Brian Ong, a promising wrestling prospect, was tragically killed in the ring while training with The Great Khali in 2001. It was a horrific accident that nearly ended Khali’s career before it began and almost crippled the wrestling promotion he was working for at the time.
The Great Khali: Modest Beginnings
The powerful Dalip Singh Rana, better known worldwide as The Great Khali, grew up in a mountainous area in the rural town of Dhiraina, Himachal Pradesh, in Northern India. As part of the lower caste, there were limited sources of income.
For simplicity’s sake and clarity, Dalip will be referred to as The Great Khali throughout the rest of this piece.
Due to acromegaly (a hormonal syndrome that was responsible for Big Show’s immensity just as it was for Andre the Giant’s), Khali grew to seven-foot-one.
As one of seven siblings, he worked odd jobs like stone cutting to get by and help his family.
Later as a police officer for the state of Punjab in the mid-1990s, he could finally afford his very first TV.
Khali enjoyed watching professional wrestling and believed he could become a grappler.
Discovering Wrestling Through the Help of a Handler
In wrestling, some monster heels don’t merely have managers; they utilize handlers. They are supposedly the only ones who can subdue a wild wrestler prone to get out of control.
One famous example is Kamala, who had Kim Chee trying to control the “Ugandan Giant.” Or perhaps Paul Bearer, who, by showing the Undertaker his mystic urn, could somehow prevent the “Deadman” from further punishing his hapless opponent.
But do some wrestlers outside of kayfabe have actual handlers? If you’re to believe the stories, it seems like The Great Khali did early in his career!
“Dr. Kumar was part of India’s upper caste and privileged class,” noted Buddy Sotello Esq., a heel manager with California-based All-Pro Wrestling (APW) in the early 2000s.
“He found Khali on the streets, taught him to lift weights, and he was utterly uneducated and didn’t know anything when Dr. Kumar dropped him off at APW.
“Khali barely spoke English, and I don’t think he could read either. Finally, Dr. Kumar clarified that the giant man was a THING to him, not a person. I’ve met some people I’ve considered shady characters, but NONE of them were as scary as Dr. Kumar!” confesses Sotello.
Did you know?: Director Barry Blaustein’s 1999 “Beyond the Mat” wrestling documentary briefly featured Roland Alexander and his APW promotion while stressing the rigors of entering the mat game.
Roland Alexander’s All-Pro Wrestling (APW)
Professional wrestlers work with their opponents to put on the best possible show for the crowd. With stiff strikes and high-risk maneuvers, the danger is clear and always present as they seek to suspend people’s disbelief so they can buy into what they are witnessing.
Truly dedicated wrestlers endure years of training and punishment in various professional and semi-professional training schools.
Since 1991, the “APW Boot Camp” and the promotion’s training center – a converted warehouse in a Hayward, California office building nicknamed “The Garage” – was one of wrestling’s premier training schools.
“[APW] sent many guys to the major leagues,” noted Dave Meltzer in his Wrestling Observer Newsletter, “and they’re a lot better-trained than the guys who come out of most schools.”
In an interview with the East Bay Express, wrestling writer and photographer Dr. Mike Lano also offered, “I’ve examined schools around the world, and NorCal’s APW was one of the best.”
Producing talents such as Crash Holly, Spike Dudley, Mark “Bison” Smith, Vic Grimes, Donovan Morgan, Vinny Massaro, Michael Modest, and Sara Del Rey, The Great Khali seemingly was in good hands and hoping for a promising pro wrestling career.
Furthermore, APW regularly brought in top indie stars to further enrich their students’ development.
“Roland had an excellent eye for talent, and wrestling gave him the family he never had,” remembers Buddy Sotello Esq.
“He was like a father figure and a gatekeeper to these kids’ dreams of stardom, but he rarely got credit when his students got hired in WWE, WCW, or NOAH. I think that ate him up inside, and he felt betrayed.”
