It sounds like a very Scottish success story. A bit odd, a bit implausible, a bit bonkers. We get ourselves a world champion but guess what? It’s in the sport, if it’s even a sport at all, which involves the most social-undistancing.
Yes, wrestling. So I don’t know how Drew McIntyre has pulled this off but acclaim him we must. Good news is urgently needed right now and the big guy from Ayr delivers. He’s the first in Britain, not just Scotland, to call himself the best on the planet. His triumph came last week in a Florida arena cleared of spectators because of Covid-19. Wrestling in the time of coronavirus, you might call it, although hasn’t that already been the title of a book?
McIntyre inhabits WWE, which you may know stands for World Wrestling Entertainment – but beyond that? Same here. I’m not one of the hundreds of millions who watch on television. I cannot, though, feign complete ignorance about wrestling or adopt a superior, dismissive tone in any discussion about it or pretend that the sight of a man in a leotard sitting on the head of another did not once move me. It did.
The snobbery about wrestling was originally a snobbery about ITV. Wrestling goes right back to the beginnings of recorded history. There are cave drawings in France that are 15,000 years old and show holds also used when wrestling dominated the Olympics of Ancient Greece. There’s even a report of a wrestling bout in the Old Testament, Jacob and his opponent tangling by a stream “until the breaking of the day”. The other guy? Accounts differ but it might have been God. Then along came Dickie Davies ...
Dickie presented World of Sport, ITV’s answer to the BBC’s Grandstand but really a junk shop of nearly-sports and never-sports like stock-car racing, ten-pin bowling … and wrestling. My father was a BBC producer, the Beeb dominated the household, leading lights of Beeb Scotland like Alastair Milne came to dinner, so of course I wondered what the second – and later third – button on the imitation-teak set was for.
I can’t claim that ITV was banned outright but it was best watched when Dad wasn’t around otherwise he’d just talk over the programmes, making sarcastic comments, or worse: challenge me to say what I liked about the bright and brassy commercial network. What I liked were Susan Stranks in Magpie and Alexandra Bastedo in The Champions and especially Penny Spencer in Please Sir! but wasn’t sure my reasons for watching would amount to the considered critique he wanted. So on Saturday afternoons, when Dad was around, I thought it best to nip next door on the pretext of playing football with my friend Mark in his garden. The reality was we were firmly installed on the shag-pile rug in his folks’ living-room waiting with panting anticipation for the announcement: “Greetings, grapple fans!”
We were ten years old, the same age as McIntyre when he got into wrestling. It’s unlikely, though, that he was digging up old footage of our favourites: Jackie Pallo, Mick McManus, Les Kellett and of course the larger-than-life twosome, