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In the autumn I went along with my dad to Runcorn Wrestling Alliance’s training gym and on the train we talked about his glory days. He told the same stories most of the time. There was Terrible Ted the wrestling bear who he would drive around in the back of his pink Cadillac. I wasn’t sure if a bear could fit in the back of a muscle car but I had seen match reports and pictures of wrestling bears from the period.
“You have to get them as pup,” he said. “Before they open their eyes and then they’ll find you’re its mother.”
“What did you do with the claws?” I asked.
“They can be trimmed down and you’d make sure they were well fed before you went out with them but bears love to wrestle.”
He smiled with longing for the bear as if it were an old friend.
Once in a bar he had shown his wrestling pictures to a barmaid on his smart phone. She was interested up until she saw the images of bear and called out the animal cruelty and distress caused by removing the pup from its mother. Dad was hurt by the comments and reacted by reaffirming how much bears love to wrestle and how well cared for they were. Terrible Ted even had his own rider and demanded a bucket of cola before every match. He was a bigger attraction and better paid then most of the boys.
Dad believed this regardless of whether it was true or not.
I wondered what would have happened if our timelines had been switched? If I was born in 1943 and he 1985. If he grew up under my influence rather than his. Dad passed his eleven plus but was too socially awkward to do well at school. His Asperger’s wasn’t diagnosed until he was in his seventies. He was an autodidact and had picked up bits of Latin, an interest in Roman history and a deep knowledge of British heraldry. If I was born back then with five siblings who were each sent out into the forces or to boarding school, what trajectory would my life have followed?
We changed at Manchester and headed on for Runcorn where we caught a taxi at the station to the community centre where I could see boys hauling in parts of a wrestling ring through the fire doors from the back of a van.
Dad struggled out of the taxi, slipped a polo in his mouth and lit a cigarette.
“I’ll just have this and then we’ll go in,” he said.
He told me he wasn’t a smoker and he didn’t inhale. Yet he still had to sneak between carriages on the train to smoke out of the window on the way here. Whenever anybody caught him not abiding by the rules he would just stare at them with a blank expression in his eyes, rarely would he react or get angry and whoever was dealing with him would soon not know what to do.
I stood beside him, still smaller, with a pair of running shoes, Lonsdale jogging bottoms and a polo shirt in my rucksack.
There’s a photo of me and my dad in the mid eighties. I’m dressed in some crazy outfit mum had configured for me with ankle boots, oversized shorts and braces. Dad is standing behind me leaning on his red Ford Cortina. He’s more than double my height, shaven headed, in a black T-shirt and jeans with a tattoo of a Rottweiler half-hidden beneath a gold watch. However much changes between us, or how gradually frail and shorter he becomes, this will always be how I see our relationship. While the body changes, this is who we were on some deeper symbolic level of meaning. Man and boy.
I didn’t know what to expect? I still maintained the faint desire to have a go in the ring and it remained an unfulfilled ambition. There was that and also the feeling that I didn’t care any more. Nothing mattered to me. The sheer silliness and ridiculousness of wrestling appealed to me. But now I was here, sober and feeling anxious, with my belly cramping and the feeling I was going to shit myself.
“Do you know what we’re gonna do?” I asked.
“Just get in there and have a roll around.”
When we went inside most of the attention was directed at Dad who had hands to shake and people who wanted to introduce themselves to him. I stood by the door holding my rucksack by the strap before finding a toilet to get changed in. After a discussion with Andy Baker, the wrestler who was running the promotion, it seemed that Dad was here to lead a seminar as a guest trainer but he was unaware of this. “Just do what you normally do and I’ll chip in,” he said.
Andy began warming up the trainees who were mostly boys from the nearby Grangeway Estate.
What was I supposed to join in?
Dad had led me to believe I was ready to jump in the ring and start calling matches, and this wasn’t the feeling I was getting from the boys, perhaps this was how they did things in the sixties but not now.
Andy, who looked like a more jacked version of Leila’s boyfriend Sam, with his slightly receding hair and toothpaste commercial teeth and manly stubble, got them started with some light cardio drills and moved onto squats and push ups. I joined in but quickly felt myself lagging behind, my quads were stiff after about twenty squats and I stopped before it got too embarrassing. Dad was watching by the ring.
I joined him, ran my hand along the canvas of the ring apron, then patted it. The canvas was rough and tightly packed over the ring by a system of bungees around the ring frame beneath.
“Jump in,” Dad said. “They won’t mind.”
I looked around. Andy cast a gaze in our direction.
“I don’t know. I feel like you’re not allowed in the ring. It’s some sort of threshold.”
“Suit yourself,” he said.
I patted the canvas again, feeling the heavy mats beneath. It definitely wasn’t soft. Pulling the bottom rope toward me the tautness barely gave an inch. This was hard rope. I don’t know what else I thought it would be? I didn’t fancy the thought of running them, the cables lacing your body as you lassoed from one side to another.
While the trainees were dismissed for a drink break Andy came over. “Anything you’d like to do?” he asked.
“He’s a good wrestler,” Dad interrupted. “We’ve only gone through the basics but it won’t take much to get him ring ready.”
“That was years ago,” I said. “And it was really basic.”
Please, I thought. Stop telling this guy I know what I’m doing.
“Alright then. How about you just go over some stuff with Dave?”
“Sounds good,” I replied.
Going over some basics with whoever Dave the Wrestler was sounded better than climbing in the ring with somebody even though, really, this is what I had come here for. I had never set foot in one. There it was, a few feet away, a theme park I could climb into and perform the simulations I reenacted in the playing fields at school in the late nineties.
Andy called over to Dave and a big guy who was probably about my age, heavily stubbled with the lightly hippy look of somebody who had been on the Manchester alternative club scene, led me to a judo mat go over the basics.
“Do you know how to lock up?” he said.
I told him I did and then proceeded to lunge at him with my arms clawing out around his shoulders and arms.
“That was alright,” he said. “But a bit rough.”
Watch, he said. I looked at his footwork. His right foot was forward in a split-legged stance. His arms were crooked and palms open by his sides. I copied, replicating the stance and the intensity on his face.
“You take a big step in with your left leg and your left arms goes around their neck like this.” He did as he said, lunging in and then securing the nape of my neck in his cupped hand. “Your right hand then pushes into their bicep like this.”
This combination meant that it seemed logical for my hand to reach round and cup his neck while my right secured his biceps. We pushed against one another, becoming the image of Grecian sculpture, bronzed in endless struggle, wrestlers. We repeated the collar-and-elbow position for the next half an hour or so, taking deeper steps back, lunging in with more attack until we heard the smack of our clashing bodies.
Why hadn’t Dad told me any of this stuff? Maybe he had and I had forgot. I still remembered all the holds and the reversals, how to pull a punch, how to bump, but this lock-up was the most basic position in pro wrestling and I doubted the thoroughness of my learning.
What else didn’t I know?
Across the room I could see guys going over running sequences in the ring. Somebody would take a headlock, the other guy would slingshot them into the ropes to escape. Instead of simply stopping, the wrestler who was sling-shotted ran across across the ring where he hit the facing ropes and came back running toward his opponent who throws himself at his feet. I never quite understood this – it’s something you see in wrestling all of the time – one of the conventions that defies logic and reveals the artifice. Why would the guy lay down in front of the guy for him to just run over him and hit the other ropes? The idea was that the manoeuvre, known as a “sleep” was once an offensive move in pro wrestling. Wrestlers would fling their bodies sideways at the legs of an incoming opponent in order to trip them. In time, wrestlers got “wise” to this and began evading the trip by leaping over it. An alternative interpretation I’d read in a wrestling forum was that the sleep was intended to be an evasion itself. Seeing their opponent catapulting toward them from the ropes the wrestler had no choice but to evade them by “sleeping” on the floor. But how plausible was this? Who evades an oncoming three-hundred pound man who’s out to batter you by laying on the floor in front of them? Don’t worry about it, it’s fake for God’s sake, it’s only wrestling was the kind of reply I was used to. Why did it matter to me? Pro wrestling was clearly staged and looked nothing like a fight in its own right, why was I so drawn to those wrestlers who did make the effort to conceal the cracks in narrative logic? After the wrestler slept and his opponent leaped over him he came off the facing ropes again and this time the wrestler leapfrogged his opponent – supported by the opponent ducking his own head – rather than simply headbutt the guy in the balls. This final time the opponent comes off the ropes the wrestler leaped up into the air and donkey-kicked him in the chest. Why wouldn’t the guy just have headbutted him in the balls? The sequence was once of the most popular in wrestling. I didn’t know what it was called but I had seen countless variations. Sometimes the manoeuvre at the end was different, it could be a succession of moves or lead into another sequence known as high spots.But what irked me was the sleep followed by a leapfrog as if to completely destroy any kind of plausibility.
