day Degra remembers well. He had decided to go watch Mr Punjab and Mr North India competition but once he got there, he decided to take part in the competition as well.
“At that point, I was very fit because of my wrestling. I used to do around 2000 pushups and sit-ups and lots of running. And I saw that the bodybuilders were repeating the same poses. I thought to myself, ‘I can do this’,” said Degra in an interview.
Degra did his best and when the results came later in the evening, he was surprised to learn that he had managed to claim first place in both competitions.
“I told myself, this is very easy. I didn’t even do much,” Degra recalled.
But now, Degra took to bodybuilding seriously. He finished third in the national championship that very year and by 1983, he was ready to take things up a notch.
He clinched Mr. Asia 1983 (Lahore – Pakistan), Mr. Asia 1984 (Seoul – Korea), Mr. Asia 1985 (Singapore), Mr. Asia 1986 (Taipei – Taiwan), Mr. Asia 1987 (Kuala Lumpur – Malaysia), Gold in Pro-Am Classic in 1990 and 1991 (Singapore), Mr. Asia 1996 (New Delhi – India). In addition to these titles, he also won the Mr India title nine times in a row.
But it was his fourth-place finish at Mr Universe competition in 1985 that truly marked him out as a man on the rise. He had finished 14th in 1984 and the huge improvement won him the award for the most improved bodybuilder.
Degra followed up the fourth-place finish with a silver in the Mr. Universe contest at Tokyo in 1986 and another 4th place at Madrid (Spain) in 1987.
Then, came the year 1988. By this point, Degra was working out for eight hours every day (four hours in the morning and four in the evening). He was also consuming eight vegetarian meals throughout the day.
And the result of all that saw him finally being crowned the 1988 Mr. Universe in Australia after winning a Gold in Middle-Weight class. The title also earned him the opportunity to compete in Mr Olympia, which he did after turning pro in 1989.
He was only the third Indian bodybuilder after Montosh Roy (1951) and Manohar Aich (1952) to claim the prestigious Mr Universe title.
His international wins first earned him the Arjuna Award in 1986 – for outstanding achievement in National sports – and then a Padma Shri, India’s fourth highest civilian award, in 1990.
Watch the routine that won Degra the coveted Mr Universe title below:
In this interview, Degra tells us about his journey: