January 13, 1996
Tiger Jeet Singh's career is burning bright
The Canadian wrestler has made a fortune in Asia by pummelling, bellowing, demolishing -- and not just his opponents in the ring.
By BRUCE LIVESEY -- For the Financial Post

  There is a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde quality to Jagjit Singh Hans' personality.
 
  On the one hand, as the professional wrestler picks from a tray of Indian sweets in the den of his palatial home -- in Milton, Ont., just west of Toronto -- Hans has all the outward appearances of a kindly, devoutly religious, Sikh millionaire who dotes on his family -- a millionaire who is a 6-foot-3 bearded giant, weighs 265 pounds, and has forearms the size of redwoods.
 
  On the other hand, when Hans slips in a videotape to play on his big-screen TV, his Mr. Hyde suddenly appears. For there is Tiger Jeet Singh, Hans' wrestling alter ego, running amok in a Japanese arena, bedecked in a turban and brandishing a menacing sword. Bellowing like a bull elephant in heat, he attacks members of the ticket-paying audience, scattering them hither and yon. One shot shows the Tiger beating a prone wrestling opponents with a folding chair. Another shows him knocking an unsuspecting referee to the mat with a karate chop to the back of the neck. Blood is in plentiful supply.
 
  Some of the Tiger's foes aren't even wrestlers. He once mauled the editor of Tokyo's largest sports daily newspaper. Another time, the Tiger demolished a Mercedes with a baseball bat in downtown Tokyo during rush hour. ``I am very hot blooded,'' Hans observed casually as he reached for another delicacy. ``If I think someone should be slapped, I will slap them.'' He claims that Japanese wrestling fans will not wash those parts of their body he has struck, so honored are they to be pummelled by Tiger Jeet Singh.
 
  Of course, much of this is just the high kabuki theatre and hyperbole endemic to the world of professional wrestling, a sport that, in many respects, is a throwback to the Roman circuses. Hans, a poor Indian immigrant who came to Canada 30 years ago with little in his pockets but spare change, realized that to enjoy one day all the trappings of a wealthy country squire, his wrestling persona -- Tiger Jeet Singh -- had to be an outlandish, larger-than-life villain -- a rotter the fans would love to hate. It was, and remains, a marketing ploy of pure genius.
 
  The Tiger's fame and fortune is a well-kept secret in Canada. Yet in Asia, the Middle East and South Africa, where professional wrestling is treated as a serious sport, and wrestlers like movie stars, Tiger Jeet Singh is a household name. In Japan, a comic strip is published about his exploits, while the Tiger's every foray into the public domain is headline news. The 50-year-old packs arenas with crowds of up to 60,000 -- people who pay anywhere from $70 to $200 a pop to watch him wrestle. While he refuses to disclose his income -- other than to say ``I make healthy money'' -- one estimate suggests he rakes in $60,000 a bout -- $1 million a year. Even his children have difficulty grasping the magnitude of his fame abroad. Mick, 23, Tiger's eldest son, recalled first seeing his father fight in Japan five years ago.
 
  ``I could not contemplate the persona and how huge it was,'' he said. ``These thousands of people waiting on every punch and kick. I remember thinking, `This is not Michael Jackson -- this is your Dad.' ''
 
  Now Mick, himself a 6-foot-5, 300-pound colossus -- is being groomed to follow in his father's footsteps and has adopted the moniker of Tiger Jeet Jr. Mick is a multi-talented wrestler, kickboxer and ``street fighter'', who holds the streetfighting title for World Martial Arts Wrestling (WMW), a wrestling federation based in India. Tiger is the WMW's world wrestling champion.
 
  Hans did not get rich by accident: he is an extremely astute businessman. He has a large portfolio of real estate holdings, and his tours are sometimes sponsored by Pepsi International. Asian and Canadian companies queue up to get him to endorse their products.
 
  This winter, he will be investing in Sports & Injury Rehab Clinics Inc., an Ontario-based chain of physiotherapy and rehabilitation clinics. ``He has a peasant cunning, and gets to the white and black very quickly,'' said Sohan Koonar, Sports & Injury's president. ``He's a very intelligent man.''
 
  Yet the Tiger has made some business mis-steps. In 1989, he and a group of investors bought into an Edmonton condo complex called Rundle Park Village. Hans says they intended to sell the $45,000 condo units for a tidy profit.
 
  But two things prevented this from happening. First, the real estate market collapsed. Second, three of the men involved in the venture -- including the Tiger's brother-in-law -- were inflating the condos' prices without the other investors' knowledge. They pocketed the profits made on the sale of the units -- instead of the investors.
 