Sotello continued, “He also thought any mention of him anywhere was a big plus for APW and never understood that there was such a thing as bad publicity. He never stopped bragging about being in ‘Beyond The Mat,’ although he was furious when labeled as a ‘carny’ in the documentary.”
However, in 2001, an accident involving The Great Khali almost crippled Roland Alexander’s APW promotion financially.
Tragic Death of Promising Wrestling Prospect Brian Ong
5’7″, 185 lbs Brian Ong was an aspiring pro wrestler and former amateur wrestler living in Berkeley, California. He was a fellow APW trainee only four months into his boot camp training.
In his e-mail application to enter the APW Boot Camp, Ong wrote, “I am actively working out to compensate [for a] lack of height, and it’s been a dream of mine to have the millions chant for me, or even have them boo me,” adding, “I like suicidal, homicidal, and genocidal aerial moves.”
That was referring to his favorite wrestler Sabu known for his extreme acrobatics and stunts that have left him with debilitating chronic back pain years later.
Reputed to be one of the school’s hardest workers, Brian Ong exuded a fantastic attitude and was always eager to train. He worked as a file clerk for the Deloitte consulting firm during the daytime and hoped that someday, pro wrestling would become his sole job.
At the time, The Great Khali was still very green and unfamiliar with all the nuances of wrestling. His style was described as “stiff and reckless,” and with a minimal grasp of the English spoken to him in the ring, dangers were inherent.
The two wrestlers had less than six months of formal training between them.
Wrestling moves can easily harm a person if done with malicious intent, applied with incorrect technique or if someone is unaware of how to protect themselves.
According to various accounts from that fateful night on May 28th, 2001, Khali wanted to practice the spinebuster and was paired with Brian Ong.
Author Susan Goldsmith of the East Bay Express in 2004 reported, “The first time the two tried it, Brian grabbed Khali’s shirt as he was tossed over the giant’s shoulders. Then, [Vince] Principato (one of APW’s trainers) explained to Brian that he needed to push off his opponent’s back as he was tossed. Khali then performed the move with two others in the gym that night, including one of the trainers, so that Brian could see.
“On the second attempt, he grabbed Khali’s shirt again. This time, his tailbone hit first, and his head whipped back violently against the mat. He didn’t get up. Instead, he turned over, said he was dizzy, and began to moan.
“Nobody thought, ‘Oh, this guy is in really bad shape,'” Principato remembered.
It wasn’t long before it was clear that Ong was indeed in rough shape.
“Brian tried to crawl out of the ring but managed only to get up on all fours, vomit, and then collapse.
“Someone at the gym called 911, and paramedics carted the unconscious wrestler off to St. Rose Hospital in Hayward, where he was pronounced dead on arrival.”
The Alameda County Coroner’s Office would later list Brian Ong’s official cause of death as acute and subdural hemorrhage due to head trauma.
Some sources say it was a flapjack or a variation, followed by another move. Powerbomb is sometimes also mentioned. However, The East Bay Express described the move as a spinebuster.
In an interview with Hannibal TV, retired wrestler Anthony “Tony” Jones, who also went to APW, did not personally witness the incident but revealed what he heard.
“I had been touring Japan at the time. When I returned, I’d heard about an accident at the school.
“Apparently, the kid already had some pre-existing condition or something. That was a horrible scene, and I know Roland [Alexander] took that hard.
“I talked to Roland several times about it, and it’s not anything you ever think will happen in the wrestling business. We go in there night after night, and we take chances, and many of us could have health issues; we don’t know what will happen when we hit that mat. It was a regrettable accident.
“I talked to Khali about it, and he was sorry. I heard it was a flapjack that Brian Ong took, and he over-rotated. You know, with Khali over seven-foot-tall, he over-rotated and landed on his head.”
Brian Ong died on May 28th, 2001. He was only 27 years old.
Flapjacks being performed in WWE:
“I was shaken up. It felt horrible, but what could I have done? I wasn’t going to stop wrestling.”
