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Trick Or Treat? - The Wrestling

America has turned the traditional Saturday afternoon wrestling bout into a multi-million pound industry that has little to do with the era of Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks. Has this much-loved sport now become too manufactured, conning the kids who idolise today's wrestlers?

It's Friday tea-time, and Edinburgh's Meadowbank Stadium is about to witness something out of the ordinary. The first hint of things to come is when a boy, aged no more than 10, scrambles his way to the box office, a #10 note clutched in his hand, and purchases the last of 2000 tickets for the evening's entertainment. ''American wrestling,'' the kid murmurs, with the emphasis on the word American, because that's what it says on the poster. He's seen the pantomime of WWF on Sky, and felt the adrenaline buzz roar through him when Stone Cold Steve Austin whips The Undertaker, and now he's here to see the real thing - live and kicking.

''Wrestling's full of bull,'' the promoter Orig says to me sincerely while the ring is being put up. ''It's about colour and spectacle. It's all about showbiz.''

No-one's pretending that the grunt 'n' grapple game - as British television commentator Kent Walton used to call it - is about sport anymore. I vaguely remember seeing Orig wrestle in 1971 in the Isle of Man, when I was six. The main event was between The Wild Man of Borneo and Bronco Jack Cassidy, but Orig was somewhere on the bill too. Then, I recall, he was a stern, muscular man, a terrier, solid as a rock. These days he's squatter than he should be, and walks with the broken gait of someone who's been thrown around the mat every night for 30 years. Which, as it happens, turns out to be the case. What I remember most about the Isle of Man, however, is that none of the wrestlers had been on television. There was no Les Kellett or Mick McManus, no Johnny Kwango or Adrian Street. It looked cheap and second-rate, and I wasn't interested.

Like WWF today, British wrestling was king of the television screen in those days. Saturday afternoons at 4pm were sacred moments for battling grannies across the land, who'd sit in the living room equivalent of ringside, urging some northern lad built like a brick outhouse to rip the head off some sour-faced lump made of lard. For others, particularly dads marking time till the football results came on, the wrestling was something to be laughed at, a sideshow, a con. When Greg Dyke - now Director General of the BBC, but then head of ITV sport - axed the institution that television wrestling had become on the grounds of it being too lowbrow, not only was he missing the point, but he was also making the worst decision of his career.

One only has to look to WWF to see what might have been. Promoter Vince McMahon has transformed a one-line joke, low-rent pseudo-cabaret into the hammiest of soap operas, with cartoon sex as well as violence to the fore. So successful has it proved that McMahon is about to make WWF a public concern. This side of the pond, Dyke's lack of foresight meant that British wrestling lost out, too much of an old maid in a shabby dress to ever get glammed-up enough for the corporate ball.

A FEW years after seeing Orig, The Wildman and Bronco Jack the wrestling bug really took hold. Again, it occurred at a northern seaside mecca, this time at the Pier Pavilion, Cleethorpes, on a Sunday night at the fag end of the summer season. ''Tally Ho'' Kaye, an alleged showjumper from Yorkshire, was on the bill as was Catweazle, a tramp in a sack named after a children's television character. The main event though was Kendo Nagasaki versus Big Daddy. Kendo sported a mask, and was led to the ring wearing full Japanese apparel by his manager, Gorgeous George Gillette. Everything was ceremony for Kendo. He tossed salt over either shoulder before disrobing, while George minced in cod huff mode. Big Daddy was everybody's favourite, a big bear of a man who went on to become a household name, a meat and two veg man of the people who was then still only developing his kiddies' favourite persona.

I can't remember who won, but it must have been Kendo, or else he would have had to unmask, as the ever-flexible rules of wrestling decreed. But it didn't matter. I was smitten, and returned to the Pier Pavillion two weeks later to see a grudge tag match with Kendo and George in one corner, and Daddy and the even bigger Giant Haystacks opposing. I didn't know it then, but this was the dawn of British wrestling's last gasp stranglehold on a public in search of the ever-bigger, brasher entertainment, that would finally count it out.

Last time I saw Kendo was on the cover of The Wrestling, Simon Garfield's history of the rise and fall of the British game. By this time Kendo had become an icon. His portrait had been painted by pop artist Peter Blake, and there was still an aura of mystery about him. Inside, Garfield charts the way in which Dyke effectively killed off British wrestling, and how the game had affected both the old timers and the young bucks, who were looking increasingly towards the American market if they were to survive in any way.

Orig didn't like Garfield's book. He says it was wrong to show the game's bad side like that. ''Everyone was at each other's throat,'' he says. ''Promoters like Max Crabtree and Brian Dixon slagging each other off.'' Max Crabtree is Big Daddy's brother, and one-time head of Joint Promotions, who monopolised television wrestling from the early days of ITV. Dixon is an independent promoter who picked up Joint Promotions' scraps, and took over the wrestling at Liverpool Stadium, where my love affair with wrestling continued after Cleethorpes.

Last year, I saw a Brian Dixon promotion at the once thriving Fairfield Halls in Croydon. It was as sad as anything in Garfield's book. Orig, who runs an organisation called IWF, tells me later that Dixon is all but finished now.

