It's real and it's spectacular: Erica Wiebe stars in India's flashy Pro Wrestling League
Canadian Olympic champ is one of glitzy event's highest-paid athletes
Erica Wiebe is officially a pro wrestler.
But the Olympic gold medallist won't be smashing a folding chair over anyone's back or tossing anyone into a turnbuckle. Instead, she's joined India's Pro Wrestling League 2, a six-team freestyle wrestling competition being held Jan. 2-19 in Delhi.
While there are no piledrivers, the league does feature booming announcers, flashy pyrotechnics, network TV coverage and real blood.
Tough day at the office. 😳😜 <a href="https://t.co/vcbGRlpmsZ">pic.twitter.com/vcbGRlpmsZ</a>—@ericawiebe
Freestyle wrestling is one of the two Olympic disciplines. The 27-year-old Wiebe won the women's 75-kilogram weight class at the 2016 Olympic Games.
Wiebe, who's from the Ottawa suburb of Stittsville, Ont., left Canada for India on Dec. 28.
A week into the event she offers this assessment via email: "This atmosphere has never existed in wrestling until this league. There's more hype, more media, more lights than at the Olympic Games. It's an incredible showcase for the sport of wrestling."
Wiebe is team captain of the Mumbai Maharathi (a type of warrior in Hindu mythology).
She was selected in an auction two weeks before the first match. Her price, as listed on the Pro Wrestling League website, is 4.3 million Indian rupees, which equates to more than $80,000 Canadian.
This is her participation fee, making the Canadian one of the highest-paid wrestlers out of many world-class men and women.
The Vigorous Erica is all set for the smack down.<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/PWL2?src=hash">#PWL2</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Prosportify?src=hash">#Prosportify</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/KhelFauladi?src=hash">#KhelFauladi</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/MumbaiMaharathi?src=hash">#MumbaiMaharathi</a> <a href="https://t.co/CKr1TPdpoD">pic.twitter.com/CKr1TPdpoD</a>—@MumbaiMaharathi
Georgian Olympic champion Vladimer Khinchegashvili is the biggest earner, listed to be paid 4.8 million rupees (over $90,000 Cdn).
Wiebe's weight class includes Alina Stadnik-Makhynia, a Ukrainian world champion, and Belarusian Vasilisa Marzaliuk, who Wiebe wrestled in a Rio 2016 semifinal.
"I came for the adventure to India but I will actually get great wrestling matches in as well," Wiebe says.
The nine-person teams have one wrestler for each of the five men's weight classes and four women's classes. They are also required to include four foreigners and five Indians.
This makes communication an interesting affair.
The Maharathi, for example, have Jabrayil Hasanov of Azerbaijan — an Olympic bronze medallist in the men's 74-kg category from Rio — plus world championship medallist Pavlo Olynyk from Ukraine and Carolina Hidalgo, a Colombian Olympian.
Wiebe says team meetings are run in Hindi, then translated to English by one of the managers.
Wiebe then tries to explain in more simple English to Hidalgo, while Olynyk translates to Russian for Hasanov.
"Google Translate is also our best friend. Needless to say, it has been a process," Wiebe says.
A new wrestling league
The Pro Wrestling League is the creation of Indian company ProSportify. The five other teams are named UP Dangal, Haryana Hammers, Jaipur Ninjas, NCR Punjab Royals and Colors Delhi Sultans. They each have an owner or sponsor.
The Mumbai Maharathi's Twitter account often mentions famous Indian cricketer Harbhajan Singh, calling him a "co-partner," and Singh tweeted a photo of himself with Wiebe.
It was lovely catching up with the champion <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Erica?src=hash">#Erica</a> Elizabeth <a href="https://twitter.com/Official_PWL">@Official_PWL</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/MumbaiMaharathi">@MumbaiMaharathi</a> 👊 <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/no1?src=hash">#no1</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/goldmadlist?src=hash">#goldmadlist</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/RioOlympics2016?src=hash">#RioOlympics2016</a> <a href="https://t.co/BqKVBhViI1">pic.twitter.com/BqKVBhViI1</a>—@harbhajan_singh
The teams wrestle in a dual-meet format on Sony ESPN, an Indian sports channel.
Heading into Monday's tie (set of matches) against the Jaipur Ninjas, the Maharathi's record was 1-2, although Wiebe was a perfect 3-0 in her bouts.
This season coincides with the late-December release of the Bollywood biopic Dangal, about the life of Mahavir Singh Phogat. A wrestler turned coach, Phogat's daughters are successful wrestlers, and Commonwealth Games champion Geeta Phogat became India's first women's Olympic wrestler when she qualified for London 2012.
The film comes the same year Sakshi Malik earned India's first women's Olympic wrestling medal, a bronze in the 58-kg division.
Wiebe sees a link between her sport's rise in popularity in India, and more prominent roles for women athletes both on-screen and on the mat.
"There's a big push for women's equality here evident with women and men competing side-by-side on teams and many of the female players being highlighted on the teams," she says.
"They even have women-only time slots to go see the movie Dangal in theatres so that they can feel comfortable and be empowered."
For Wiebe, her stint in India is all about the experience. In the past she has also expressed interest in trying out for the WWE but remains committed to her Olympic wrestling career.
She has a return flight to Canada booked for Jan. 22, when she'll get back to training for Tokyo 2020.