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Tony 'Banger' Walsh
Minding My Own Business
out now


WRESTLING


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Tony Van Den Bergh
The Padded Ring
Mayflower, London
1962
(price: 3/6; 128 pages)

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Graeme Kent
A Pictorial History of Wrestling
Spring, London
1968
(price: 25/-; 320 pages)
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Peter Bills
Sportsviewers Guide:
Wrestling

David & Charles, London
1983
(price: 3.95; 64 pages)

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Joe Jares
Whatever Happened
to Gorgeous George?

Tempo, New York
1974
(price: $1.95; 250 pages)

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Jackie 'Mr TV' Pallo
You Grunt, I'll Groan
Futura, London
1987
(price: 2.50; 128 pages)
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Simon Garfield
The Wrestling
Faber & Faber, New York
1996
(price: 9.99; 230 pages)


It's difficult to avoid the 'when I were a lad' approach to this kind of thing, but ... Wrestling today? You call that wrestling? When I were a lad we had proper wrestling, we did.

Actually the modern American incarnation of the grapple game is probably okay - I don't watch it myself, but if you're a 12-year-old seeing this stuff for the first time, it might well be quite fun. But just as boy bands nowadays are all interchangeable and all seem to spend way too much time hanging out at the gym (compared to the pigeon-chested malnourished types we had in the 1970s), so it seems to me that the sheer variety seems to have been lost in the range of wrestling characters.

What has certainly been lost is the communal TV experience of wrestling. At its peak in the 1970s it got enormous audiences, because it was on at a regular time when nothing else was happening - 4.00pm on a Saturday afternoon towards the back end of World of Sport, just before the football results - and it became a major family event, essential teatime viewing. Even the royal family were reported to be regular viewers.

Then came Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks and the thing began to fall apart. Compared with the real characters, these two were just fat. Very, very fat. And very, very boring. For a brief moment, Big Daddy dragged the sport to even greater heights of popularity by the power of sheer hype, but it was unsustainable - the sport went supernova and then imploded. ITV started messing about with the time slot so you couldn't find it, no new stars came in, and eventually it disappeared altogether, pulled from the schedules by Greg Dyke in 1988. It never returned. Mind you, it had had a 33-year-run on ITV, which was pretty good for a 'sport' of such limited storylines.

The important thing is to forget the faintly obscene sight of Daddy and Haystacks, and remember the glory years, when every wrestler worth his salt had a gimmick. Remember these?

The Borg Twins - all the way from Malta, identical twins Iggy & Tony, who wore numbers on their vests, so we could tell them apart.
'Crybaby' Jim Breaks - the nickname reflected his tendency to throw a tantrum.
Catweazle - yep, he nicked his image from the TV series.
Alan Kilby - a clean fighter but, in the ultimate gimmick, he was deaf.
'King Kong' Kirk - 'known all over Europe as the One-Man Riot Squad,' according to Kent Walton.
Kung Fu - yep, he nicked his image from the TV series.
Johnny Kwango - the king of the head-butt.
Masambula - the African witchdoctor.
'Ironfist' Clive Myers - later a champion arm-wrestler.
Kendo Nagasaki - the best of all the masked fighters, his specialist move was the Kamikaze Roll.
Adrian Street - the glam rock wrestler, a man so ugly and so incompetent at applying make-up that he made The Sweet look like Marc Bolan.
Billy Two-Rivers - a Native American whose speciality, unsurprisingly, was the Tomahawk Chop.

If you missed all this, of course, there's no way I'll be able to convince you that it was of any interest (let alone value) at all. It sounds stupid, it was stupid, and it appealed predominantly to old women and small children.

Curiously that was exactly the same market that American pro-wrestling had attracted back in heyday at the turn of the 1950s, an era recalled in Whatever Happened To Gorgeous George? The father of author Joe Jares was himself a wrestler (often appearing as Brother Frank, the Mormon Mauler) and Jares has a clear love of the tradition. He also has a neat line in American-style hard-bitten sportswriting that makes this a real joy, even if you don't know the people he's talking about.

