As I was leaving the inaugural Sheru Classic in Mumbai, India last year in September of 2011, I felt very sad to leave. With any first year professional bodybuilding show, no matter how successful it is, there are no guarantees the show will continue. The fact that I wasn't 100% sure I'd be returning to this magical country was upsetting in a strange way. I felt almost like an astronaut who has an opportunity to visit the moon or some distant planet and might never get to return. So you can imagine my joy when I received a phone call this year from promotor Sheru Aangrish. Not only did Sheru tell me that he would like me back in India (this time in New Delhi), but he was doing it bigger in 2013. Way bigger!
One of the first things everyone asks me when I tell them I am going to India is, "How long is that plane ride?". The plane ride is about fourteen and a half hours from Newark, NJ to New Delhi, India and about 16 on the way back due to trade winds. Surprisingly, it's not a bad flight! I think it's all about the mindset. If you KNOW that you are on the plane for a long time, then you don't think about how many minutes/hours are left. You just relax. Plus, the flight is an overnight flight, so the lights go off and most people go to sleep. If you can plan it out like me and watch a movie as soon as you get on, eat the first meal, drink a vodka (or three) and then sleep, it passes like nothing. On my flight this year it was only Dave Palumbo, David Henry and I. Most of the competitors came in the following day.
Last year, everyone was on the same flight from Newark to Mumbai and everyone was in the same area of the plane. I could look behind me (also seated in economy) and see Kai Greene, Bob Chicerillo, Nicole Wilkins, Victor Martinez and Erin Stern. You couldn’t miss Kai because he was on the George Farah plan of international travel. That means he’d get up every hour and walk around the plane, stretch, and do some exercises to move the blood around. George has all of his athletes do this to avoid holding water from the long flight. Also, when Kai was sitting, you couldn’t miss his deltoid and quad sweep popping out from the side of his seat into the aisle. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that he spent the ENTIRE flight either walking around and stretching or drawing on his sketch pad.
The airport in India is different than I'm used to. There is more action. Once you pass through customs and security, the amount of sheer movement is disconcerting to the uninitiated. Another thing that struck me about the Indian airports was the amount of people hanging around outside. It's like, "What the hell are all these people doing here?!?". They are just kind of chilling at the exit hanging outside staring. Anyway, that's how it feels to me.
BEING A BIG TALL WHITE GUY IN INDIA
In America, I am asked at least a few times a day about working out or someone will make a comment about my size. Not that I'm Jay Cutler but, at 6'2 and 250 pounds, that's big enough to occasionally illicit a comment. Well, in India, that size is enough to draw a crowd. I'm not kidding. In some places, if I stop and stand in public, I will have dozens of people crowding around me asking to take pictures and feel my arm. It's totally normal to have men on the street cat call me by saying, "Nice body, man!", "nice muscles!", or the strangest (in my opinion), "beautiful body, Sir!". Interestingly, I have NEVER had a women make ANY comment on how I looked. After a week in India, I got so used to being told "Nice body", that I would often find myself saying "nice body", to myself! My wife, Darielle, finally told me it was enough and I cut it out.
TRAFFIC IN INDA
I have to mention the traffic because it’s THAT noteworthy. The best way to describe it is to say that it is total chaos! There are no visible lanes of traffic, there are no discernible traffic laws, and no speed limits. However, it's not like you could go very fast anyway because it’s as congested as any city you have ever been in during rush hour. And it's like this all the time. Combine that with the fact that every driver from India constantly stays on their horn. They honk at anything and everything. Sometimes, I think they honk just to be doing something. The streets are a cacophony of horns.
I’ll give you an example of the craziness of the traffic in India that Dave Palumbo and I experienced. We were in a hotel car, which is nicer than most cabs and we were driving down a main road. Our driver was veering in and out of traffic, passing cars. As he passed, he’d hit the horn periodically. Not really to warn anyone but just to let people know he was coming through. We were zigging and zagging so quickly through traffic that our driver inadvertently passed our turn off.
In America, we would normally wait for the next U-turn, turn around and try again. In India, our driver blurted out what I can only imagine was an India curse word and hit the brakes. He then did the unthinkable in bumper to bumper traffic. He put the car in reverse! Slowly but surely he was able to force people to also reverse, navigating back to the the turn we missed. By some miracle, we ended up making it through the experience completely intact. I’d like to tell you this was one isolated crazy story but it was a common experience in India. I asked our driver if there are a lot of accidents in India and he laughed and said, “Indian road rules broadly operate within the domain of karma where you do your best and leave the results to your insurance company!”
When Dave Palumbo and I arrived in New Delhi, I was dead set on getting out of the hotel and doing some sight seeing. We first went to Qutb Minar, which is the tallest minaret in India, standing at 327 feet tall. The minaret was completed in 1192 and it was such a huge undertaking that the construction project spanned the rule of two great Muslim rulers. It was started by Qutub-ud-din Aibbak and finished by IItutmish. IItutmish is actually entombed inside of the complex. He has a big red sandstone mausoleum that both Dave and I took a picture standing on!