''He wouldn't move with the times,'' Orig says. ''You've got to go where the money is." Apparently, Dixon started promoting male strippers in the wake of The Full Monty, but even that business is drying up now. The once lucrative German tournaments are dying too, Orig tells me. It's only the American stuff that matters now.

IT'S just past six but already there's a queue round the block outside Meadowbank. Kids chuck each other about at the bus stop, while long-suffering mums and dads look on. A family affair, anticipation is high, and talk is of Stone Cold Steve, The Rock and The Undertaker, whose photo appeared in the advertising and probably sold the bulk of the tickets tonight. The Hill family have brought their five boys from Dunbar. Pauline Skead has brought her 13-year-old son Christopher, a wrestling fanatic who has collected more than 120 WWF figurines.

Tonight is a surprise for Christopher, who's mentally impaired, but is still smart enough to back a winner according to his mum. ''This is his world,'' Pauline says. ''He used to wrestle his dad, but he ended up giving him a black eye, so that had to stop.'' Orig promises to reserve ringside seats for them. One kid carries a home-made cardboard sign - ''The Undertaker Drools'', it says in red felt tip, with the ink arranged around each letter so it looks like dripping blood.

The dressing room is a far quieter affair. The Iron Duke, an imposing figure with a long blond mullet, is trying to get some kip. He sustained an injury the night before in Girvan, and seems grumpy. In the corner, LOD (Legend Of Doom), who sports a cross between a mohican and a mullet, is applying face make-up in front of a full-length mirror. They're a moody bunch, as suspicious of outsiders, especially press, as Orig was of Simon Garfield. They don't want the wrestling (always the prefix ''the'') talked down and their livelihoods ruined. It's practically Masonic, a man's world of clandestine arrangements, with body holds and linaments replacing secret handshakes. Bull Power, a former body-building prize-winner, preens himself in between dragging on a cigarette. Despite the stars 'n' stripes trunks and the posturing, Power's American accent seems to have been bred during an altogether different civil war than the one between Yankees and Unionists. Maybe that's why no-one's saying much.

In the corner, quietest of all, sits a weedy-looking young lad with a nervous look in his eye. This is Eric, a student from Cambuslang, who rang Orig when he heard the IWF roadshow was coming to town. Eric's been wrestling in his back yard for the last 18 months, and fancies his chances. Tonight he'll be Eric ''The Fist'' Canyon, squaring up to Viking Warrior, a baby-faced barrel not much older than Eric. ''Don't panic,'' Orig tells him. ''Relax.'' Eric looks like he's about to be sick.

''I'm not doing any of those fuckin' nude shots,'' says LOD, leaping out of the shower room past the photographer. ''Since when?'' comes a voice from behind a red mask that has thunderbolts either side. It's on-the-road humour, an unreconstructed machismo borne both from the profession and from being cooped up together in dressing rooms, backs of cars and cheap digs. It's exactly the same on building sites, in Portakabins decorated with porn mag wallpaper, where there's 57 varieties of accent, and where you're nicknamed after where you come from. In America you'd call it blue collar.

Wendy in the merchandise stall is setting up displays of WWF T-shirts and plastic championship belts. Kids can wear Stone Cold Steve and The Undertaker on their chests, but no-one's saying whether they're in the hall or not. Wendy insists on a corner to call her own, and has done ever since Ireland, when she was all but mobbed by 10-year-olds, pinching whatever they could grab. Wendy isn't keen on the wrestling itself. She's looking forward to some peace and quiet tonight while it's on. ''It's not my scene,'' she says.

At a quarter to seven the doors are flung open, and there's a stampede of tiny feet as 2000 pre-teens, high, no doubt, on Sunny Delight, charge into Meadowbank's Hall One. There's a playground feel to things, accentuated by the booming acoustics of what is essentially an over-size gym. A sweet-looking old lady sits by herself near the back. She looks out of place, a left-over from Britain's Seventies boom years, when similarly sweet-looking grannies underwent a frightening metamorphosis into an army of brolly-wielding Amazons. She smiles up at me, and I quake inwardly.

Of course, it could be the excitement. The same excitement I used to get every Friday night at Liverpool Stadium. I'd get there early to catch the wrestlers on the way in, and get their autographs. The Stadium was a big old barn of a place that's since been knocked down. Local boxing hero John Conteh won his world title fight there. The Sex Pistols were booked, and then cancelled, on the ill-fated Anarchy tour. Friday nights though, were for the wrestling. I saw the same Kendo-Big Daddy grudge matches countless times there. It was a revolving morality play. Good versus evil. As black and white as a western. Except with Kendo it was different. He was beyond good and evil, a villain you couldn't help but worship. At one end of The Stadium a gang of lads sat. They were the wrestling's equivalent of The Kop, and chanted for Kendo while everyone else was booing. Kendo had that effect on people.

Inside The Stadium it was ice-cold, and smelt of sweat and hot dogs from the stand outside. I can't go near a hot-dog now without getting butterflies in my stomach.