At its heart is the legend that was George Raymond Wagner, a man who wore his hair long, blonde and styled, who wore fabulously expensive robes and who entered the ring to the sounds of 'Pomp and Circumstance' to be announced as 'The Human Orchid, Gorgeous George'. Meanwhile his personal valet was busy spraying perfume around the ring, so that the smell of sweat wouldn't upset Georgie. (The perfume was claimed to be Chanel No.10 - twice as good as the normal stuff.) This, you've got to remember, was in the butch post-War atmosphere of the late-1940s. Single-handedly, George turned wrestling into a branch of showbiz. He also inspired a young boxer named Cassius Clay, who figured that he could borrow the outrageous boasting and showmanship and apply it to his own sport. As Muhammad Ali said later:

When he was in the ring, everybody booed and booed. Oh, everybody just booed. And I was mad. And I looked around and I saw everybody was mad. I saw 15,000 people coming to see this man get beat. And I said, this is a gooood idea.

Much of the British wrestling that I grew up with was still under the influence of George (as is much boxing to this day) and none was more in his debt than Adrian Street, who nicked his image wholesale. In Simon Garfield's book there's a fantastic photograph of Street in full lurex glam gear posing with his dad, a South Wales miner, at the pit-head. The juxtaposition is so emblematic of the 1970s that Luke Haines recycled it for the sleeve of the first Black Box Recorder album.

Garfield's book is in fact one of the best things anyone's ever written about the '70s, an oral history of the rise and fall that hears from virtually all the biggest names (save Les Kellet) and revisits most of the feuds and fads. Even if you have only the vaguest of memories of wrestling, you should have a look.

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In contrast to Garfield's in-depth, but ultimately still respectful, tone, Jackie Pallo's book has the atmosphere of a tabloid-exclusive-shock-horror. Apparently, it was resented within the pro ranks, since Pallo was selling trade secrets and telling tales out of class. I find this hard to believe. Because despite the suggestion that is a dropkick-and-tell exposé, Pallo's thesis is essentially that the results were arranged in advance, and:

after all, an element of competition is essential if an activity is to be classified as a 'sport' ... at its best, pro wrestling could only be described as a 'sporting spectacle'. (p.11)

Well, if this all comes as a surprise to you, then I'm surprised at you. Everyone knew it wasn't proper sport - that was never the point. It was highly effective entertainment and the fact that the result was pre-ordained was (a) bloody obvious, and (b) of no consequence whatsoever. When I see a conjuror, I don't believe he's actually using occult powers to do his magic tricks, but it doesn't mean that I lose any respect for him - he's still doing something that I can't and I can still admire his professional abilities.

So it was with wrestling. As Pallo makes clear, the level of precision involved in some of those moves was phenomenal: get a body slam wrong and you've broken the other man's back. The fact that these guys were such great athletes that they could keep this up several nights a week for literally decades (and get paid a pittance for their efforts) was a source of admiration and wonder. And - with the hindsight of today's softer culture - the fact that every single one of them ended up seriously damaged and sometimes crippled is a source of some shame. To think that we considered this entertainment...

Anyway, Pallo's book is a fine read and you probably need this as well as the Garfield volume. Graeme Kent's book is a thorough piece of work, while the others are less essential, but quite sweet nonetheless.


The Grapple Gallery:
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'Crybaby' Jim Breaks
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'Judo' Al Hayes
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Les Kellet
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Mal 'King Kong' Kirk
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Gomez Maximilliano
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Jackie 'Mr TV' Pallo
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Quasimodo
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Mark 'Rollerball' Rocco
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Ricki Starr
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Mick McManus
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Dr Death
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Ian Campbell
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Bert Royal
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Johnny Saint
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Billy Two-Rivers
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Kent Walton


a wrestling novel...

Nothing Barred
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