One thing I found interesting about the whole Qutb complex was the various ruined minarets. I asked the tour guide why this was and he said that over the years, many rulers attempted to build bigger and taller minarets than the famous Qutb Minar but they all failed, leaving wreckage everywhere.
When traveling around India as a tourist, there are two things that you must be prepared for, haggling and begging. In India there is almost never a set price. When I walked into the Qutb Minar, I was approached by someone who was asked if we wanted a guide. I asked a price and was told, “The best guide in all of India for 400 rupees!”. When I said "no thanks", the price magically went down to 200 rupees. I couldn’t pass that deal up! This is totally normal in India. It's easy to feel that you might be taken advantage of or wonder if you really got that good of a deal. I mean, could I have gotten that guide for 100 rupees? I’ll never know!
The other consistent them in India is the begging. Because there are so many poor people in India, begging is very common. In many of the tourist dense places, it's not unusual to run into hundreds, if not thousands, of beggars. It sounds scary, I know, but if you keep in mind that India is very different than America. The beggars will approach you but I never felt threatened or in danger. As long as I told them no and keep moving, there were no problems. At one point, Dave Palumbo saw a very cute young girl beggar on the street and asked our driver to stop and roll down his window. The driver quickly replied, “No, no, no! They will swarm the car!”. If you give one person money, the beggars will see you as an easy target and swarm the car!
First thing you notice when you pick up India’s very colorful paper money is that every single denomination has Mahatma Gandhi on it. A Rupee is worth about 2 cents or 1/50th of a dollar. There is something very cool about having a stack of 20,000 rupees in your pocket! Just because Rupees aren’t worth as much to tourists doesn’t mean they aren’t as valueable to Indians. The average yearly income of an Indian is 50,000 rupees.
One of the neat moments on this trip was when Gennifer Strobo’s boyfriend, Aaron, gave 5000 rupees to an airport janitor on the way back home to the USA. The guy didn’t know what to do. That money was 3 months pay to a manual laborer in India. It was cool to see someone’s life changed in the blink of an eye.
The host hotel for the Sheru Classic, the ITC Sheraton, was amazing! I would say that the hotel itself was as nice as anything in the United States. What was FAR better than ANY hotel in the US was the service. I found that in India, people pride themselves on making you feel welcome and the hotel was a prime example of this. The front desk staff were beyond friendly and accommodating and it seemed like they actually had interest in each guest and meeting their needs.
One example was when the internet in my hotel room was uncharacteristically slow. The hotel sent up technician after technician to try and remedy the situation. When they finally exhausted all their ideas, they called in an outside expert and he was able to fix the problem. In a normal 5 star hotel in the states, they would send one person up, at most and, when he could figure it out, they would apologize and that would be it. In India, the whole hotel was on a mission to help me find a solution!
The show itself was held at the Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium, the third largest in all of India. The stadium holds 25,000 people and how they had it set up for the show, it had the ability to hold up to 18,000 people. When I orginially heard those tremendous numbers, I was a little concerned. The most people I had ever heard of attending a bodybuilding show was around 8,000 people at the Mr. Olympia contest. With such a huge venue like this, even an enormous turnout of 5,000 fans would make the auditorium appear almost empty!
The other factor playing in my mind as we drove up to this monstrosity was my intense hope that this show would be a huge success. I am very fond of Sheru and his brother, Harmeet and I wanted to see them succeed. Not just that though. I knew that the fate of IFBB Pro bodybuilding in Asia basically hung in the balance. People all over the world were watching to see how the Sheru Classic did in New Delhi and if it was a loser, not only would Sheru most likely not have had the show in 2013, but many other possible promotors who might have thought of having a show of their own in Asia would probably reconsider. A lot was on the line for bodybuilding.
I was on the athlete’s bus for the trip from the hotel to the stadium and when we pulled up, we had to pass through a crowd of fans waiting for us to get into the backstage enterance. They banged on the side of the bus and yelled like we were a rock band arriving for a sold out concert. Having been to the Sheru Classic in Mumbai last year, I expected this, but many of the athletes got a huge kick out of seeing this reception. I did notice that there seemed to be a lot people already at the venue and waiting for the buses and I remember hoping that that was a good sign!
As I walked through the security into the stadium and into the backstage area, I was pleasantly surprised at how modern the stadium was. The backstage facilities were something you might see in America. When I actually entered the interior of the stadium I was blown away. The incredible stage had huge video screens on each side ot it. The sheer size of the stage was amazing! I was standing at the far end of the floor near the stage and, I don’t think I’m exaggerating saying this, it had to be 3 football fields long to get to the other size of the floor where the exits are. I was very impressed but also apprehensive about the amount of space inside the stadium. I remember hearing one of the media people say, “There is no way this place will be close to filled. It’s going to look empty in here.” I looked over and said, “Indian people love bodybuilding. Sheru will pull it off.” I was trying to reassure myself more than convince the guy.
