Rahul Panicker: The Indian Arm Wrestler ‘Single-handedly’ Took Down the World’s Strongest Bodybuilder
“When I compete, my concentration is only on the competition. Everything else is background noise.”
Indian Arm Wrestler
A video that has recently been doing to the rounds on social media, that causes most Indians’ (especially Malayalis) chests to swell with pride, features a smiling young man weighing 70-kg named Rahul Panicker taking on an armwrestling challenge against 115-kg Larry Wheels, a man deemed the ‘World’s Strongest Bodybuilder’.
While the considerable difference in size is the first thing that everyone notices, it is hard to avoid spotting how the onlookers in this Dubai-based championship kept cheering on Wheels once the challenge ensued. When asked about this, Panicker says, “To be honest, I didn’t notice the cheering. When I compete, my concentration is only on the competition. Everything else is background noise.”
Facing his initial two defeats with a smile reflective of Panicker’s undying sportsman spirit, he finally emerges victorious in the subsequent three rounds, being deemed the winner of this Best of Five armwrestling match defeating the world’s strongest bodybuilder, Larry Wheels! Throughout the video, his humility shines through, his grin never falters and his focus remains undeterred; eventually, Rahul Panicker’s victory is well-deserved.
Back in 2017, Rahul visited Dubai as part of an onsite project for his work as an engineer and participated in an armwrestling competition where he was ultimately given the title of ‘UAE Champion’. This win triggered an increase in his connections and networks with the local armwrestling clubs.
Panicker says that Larry Wheels is playing a major role in popularising armwrestling as a sport especially among his 2.1 million (and growing) Instagram following. Through these armwrestling networks and social media, Panicker’s profile caught the attention of Wheels’ manager who approached him to participate in a face-off with the man himself in a supermatch, whenever he was in Dubai next. The rest, as they say, is history.
Having been raised in a family of sporting champions- his father and three of his four uncles being national weightlifting and powerlifting titleholders- Rahul Panicker’s first encounter with the gym began in his young teens from his father’s home gym setup. While an interest was slow to develop, he truly began enjoying gymming when he started training at LIFE gym at Changampuzha Park in the tenth grade. It was also here that he first encountered armwrestling and began to take up weekly training classes. He holds a lot of gratitude for Mukundan Sir (LIFE gym) and Sajeesh (Mamangalam) for setting the spark in him to learn the skill that would eventually become his ticket to success.
A software engineer by profession and an arm wrestler by passion, Rahul Panicker is enjoying juggling both his roles and doesn’t intend to take up the sport full-time. However, he does dedicate upto three hours a day to training for the sport and even conducts classes for aspiring armwrestling students (ranging from ages of 15 to 60) at LIFE gym, where he himself once learnt the skill.
Being a right-handed armwrestling champion, Rahul reveals, “Genetically, I have a shorter and weaker left hand. There is a tendency to dislocate or injure that hand.” This physical limitation has never proven to be a barrier in his practice of the sport, infact, Panicker considers this his strength since he carries out most of his tasks using his right hand, making it stronger.
He believes that every year, he seems to learn something new about armwrestling- throwing light on mistakes he would make. His previous injuries, he reflects, were all a result of overtraining and lack of knowledge on adequate supplementation. His exposure to new competitions and platforms has fine tuned his training process and transformed his practice to even include a day of rest.
Rahul first participated in a district-level armwrestling competition at fifteen and didn’t place. This was followed up by an attempt two years later on the same platform where he secured the second position. However, he couldn’t proceed to the state-level championships that year as he moved out of state to begin college.
He continued to train and perfect his armwrestling skills in his college gym. He recalls feeling the rush of defeating people double his size at armwrestling! The next competition he participated in was three years later when he returned to Kerala on vacation, for a district-level armwrestling championship, again placing second. This pushed him to participate in the state-level competition where he continued his streak of coming in second place! However, that year’s journey ended there, as did his vacations and so he couldn’t make his way to the nationals.
In 2010, college degree in hand, Rahul made his way past the preliminaries and for the first time, made it to the nationals which were conducted in Mizoram. On this stage, he held his streak and bagged the silver medal. The following two years, he refrained from participating due to an injury. Alongside the annual state and national championships, he also participates in several smaller competitions.
For the past decade, Rahul Panicker has made his way every year into the national and state-level armwrestling championships and has consistently placed first returning home with a gold medal in hand in the state championships! Safe to say, one can go on to label him as the ‘Best Arm Wrestler in Kerala’ owing to this decade-long streak- but Panicker adds with a humble chuckle, “Only in my category! There are champions in other categories too!”
Panicker, one day, envisions seeing himself winning a medal on the toughest platforms in the sport- on the World Armwrestling Federation (WAF) stage- and it is in pursuit of this dream, he continues to dedicate a bulk of his time and efforts into training. He participated for the first time last year in the WAF Championship held in Romania and eagerly looks forward to his next attempt.
At a global level, Larry Wheels has played a significant role in popularising the sport. Rahul explains Wheels’ influence saying, “I have been practicing and participating in armwrestling competitions for so many years and winning at the state and national level for ten years now. Only when Larry Wheels made that video did I gain this level of recognition.”
Rahul Panicker himself has sparked a flame of interest in several people, young and old, to take up armwrestling. As mentioned above, he himself takes classes once a week at LIFE gym, ensuring safety at every step supplemented with gym practice as he distributes the gems of armwrestling wisdom he himself has gathered over the years. Many of these students even defeat him during practice matches- this just goes on to reveal his superb training abilities!
Over the years, Rahul has noticed a huge change in the way armwrestling has been perceived in the country. Once the sports council granted recognition to the sport in 2015, there has been a monumental rise in participation levels. He speaks of the previous state championship wherein a whopping 1300+ participants were in attendance. He also speaks about the Pro Panja League started in 2020 which is gaining a lot of popularity in the sporting circles and revolutionising how the sport is viewed in India.
The only issue he sees to the growth of armwrestling is the lack of promotion. He speaks of how he keeps getting messages on his various social media platforms from eager participants asking for details of upcoming competitions to participate in, training camps and on where they could get similar information. “There is a lot of interest surrounding armwrestling for sure. This is because everyone has a feeling that they can do it too, when they see a match,” Rahul says.
When asked to reveal an armwrestling secret to improve one’s chances of winning against an opponent, Rahul advises that it would be favourable to get a higher grip- the knuckles of the index and middle fingers should ideally be positioned in a manner that it faces the direction of the roof. This grip lowers the opponent’s hand giving you the edge over them.
His advice for aspiring arm wrestlers is, “In armwrestling, it isn’t just like lifting weights- there’s another person involved. You must learn to balance. Injuries are common. Only practice makes perfect. I see a lot of people with potential but once they lose in a few competitions, they give up. You must continue to try, it’ll keep getting tougher.” He remembers a time when he started off when he would consistently lose but his will to survive and thrive in the sport didn’t die.
Rahul Panicker’s tryst with armwrestling began at the age of fifteen and the path since then has been studded with a fair share of achievements, medals and accolades alongside weaknesses, failures and injuries. However, Rahul’s undying resolve has led him onto the path of becoming an inspiration to an upcoming generation of arm wrestlers across Kerala, India and the world- and it’s only just the beginning..