Cinema halls in the city regularly screened King Kong-Dara Singh contests

Chief Sitting Bull, Russian Rocket, Superman — wrestlers with exotic nick names sparred in Chennai in the 1960s. Crowds thronged to watch — what the advertisements promised — ‘full blooded, action packed fights.’

But they came in even larger numbers to watch their undoubted favourite — ‘Killer’ Dara Singh. They wanted to watch his signature move — the ‘Indian Deathlock’ — that immobilised the opponent. And Dara Singh did not disappoint them.

In one of the early wrestling matches held in August 1960 at the Salt Cotaurs grounds near Basin Bridge, he knocked down Lionel Edwards of England in the fifth round with this famous move. The fans were immensely entertained.

Madras audiences were not new to wrestling. Movie halls often showed short films of international wrestling matches. Those who went to watch the film Hercules at Sayani cinema hall in the early 1960s enjoyed a 30-minute wrestling film.

Even those who choose to watch the adult film Mysterians at Brighton theatre did not miss out on a short film on world-wrestling tournament, which was shown along with the Pope’s coronation. Dara Singh himself was well-known to the wider Tamil audience. He appeared in the Tamil Movie Engal Selvi, whichwas released in July 1960.

The match between Dara Singh and King Kong, his famed opponent from Hungary, was the star attraction. Whenever the two fought, the fans wanted more of it. In January 1962, Dara Singh and King Kong wrestled at the Rajendra Singhji Stadium opposite Island Grounds.

During the second round, King Kong, for reasons unknown, aimed a blow at the referee Harnam Singh, who was the father of Ajit Singh, another well-known wrestler.

The organisers promptly disqualified King Kong and declared Dara Singh the winner. It is not clear whether there was any allegation of match fixing, and nobody knows what followed, but the 30,000 Madras fans were agitated. The reasonable among them, when disappointed, probably chose to watch the fights on celluloid. Cinema halls such as Select and Ashok regularly screened a more satisfying King Kong-versus-Dara Singh contest.

Madras fans, it appears from newspaper reports, were not entirely among the well-behaved back then. In August 1960, three sustained minor injuries after police used lathis to disperse the crowd. The police version blamed “the lower class ticket-holders” who allegedly rushed to the central platform after the wrestling match, causing a melee. They were lathicharged, and three men, aged 35, 29 and 17, were injured.

By 1965, Dara Singh and King Kong matches almost stopped. The disappointed fans had to be satisfied with their appearance in the Hindi film Aaya Toofan (starring Helen). For the more nostalgic, cinema theatres such as Select continued to show the entertaining Dara Singh fights at least until 1970.