The actual stage set was the best of any bodybuilding show I have been to and I have been to them all! It actually looked like it could be a stage for a big time awards show like the Oscars or the Grammy’s! The stage was around six feet off the ground and there were stairs leading from the floor to the stage (which later proved to have been a bad idea). In the middle of the stage, extending around 15 feet further into the floor, was a circular island which all of the bodybuilders walked out and posed. On the back wall of the stage were three huge video screens that showed an ocean blue image for most of the show. The center screen alternated from the Sheru Classic logo to the name and picture of each competitor as they entered the stage. Each athlete I talked to later expressed how much they loved posing on such an elaborate and glamorous stage. For many of the athletes, the stage, the stadium and the crowd made this whole trip worthwhile.
As the we got closer to the beginning of the show, people started pouring into the stadium. They allowed the people who had spent more money for the floor seats to enter first. From the first few minutes that the people started finding their seats and checking the place out, it became very clear to all the media and judges that the Indian people were FAR more excited about this show, and bodybuilding in general, than any other crowd we have ever experienced.
IFBB Pro Todd Jewell was in a bad car accident a week before the show but he didn’t want to miss the opportunity to compete in India so he competed that morning at the prejudging. During the judging, he started to experience severe headaches. The headaches were so bad that he decided, with the permission of the judges, to sit out the night show. Todd and I are friends so I offered to have him sit next to me in the press seats, right behind the judges. I thought I was doing my buddy a favor but since Todd is around 280lbs and was wearing a tank top, it turned out that it was anything but! From the moment they let Todd in the auditorium, the audience started swarming him. It started out with Indians just crowding around him but since I was sitting next to him, they started to crowd me too!
After the first Indian approached Todd and asked to take a picture with him, Todd made the mistake of saying yes. After that first picture, Todd effectively "broke the dam", allowing the crowd to start to swarm him. That’s when I took a few steps back, leaving my buddy to deal with the advancing crowd. Todd, being the nice guy that he is, lasted around 20 minutes (or 1000 camera flashes) before Jay Cutler and his security crew arrived. Jay had SERIOUS British ex-special forces security. These guys cleared away the swarm and found Jay a seat right by us. In the process, Todd was freed from the swarming adulation and bicep groping. By the time Jay was seated, I stood up and looked around the arena and I was astounded by the amount of people in the seats. All of the thousand plus floor seats were full and most of the stadium seats were also full. At that moment, I knew this show was a success! The future of pro bodybuilding in Asia was secure. With all my concerns allayed, I sat back down and was ready to enjoy the show.
The show itself went much like the Olympia did the previous weekend. Kai Greene was once again defeated by Phil Heath and, in this show, there were far less people saying that Kai should have won. However, the audience definitely had Kai winning! The Indian people absolutely LOVE Kai in India. One of the scary moments of the evening was when Kai come out for his posing routine. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a large amount of movement. I turned to notice hundreds of Indians running to the right side of the stadium and jumping around 15 feet from those seats to the floor level. I had to assume that those people were planning on rushing the stage in hopes of getting to Kai. About two dozen security people also saw what was going on and ran to stop the crowd from rushing the stage. I also saw the security in the upper levels move to stop people from jumping down. I looked back at Kai posing and noticed the stairs leading up to the stage all over again. Suddenly, I got worried that the enthusiasm of the Indian fans might actually be TOO much! Some of the other press people were making bets if we would make it through the whole show without at least a few Indians making it up on the stage. Thankfully, the show concluded without any other disruptions.
SIGNING INDIAN BODYBUILDERS
The India based supplement company, Aminoz, has decided to follow the US market’s lead and begin signing Indian bodybuilders. Their first athlete to put under contract is the Light-Heavyweight Mr. India winner, Tanvir Akram.
As other Indian supplement companies follow Aminoz lead, it will bring more money and support to these top level Indian bodybuilders. This new business development, along with the Indians being able to see the very best in the sport with their own eyes at the Sheru Classic, may bring about a whole new batch of Indian IFBB Pros in the future!
One thing that is inescapable in India is the joy and serenity that the people there carry within themselves. From the beggar on the street to the bell boy at the hotel, everyone seems to be filled with a kind of satisfaction that is missing in America. Combine that with a love of bodybuilding and fitness that is unparalleled in all of my travels and you have the setting for one hell of an event. Sheru Aangrish has built such an event and this year it was much more than just a bodybuilding show. The Sheru Classic has become a Indian celebration of physical culture.
As I left India this year, I didn’t worry about the future of the Sheru Classic or pro bodybuilding in Asia. Instead, I felt secure in the fact that Sheru and Hermat Aangrish had done it right. They truly brought bodybuilding to the Indian people and they did it in grand style.
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