Mukesh Singh Gehlot: A World Champion from India who's famous everywhere but in his home country
India doesn't produce world champions everyday, but here's one that you probably have never even heard about.
Its 6 am in Coventry, United Kingdom, and Delhi’s Mukesh Singh Gehlot is rushing to catch his flight back to India. But he’s in a conundrum, because there are huge masses of people – including fans and aspiring body-builders – standing outside his hotel to catch one glimpse of the ‘Indian Hulk’.
His phone buzzes, “Mr. Gehlot, this is Inspector Sheridan from Coventry Traffic Police, your taxi is waiting at the back of the hotel, so that you can avoid the people waiting in the lobby.” Due to his inability to speak English, Gehlot replies very nonchalantly, “Ok-ji,” and then sneaks out from the elevator, where he is directed towards the taxi headed for the airport.
Once inside the taxi, he gives the slightest of grins. Mukesh Singh Gehlot will be returning to India as the World Powerlifting Champion, having defeated opponents from 35 countries – that's a nice feeling to have. However, he also knows in the back of his head that there will not be a single person to receive him at the Rajiv Gandhi International Airport.
He shrugs off the momentary burst of negativity and realises what he has achieved is unprecedented. The 38-year-old has now become only the second power-lifter in the world to win the world title twice. He previously won it in 2013, edging past higher ranked opponents in a pulsating finish, which went down to the kilo.
For those who don’t know what power-lifting is, it is essentially the world championship of a common weight-based gym exercises popularly known as bench-press, squat and dead-lift. The higher the amount of weight your chest, legs and shoulder can take, the higher the score you register.
Mukesh’s victory two years back saw him win several fans across the world, not just due to his power-lifting abilities, but also because of his perfect physique. It was that very year that he was given the nickname of ‘The Indian Hulk’.
A child who took refuge in sport
Beginning his career as a body-builder, Gehlot was crowned Mr. India four times between 2008 and 2012, before eventually winning a silver medal at the Asian Championship. A transition to power-lifting garnered immediate results, but one question essentially remained unanswered: why was someone so revered abroad, literally an unknown entity in his own country?
The son of a farmer, Gehlot’s parents lost their plot of land during the initiation of the Dwarka project, near Delhi. Born and brought up in the Kakroli village, his interest in sport was born out of a search for refuge from the turbulent times in his life.
He says, “My mother passed away in 1993. I was very distraught; till that point I was very emotionally dependent on her, so to lose her like that was something I couldn’t fathom. To take my mind away from things, I started playing sports. I realised it made me extremely happy to get better at that.
“My father always coaxed me into studies, but that’s not something I wanted to do in life, I was just not interested. Sports helped me get away from those memories, whereas studying just made emphasise on those things more,” he goes on.
The introduction to body-building was a bit of a happy accident. He says, “One day, I went to play football at the Chhatarsal stadium, so I noticed a gym over there, where people were training for the State Championship. I saw the people putting in so much effort to gain that extra muscle. So I thought I would give it a shot. And ever since that day I’ve been addicted to it.”
Gehlot began competitive body-building in 1997, and he won a silver medal at the All University Championship next year. That kick-started his dream of becoming a professional body-builder, but one major obstacle stood in front of him – money.
According to the International Bodybuilding Federation (IBF), which hosts the world’s most prestigious competition known as Olympia, an average Top-30 body-builder has to spend at least $80,000 on supplements in a year to regularly compete at the highest level. The early years, until 2002, Gehlot was not even aware about the existence of supplements.
He says, “Both me and my coach used to train based on our natural progression, but supplements are used because they target specific muscles and assist you. However, I didn’t even know something like this existed. I just ate two whole chickens, 25 eggs and drank 10 glasses of milk a day, but even that was expensive for me. My elder brother used to give me money running daily farming errands, so that I could keep up with this diet. There were days I used to eat half of this, but that would reduce my protein intake.”
Despite winning state level competitions, including the state championship, it wasn’t until 1999 that he received a government job. He adds, “Till I joined the Railways in 1999, my father was very apprehensive of me becoming a body-builder. He always thought I was destroying my life. But when I did end up getting the job, he was more relaxed about it.”