APW Gets Taken to Court
The family of Brian Ong took the case to court and filed a wrongful-death lawsuit in Almeda County Superior Court. However, since the family believed that The Great Khali inadvertently caused Ong’s death, they went after APW and Roland Alexander instead.
The suit claimed:
“Brian relied on APW to protect his well-being, and the school failed him.
“No one at the school,” the suit alleged, “made any effort to minimize the dangers, even though Brian had sustained a concussion weeks before his death practicing the same move that later killed him. Instead, the Ongs claim Brian’s instructors sent their son back into the ring despite this injury and disregarded his safety.”
The previous concussion, however, was not at the hands of Khali.
APW Owner Denied Wrongdoing
Despite advice from someone close to him, Roland Alexander refused to settle out of court. He remained stubborn and countered that this was a tragic accident in an inherently dangerous sport.
Before enrolling, Roland’s lawyers pointed out that Brian Ong signed a lengthy liability waiver that relieved the school of any responsibility for mishaps.
In essence, the lawyers argued that wrestling is risky, and students understood the risks involved. Brian’s death was APW’s only fatal accident in twelve years of doing business.
The judge agreed with the Ongs that Brian shouldn’t have been allowed to continue after the first concussion, claiming they rushed him back into the ring shortly after with Khali. This action showed negligence on behalf of the APW staff.
According to PWInsider.com, in July 2005, jurors voted unanimously in favor of the Ong family and were rewarded somewhere between $1.3 million and $1.5 million in damages, while Wrestling Inc. reported $2,011,860.
Wrestling and MMA schools in the Bay Area also suffered the consequences when insurance rates soared. As a result, Michael Modest left APW with most of its talent and established Pro Wrestling Iron which had its first show on June 1st, 2001, just a couple of days after Brian’s passing.
The Concussions of Brian Ong
While researching this incident, a source close to APW, who wishes to remain anonymous, asserted that Brian Ong had previously been banned from Karate Tournaments due to five concussions he had suffered but did not reveal this in his APW application or interview.
“Because of their limited training, Khali and Brian Ong should have never been put in the ring together,” the source admitted.
“I wonder if APW knew about Brian’s past concussions? Knowing what we know now, I wonder if they would still have had him working with Khali.
“There was high pressure to keep students in the school and generate money from them because the shows weren’t keeping the lights on; student money kept APW open during that era.”
Furthermore, the source from APW doesn’t believe they could ever collect anything from Roland Alexander, who, on Episode #89 of Colt Cabana’s Art of Wrestling podcast, claimed that APW’s liability insurance covered the judgment. According to the source from APW, this was $500,000. Roland himself was to pay around $200,000.
“He/the school was on the hook for $200,000, and he shuffled around the books to show he couldn’t pay it.
“Roland may not have been a financial genius, but he was a former accountant and knew how to cook the books well enough to dodge the IRS year after year and debt collectors, including the Ongs. He somehow delayed the case for months, too.
“Roland Alexander died on November 5th, 2013, in his recliner in a rundown low-rent apartment in Hayward, California, with the wrestler Larry Blackwell as his roommate. He no longer had a dime in his name. Everything he owned, he had borrowed, owed money on, or got a loan for.”
A Secret Amongst Brothers That Proved Fatal
The East Bay Express also mentioned that Brian Ong’s parents, Norman and May Ong, didn’t learn of their son’s obsession until the night he died. They didn’t even know about his enrollment in the school where he’d spent at least two nights a week for months.
In legal testimony, Brian’s younger brother, Edwin, said his brother had sworn him to secrecy because he didn’t want to upset their parents. Edwin claimed that Brian planned to tell his parents about his true career ambition when he signed his first professional wrestling contract.
In his legal testimony, Edwin Ong said he and his brother would watch wrestling on television as young children growing up in Walnut Creek.
Their parents couldn’t understand its allure. May Ong, who is a Chinese immigrant, would ask in her strong accent, “Why you watch that stupid thing?” Edwin recalled.