THE evening is about to begin, and everyone seems to be rushing off in several directions at once. ''Are you ready for American wrestling?'' Orig booms down an inadequate microphone, and Hall One erupts. I'm sitting ringside next to him. On Orig's left is Eric's girlfriend. She keeps a sign beside her - ''The Fist Rocks My World'', it says. Sitting in the front row to my left are Pauline and Christopher.

Orig announces Bull Power as being from Phoenix: ''The strongest man in America.'' He's up against Cain, a masked man remarkably similar to American television star Kane. Orig is commentating as inches away the ring thuds and shakes with the two men's exertions. Cain only has to stamp his feet and the entire hall does likewise. ''Choke Slam! Choke Slam! Choke Slam!'' Orig chants, and 2000 unbroken voices echo back. Again, it's a chant lifted straight from the television. As Bull Power is disqualified, it dawns on me that, in relation to the action, I'm sitting in exactly the same ringside spot as Kent Walton did for 33 years, before Greg Dyke muscled him out. When I was 10, I would have killed to be in this position.

''I wanna tell you a story,'' Orig says down the mic. Kids are starting to run round again as Orig relates the curious tale of how Eric ''The Fist'' Carson, a real live local hero, came to be among us. Bounding in holding a Saltire flag aloft, Eric ''The Fist'' doesn't look so nervous now. In true Scots fashion though, he gets gubbed by Viking Warrior, and it's all over in five minutes. There wasn't even time for Eric's girlfriend to hold up her sign. ''I just stuffed it,'' Eric tells me later. ''Apparently I just froze up as soon as I got in the ring. Undaunted, Eric plans to go back to his backyard. Viking Warrior fights LOD next, with a little help from Bull Power, and a #1000 challenge grudge match is on the cards. ''Asshole!'' chant the kids. That's what they call Vince McMahon on WWF.

Next up is Mad Mike McGregor against another local lad, Chic Cullen. Cullen trained with legendary American wrestling clan, the Harts. On Saturday night Brett Hart will feature in Wrestling With Shadows, a BBC documentary that's ''as bizarre as Kafka and as tragic as Shakespeare'' according to the Ottawa Citizen. Documentary-makers love the wrestling. Only three weeks ago there was film about how a woman wrestler divided her work and home life. Magazines love wrestling too. Tina Brown's Talk magazine ran a lengthy feature on Vince McMahon's forthcoming plans for WWF. The British magazine Bizarre recently had a ''grappling'' issue, with two barely-clothed models tussling on the cover. November's FHM compares and contrasts WWF and old time British wrestling. It's another slice of the thirtysomething, downmarket voyeurism masquerading as post-modernism, that's so beloved by the glossies.

Orig's Meadowbank show falls somewhere between the two, though as the lights go up for the interval, none of that matters. There aren't enough stewards to control the kids, Orig's stern warnings of eviction aren't doing any good, and someone's pulled Bull Powers' trunks down. There's a crush at merchandise that even Wendy can't deal with, and everyone wants a birthday announcement. On top of everything else, the PA's just packed in, effectively silencing Orig's rhetoric.

The main event sees The Iron Duke take on The Undertaker, or a version thereof. When Orig's voice is eventually returned he refers to his organisation as ''the Wrestling Federation'', carefully omitting the international part. No one seems to mind, except that later, after the eight-man Royal Rumble finale, after 20 or so kids have invaded the ring as the hall's being cleared, there are complaints. Some people couldn't see beyond the melee, someone else was accidentally knocked in a ringside scuffle. At the end of the night, money discreetly changes hands between Orig and some punters. Cash only. You'll never see a cheque book at the wrestling.

It's certainly not The Stadium, this American stuff, but then, what is? And what was it that a skinny, soon to be specky kid who couldn't kick a football to save himself loved so much? Was it what Roland Barthes in his essay on the wrestling recognised as ''the emptying out of the interiority to the benefit of its exterior signs'', or was it simpler than that? Was it that for all the wrestling's fakery and elaborate, cartoon-size con tricks, it came from somewhere real, and recognised the need for heroes to fight our battles for us, however low rent they may be.
The Hall boys from Dunbar recognise that, and Christopher probably does too. Which might be why Christopher looks so unimpressed, and why Mum and Dad Hall think it's a rip-off. One of the boys details the differences between Undertakers, and how the real one is ''much bigger, seven feet tall''.

That night there's a film on Channel Five called Can You Keep It Up For A Week? It's Seventies British tack in which young, well-spoken actresses are forever losing their clothes to a hapless, accident-prone Jack the Lad, an altogether different type of hero to the ones I've just seen. The producer of the film is one Elton Hawke, which, give or take a letter, is an anagram of Kent Walton. It's a terrible film, cheap and nasty and full of one-dimensional stereotypes rolling around with each other. It's a crude form of British seaside entertainment that, like the wrestling, has all but died out. The Americans, it seems, do it so much better. I wonder if Greg Dyke is watching, and I wonder what he thinks.

Hitman Hart - Wrestling with Shadows is on BBC2 on Saturday November 6 at 10pm

Sunday Herald Magazine - 31 Oct 1999



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