After getting the job, the fixed income helped Gehlot purchase the required amount of supplements to compete at the top level. In 2000, he shocked the continental fraternity by finishing in the Asian Championship top 10. That was, in essence, the turning point of his career.
He says, “It was at this point I realised yes, my strength lies in strength-based sports. Club that together with my love for body-building, and it became my life. My father was still not suppportive of me, but I knew he used to tell everyone in the neighbourhood when I won.”
Despite being a trained mechanical engineer, Gehlot prefers not to talk about that aspect of his life. He had offers from companies such as Ashok Leyland, Infosys and TCS, but chose to pursue his body-building career instead.
Gehlot's dominant reign truly began in 2006 – after years of consistent national and continental level medals. A World Championship Top 10 finish was followed up with his dream Mr. India title. He would go on to win that four times in five years, asserting his dominance over the sport.
By 2012, Gehlot would end up winning practically everything the sport had to offer. However, being the competitive person that he is, he needed more of it to fuel his dream.
He says, “In 2012, I medalled at the Asian Championship and then I realised, there is so much more I can offer to the country. Yes, body-building was one but one day when I was bench-pressing, my friends showed me a YouTube video of the powerlifting competition. I saw them lifting and thought to myself that with more training I can lift that. I approached my coach Mr. Bhupender, and he wanted me to go forward with it.”
Within a year's training, he qualified for the World Championship in England.
From the prospect of the wooden spoon to finishing as the World Champion
Heading into the event, Gehlot was seeded dead last, with most competitors wondering whether power-lifters even existed in India. The final round saw him placed outside the medal positons, and he needed to lift a whopping 256 kilograms to win the title.
Gehlot walked on to the stage with the crowd cheering for the underdog. Here is a guy who the fans had never even heard of, and he was on the verge of winning a medal. Emboldened by the crowd support, he lifted the weight unflinchingly before jumping in the air in celebration.
The crowd at the Coventry Exhibition Center was ecstatic.
He says, “I had never felt something like that before. I was seeded 38th in the world, but during the last lift I knew I could win gold. The reception the fans gave me, it helped me believe that I could do it. Not just for me, but my country and everyone involved with powerlifting or bodybuilding back home.
“When the national anthem played, I couldn't control my tears. My coach even jokingly told me, ‘You're one of the strongest men from India and you can't even control your tears.’ I just thought about my mother and how proud she would be,” he adds.
The following few hours saw Mukesh hounded for autographs, with supplement company representatives showing willingness to sponsor his tournaments abroad. Never having received such adulation back home, he was clueless how to deal with it. He says, “Even my coach didn't know much English, but what we realised was that this sport is really popular aborad, and it was our duty to help make it grow back home.”
Appreciation abroad, unknown entity back home
On being asked whether he is saddened by the lack of popularity back home, he says, “Yes, it does feel bad once you go abroad and see people really being revered for what I'm doing. Back home people would rather diss my profession. But I know deep down I'm serving my nation, and I really don't need any motivation to continue to do that. Country and family first, everything second.”
Gehlot gets fan mails from countries such as Hungary, Germany, Argentina and Fiji. He adds with a laugh, “Some of these countries, I’ve never even heard of!”
If you were to login to YouTube, you would notice several fan recorded videos of Gehlot, accompanied by words such as '#goals'. His popularity in countries such as USA and UK has seen a surge in Google searches about him too.
In 2016, Gehlot repeated his World Championship victory. But this time around, it was far easier.
He says, “Right now I want to go back to bodybuilding and qualify for Mr. Olympia and show everyone who told me not take up bodybuilding or powerlifting, that India can produce champions. When I first went to the UK, everyone didn't treat me as competition, and now I am the world champion. I will follow the same philosophy of never giving up.”
There is no reason why Mukesh Singh Gehlot shouldn't be a household name in India. If the people of England can accept him as a world beater, why can't we acknowledge our own champion?
He says, “Bodybuilders don't get Arjuna awards anymore, that is because we have like 8-10 federations which govern the sport. So the Sports Ministry also doesn't take us seriously anymore. Till 2000, Indian bodybuilders were the toast of the nation, but now they don't even care. However, I will continue to follow my passion, whether I get any recognition or not.”
Just like that cold night in Coventry two years ago, Mukesh Singh Gehlot is all set to prove the world wrong yet again.