As Brian got older, according to his brother Edwin, Brian kept his passion for wrestling to himself. “He did not want to worry my parents,” the younger Ong said.
The Great Khali Carves His Footprint During the Ruthless Aggression Era
After only a few months in APW, WCW signed The Great Khali, but he never made a TV appearance. WCW then closed on March 26th, 2001.
Khali would return to NorCal’s APW, and Brian Ong would die two months afterward while training with him.
In late 2001, Mexico and mainly Japan brought in Khali as Giant Singh. In NJPW, he and former basketball player Giant Silva formed “Club 7”, the tallest tag team in wrestling, each billed at 7’1 and 7’2, respectively.
Then, according to Khali, WWE signed him in 2005 and sent a limousine to pick him up at the premiere of The Longest Yard, a movie where he had played the role of Turley.
Once signed, WWE sent him to their developmental promotion, Deep South Wrestling in Georgia.
Under WWE’s guidelines on what they looked for in their talent to move them to the main roster, Jody Hamilton, one-half of the famous Assassins tag team which dominated the wrestling territories for decades, owned and ran the promotion. He helped further Khali’s training and aided in refining his limited ring repertoire.
In short order, WWE unleashed The Great Khali onto the main roster, where he wrestled on SmackDown!, and later Raw, and then the newly resurrected ECW.
With indescribable strength and a formidable height and weight advantage over everyone else, the company pushed him as an unstoppable monster guided by his manager Daivari and later translator Ranjin Singh.
Thanks to his mouthpieces, and plenty of Khali’s unintelligible roaring, we were promised an end to the Undertaker’s dominance.
Khali steamrolled over opponents like Funaki, Rey Mysterio, and anybody who crossed his path.
WWE continued positioning Khali as a giant and the only person capable of toppling the Undertaker and winning the world heavyweight championship.
Although he never cleanly defeated the Undertaker in the end, he did become WWE’s first Indian-born champion on the July 20th, 2007, edition of SmackDown! by winning a 20-man battle royal after former champion Edge vacated the title due to a legitimate injury.
Curiously, Khali, when raising the belt in victory, would display it upside down.
His 61-day landmark title reign ended after losing in a triple-threat match vs. Rey Mysterio and Batista, where Batista became the new world champion after taking Khali down with a spinebuster at the Great American Bash.
“Once he was signed to WWE and making the big bucks, Dr. Kumar and Roland Alexander wanted a piece of that money as both claimed ownership of Khali’s success. But I’m not sure if either obtained what they wanted,” said Buddy Sotello Esq.
“I never thought I would become a global icon.”
– The Great Khali
We all know professional wrestling has inherent risks. Not everyone can take those hellacious bumps night after night we see on TV. That and the treacherous life on the road for indie wrestlers that sometimes brings in a couple of dollars, if lucky.
There’s that infamous “hot dog and a handshake,” which won’t pay your bills anytime soon.
Thus, there is no way to know how successful Brian Ong would have been. Although the courts awarded his family a hefty sum, no amount of money can ease the pain of a deceased family member.
On the other hand, The Great Khali has flourished and has an estimated net worth of 6 million dollars.
In 2015, Khali founded his Continental Wrestling Entertainment (CWE) promotion, and two of his students, Dilsher Shanky and Kavita Devi, went on to work for WWE.
Despite his physical limitations in the ring, Khali was enshrined in the WWE Hall of Fame class of 2021.
He now lives in India, where he enjoys a celebrity status rare amongst its current 1.3 billion inhabitants.
You never know what will happen when people’s paths cross. In the tragic case of The Great Khali and Brian Ong, one climbed to the top of the wrestling world while the other’s dream grimly died in a warehouse.
These stories may also interest you:
- Big Show and Great Khali – Their Real-Life Backstage Brawl
- Bobby Lashley – The Freak Accident That Almost Ended Tragically
- Janet Boyer Wolfe – A Promising Career Tragically Cut Short
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