British 9-ball ace Raj Hundal is upwardly mobile, rising from the mean streets of West London into pool's elite.
Story by Mike Geffner
Hundal, complete with his trademark black bandana, is one of the most recognizable figures in professional pool.
The bandana - the stark black one that covers Raj Hundal's head his every public moment and makes him arguably the most distinctive-looking pool player on the planet - is not some mere fashion statement.
It is a part of his religious tradition, as well as a symbol of who he is at his core.
"I'm a Sikh," the man with Indian Punjab roots is saying to me over lunch recently in a downtown Manhattan coffeehouse, where he's munching on a chicken panini sandwich and sipping on a vanilla latte. "We're the freedom fighters, the men who stood on the frontline of the battlefield. It's in my blood. It's in my gene structure. In fact, my granddad was a captain in the Indian army."
We're in a cramped, creaky-wood, funky Bohemian hangout called the Mudspot Café, its air consumed with the sweetly-caffeinated scent of freshly roasted coffee beans and toasted butter croissants.
With torn, faded jeans all around him, Hundal, 27, is wearing a black Paul Smith corduroy blazer, under which is a black Mark Ecko T-shirt that across the front has the image of a ghostly-looking skull and a mass of words so tiny you can only make them out on very close inspection.
He makes a point of underlining the first couple of words with his index finger, simultaneously reading them aloud.
"Overcome. Overturn. … Overcome. Overturn."
They are words that appear over and over on this shirt, and they might as well as be Hundal's motto.
"I have a lot of fighting spirit," says Hundal, who, with balled fists, fought his way all through childhood in one of the toughest areas in the United Kingdom. "I know that for sure and I've proven that in my career many times. Even off the table, I'm always fighting for something I believe in."
Indeed, ever since suddenly appearing on the big-time radar screen following his shocking upset over Yang Ching-Shun in the 2005 World Pool Championship, Hundal has become as well known for his back-from-the-dead comebacks and consistent cashes as for his unabashed self-confidence and brash railings about what's stupid about the sport of professional 9-ball - from the soft break to "bucket" pockets to balls dropping into unintended places by pure luck.
He has inspired, in fact, a slew of fiery threads on billiards forums, where some angry posters have gone so far as to refer to him as everything from "the most arrogant **** in the pool world" to simply an "a-hole."
None of which comes as a surprise to Hundal, nor is he apologetic. He'll tell anyone who cares to know that he wasn't born with a filtered tongue or the ability to button his lip, but with a voice that springs forth when it feels the urge, especially when something enrages him.
"I'm definitely outspoken, which can be a problem sometimes," he admits easily with his thick British accent, leaning forward on both elbows. "I definitely ain't a follower. I need to do my thing. I'm very passionate about things. And I guess I'm cocky to a point. I mean, you can rude and be cocky. Or you just can be cocky. It's just confidence and being happy with where you are and what you do."
And the soft break? I can't help but ask.
He sighs, seethes: "Oh, god, that thing bugs me to death, drives me nuts. The [9-ball] break is the one part of the game that's athletic, and you want to take that out of the game? Why don't you make tennis players serve underhanded?"
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