Saturday night, in a smoky garage, on stolen pay-per-view, I discovered the next great Canadian sports craze. It has everything a discerning viewer needs in an athletic competition: intensity, violence and men holding hands.
Saturday, while the early undercard fights for the McGregor-Mayweather punch-out were underway, another sport was taking place on a different pay-per-view channel.
To a first-time viewer, this new competition seemed like a cocktail of full contact red-rover and tag. Two, seven-player teams, in this game, comprised mostly of fit, mustached athletes, bounded across a small court.
This is the national sport of Bangladesh, – and my heart – Kabaddi.
I had shown up to see a high-stakes, boxing match. Watching the Patna Pirates face off against the Tamil Talaivas in Mumbai, reached me in a way that only a confusing, scrimmage of South-Asian men truly could.
One moment, there was a lone member of the Pirates edging toward a group of several Talaivas. Even though alone, the Pirate bounced nimbly closer to the larger group of opponents.
His enemies teetered away from him, but stayed close. He took occasional swipes at them with his hands.
Keeping them back like a pack of hungry wolves.
Suddenly, the green and yellow uniformed player, sprung forward, across a white-line of unknown significance. Barreling towards a member of the opposite team, he tagged one of the Talaivas with his foot before sprinting to tag another with his hands.
In a flash the Pirate was sprinting away. The Talaivas closed in. No longer trying to avoid the man, one dived headfirst towards his legs. Two others began holding hands and rushing at the Pirate, either to block his exit or perhaps for emotional support.
The rules, per the Vivo Pro Kabaddi website, provided some context to what I was witnessing.
Teams send one “raider,” across the line to attempt to tag as many opponents as possible. Once he makes contact, the raider must do everything to bolt like a scared gazelle back across to his team’s side. His opponents can stop this little asshole from scoring, by tackling his minxy ass before he crosses back across his team’s line.
The boundaries of the 13m x 10m court limit the players’ movement. The limits of where players can step expands after a tag.
A step over the line and you are out. No points. Particular tackles by the defending team can also equal points.
The ensuing chaos as each player scrambles for freedom, amidst a sea of diving bodies, is legitimately exhilarating. Kabaddi is everything that’s seems appealing about football but without the unnecessary addition of the ball.
The raider is regularly taken down hard, and artfully. Some moves look like wrestling or judo take-downs.
The Pirates, are the number two team in their zone of six teams. The Talaivas are currently ranked last place on the league’s official leader board.
While Kabaddi is completely alien to me, it is clear by the quality of the stadium that this was no joke in Mumbai. The events pageantry is only increased by the use of special effects over the field. The thick mats the game is played on serve as a green screen.
During play, incredibly exciting graphics and phrases – like a lion’s head or “sudden death” – appeared, superimposed for the home audience.
The match was 40 minutes. I missed a championship fight watching the Pirates maintain their position in the pro league. I love boxing, but pugilism paled in comparison to Kabaddi.
It has a simple and furious logic that makes it great for pickup games in a park or open spaces. Neighbourhoods lucky enough to have a volleyball court could find themselves hearing the word “Kabaddi” called out, since game rules dictate the raider must consistently shout the name during play.
Kabaddi could absolutely be a mainstream Canadian sport while also being a bridge through which new Indian-Canadians remain in touch with one aspect of culture. Mainly it just looks like brutal fun.
Clubs already exist across the country and most are organized under the banner of the National Kabaddi Association of Canada. The NKAC holds tournaments and competitions from spring to fall.
The 2017 season was postponed due many “player visa’s still in the approval process,” according to the groups website.
Sure enough, the channel got changed back to boxing. The crowd I was with watched with enthusiasm as two multimillionaires pummeled one another in a Las Vegas arena for ten rounds.
Mayweather set a boxing record with 50 wins that night, but it wasn’t his undercard that rallied me before his fight, it was the Pirates.