  When the other investors realized they had lost a lot of money, they complained to the RCMP in 1994. They also fingered the Tiger as being involved in the scheme to rip them off. Hans and the three other men were charged with committing fraud. But when the case went to hearing in December 1994, the crown dropped the charges against the Tiger, convinced he was not part of the fraud alleged. ``I was one of the victims of this project, too,'' Hans declared.
 
  Such mis-steps are rare. The Tiger is also tapping into his extensive contacts in the Pacific Rim to fashion himself as a corporate matchmaker between Canadian and Asian companies. The towns of Brampton and Milton have already crowned him their business ambassador to attract foreign investment. ``I try to help my community and my country,'' Hans declared.
 
  The Tiger's affluence is visible when you visit his home. He and his family live in a 14,000-square-foot mansion at the far end of a corn field on 25 hectares of land. There's a swimming pool, tennis court, sauna, seven self-contained suites, 18th-century-style furniture and Italian marble fireplaces.
 
  Elegant Japanese prints hang on the walls. A Mercedes is parked in the garage. As Hans gives a tour of the massive three-storey house, he points to snapshots of the Tiger hobnobbing with prime ministers and famous sports figures. Last July, for instance, he and his son toured South Africa where they met Prime Minister Nelson Mandela.
 
  The Tiger's good fortune was hard-earned. Hans was born in Ludhiana, a small village in the state of Punjab. His father was a major in the Indian army. In 1965, at the age of 19, he emigrated to Toronto, arriving with $6 in his pocket. ``We heard that Canada was a land of opportunities,'' he said simply.
 
  Soon after, Hans drifted into professional wrestling, eventually signing with Frank Tunney, a Toronto wrestling promoter. Tunney introduced him to Fred Atkins, a trainer and conditioning coach with the Toronto Maple Leafs, who dubbed Hans ``Tiger'' after witnessing his ferocious, no-holds-barred style of fighting. The name and his volatility proved immensely popular among wrestling fans.
 
  The Tiger fought on the Canadian and U.S. wrestling circuits, grappling with opponents like Sweet Daddy Siki, Andre the Giant, Hans Schmidt, Whipper Billy Watson and Bulldog Brouwer. Retired wrestler Ron Doner, who tag-teamed with Hans, says the Tiger was a fan favorite because he was so magnetic in the ring. ``He created much more excitement than most other wrestlers would,'' says Doner.
 
  During the 1970s, Tiger became one of Canada's top-billed and most skilled wrestlers, earning up to $80,000 a year, often fighting in Maple Leaf Gardens. But, he said, ``I was not satisified,'' especially when he realized how much money he could make in Asia.
 
  He made a name for himself in Japan while visiting the country in 1\972. He got into a brawl with Antonio Inoki, Japan's equivalent to Hulk Hogan, in a shopping centre. The resulting publicity propelled Tiger into the limelight. He returned to Japan to beat Inoki in the ring, becoming infamous in a land where professional wrestling is the third-most-popular sport behind baseball and sumo wrestling. Nowadays, he spends three months a year fighting in Asia.
 
  Moreover, the style of wrestling in the Orient was similar to his own. Since the 1980s, North American wrestling has been dominated by the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), which markets a tame, bloodless product practised by steroid-pumped, Schwarzenegger-wannabes who can become famous on looks alone. In Asia and the Middle East, however, wrestling is a much different sport, one in which technique, broken bones, open wounds and weapons are part of the picture. One time, Tiger ran his sword clean through the leg of an opponent. And when he once fought the late Andre the Giant in Acapulco, the two men were bleeding so copiously that Singh's wife, Sukhjit, passed out. She has refused to watch him fight ever since.
 
  Indeed, Tiger can point to a meaty arm and display twisted scar tissue where a wound required 40 stitches to close. ``I have been hospitalized a number of times,'' he said, adding with a shrug, ``it's part of my profession.''
 
  Nevertheless, his body is feeling the wear and tear of too many blows and chairs upside the head: Tiger Jeet Singh is slowing down somewhat these days. But there are no imminent plans to retire the tights, nor shutter the family franchise. While son Mick initially had designs on becoming a basketball player, having been offered more than 20 U.S. college basketball scholarships including one from Notre Dame, after seeing his father fight in Japan in 1991, he decided to embrace the wrestling vocation.
 
  Said Sohan Koonar, a family friend: ``I think Mick could one day become bigger than his father.''
 
  Yet Mick may have to wait awhile before he gets centre stage all to himself. Twelve years ago, Tiger Jeet Singh tried to retire. But he became bored, restless, even sickly.
 
  Today, as he sits in his mansion watching videos of himself, the Tiger obviously relishes the adulation of his fans.
 
  Even if it does mean attacking them with his sword now and then.

RELATED LINKS

  • Tiger Jeet Singh bio and story archive


  • CANOE.CA SLAM!