“Anything else you want to try?” Dave asked. I told him I didn’t know what I was doing and for him to teach me everything again from beginner level. I looked around at the wrestlers planning matches and going over sequences. Dad had always told me wrestlers called matches in the ring when he wrestled. They would constantly communicate and improvise high spots in response to the crowd. If the crowd were down, they’d get them up with some action. If the crowd preferred hold for hold wrestling, they’d give them wrestling. Yet the kids here seemed to be planning matches move for move. Dad was trained in 1966 in by Steve Rickard. In the great age of kayfabe, many fans didn’t know for sure if wrestling was fake or not. There was a lot of confusion, often wilful, about what was fake and what wasn’t. This meant the in-ring style could be more hold based and realistic. There wasn’t as much flying around as there is now. Nobody did rococo sequences as they looked collaborative and gave the game away. In the forty years since, with the secrets of the business being much more open, with international styles of wrestling becoming known to one another and fans being more deeply educated in the conventions of pro wrestling, the in-ring performances had become more maximalist and intricate.
The next hours passed with me learning basic throws and knock-downs. The mechanics would be demonstrated and then Dave would find a passing trainee and we would repeatedly drill the movements. A trainee would run at me and I had to knock them down with a nearly-straight outstretched arm called a clothesline. The trainee would feel my contact and fall to the floor. I had to count my steps and turn at the precise moment he would roll to his right, enabling us to return to our exact starting positions and repeat the movement.
When my forearm was red from smashing trainees, Dave decided it was my turn to run some drills in the ring. I wanted nothing more than to get in there and let my fantasies run wild. But it also meant standing up in front of everybody and revealing how bad a wrestler the son of Earl Black was. Dave showed me how to run the ropes by planting your standing foot, making a pivot, falling into the top ropes with your mid back and then bounding in three measured steps across the ring before pivoting and repeating the process. While the timing and pacing were difficult to get right, what was harder was the ropes themselves against the tender flesh of my upper and mid back. I don’t know why this surprised me? Maybe it was how implausible rope running looked in terms of a fight but the actual physics of it were painful. The ropes were hard. Taunted by the wingnuts of the turnbuckles and the tension applied to the structure by ratchets and cabling beneath the ring. What’s more, it wasn’t enough to glance the ropes as you came off them. The propulsion was real. What you needed to do was attack the ropes. But this meant throwing your back into the cheesewire whilst remembering your footwork and whatever high spot you were supposed to be running at that moment.
When I just about had the hang of rope-running in an old-man-walking kind of way, Dave introduced the sleeps and leaps I had earlier derided. Had he read my mind? Was my dislike of them so obvious? I had to do thirty in total, seamlessly, sleeping and leaping while my opponent ran the ropes back and forth. I got halfway and collapsed. I felt a little dizzy and my skin whitened. My heart beating hard, I panted, pissing sweat.
I sat in a squat and closed my eyes.
“You blown?” Dave laughed.
Dad was looking on.
“Now you know what if feel like to be a wrestler!” he said.
Then he pointed his camera at me and started taking snaps. I didn’t feel like these would be the most flattering photos but didn’t have the reserves to shield my face or get out of the way.
How could I have got so out of shape?
When I was training with Dad in the field all those years before, I played football three or four times a week to the point where I worried it was stopping me gaining muscle. I would do four workouts a week on the weights, not lifting heavy, more high-intensity circuit training. I was lean, hard bodied, with a six-pack.
Once the session had finished all the trainees sat crossed-legged on the mats and Andy invited Dad over to talk about how to make it as a wrestler and to take any questions. Dad told his favourite stories. His greatest hits consisted of the riot in Jakarta airport, getting his head tangled in the ropes and a woman wrestler running to the ring from backstage to knock him out with one punch and stop him struggling and going to see the promoter Stu Hart while he “stretched” young trainees in his basement gym known as “the dungeon”, the screams heard all around the house. He told them not to worry about getting six-packs and to eat meat, fish, eggs and cheese and plenty of it. He didn’t always seem aware of what his audience wanted from him and struggled with specifics or to remember exactly what things were like back in the sixties. “I’ve been hit in the head with too many steel chairs!” He laughed then talked about how wrestlers today use too many moves and throw too many punches. “The more punches the less it means,” he said. “The more you expose how bent it is.”
I said nothing, watched from the sidelines and thought about how good this felt. Seeing Dad in his element. Talking about the glory days. Instead of making my own I had become dissociated from spontaneity, the originality of our family trade, the aliveness of being in the ring, of having a body and performing. After he had finished the boys formed a queue around the gym and took it in turn to shake his hand and thank him for coming.