Kabaddi diehards typically describe the sport as a combination of wrestling and rugby.
To the eyes of a newcomer, it’s more like a mash-up of the schoolyard game Red Rover and the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Either way, it’s fantastically entertaining and unique (at least in North America), and local fans got an eyeful Sunday afternoon as the Canada World Kabaddi Cup attracted 6,000-plus fans to Abbotsford Centre.
The tournament featured six teams representing the U.S., India, England, Canada West, Canada East and Alberta, and there was serious prize money on the line – first place was worth $11,000, with $8,000 going to the runner-up.
“This is a big sport in the Punjabi community,” said Jas Sohal, who helped to organize the event. “You can see the excitement here.”
Indeed, there was an electric vibe in the building.
The vast majority of the spectators were adult males of South Asian descent. A high proportion of the athletes were 200-plus pounds, and absolutely cut from granite. In an alternate universe, they’d be football linebackers.
The rules, in a nutshell: The playing surface (in this case, wrestling mats fastened together with packing tape) is divided into two halves, with one team on each side. Players are shirtless and barefoot, wearing tight-fitting shorts.
Each team takes turns sending one player – a “raider” – across the line, where he encounters a group of four defenders. His job is to tag one of them and race back across the line, and the player he touches attempts to stop him (see video below).
The raider has 30 seconds from the time he initially enters enemy territory to make it back safely. If he succeeds, his team gets a point. If not, it’s a point for the other team.
The defenders link arms and try to confuse or out-flank the raider with a series of feints and retreats. On occasion, a defender will initiate contact if he thinks it’s to his advantage, attempting to pin the raider until his allotted time runs out.
Kabaddi is a rare sport where the defence draws the most cheers. That’s because the raider, more often than not, makes it safely back across the line.
In one instance, a defender shot forward and grabbed the raider’s leg, hoisted him airborne and power-slammed him to the mat, drawing a huge roar from the crowd. Later on, a player delighted the spectators with a standing backflip after derailing a raider with a highlight-reel tackle.
Many have ankles, knees and/or shoulders taped, and raiders understandably get the worst of it. The picture of energy and vitality when they’re in enemy territory, they seem to age a couple decades after crossing back over centre, as they limp to the sideline.
“When people get involved in kabaddi, they stay out of drugs and doing bad things, and they stay healthy,” Sohal said. “You have to be strong and fast.”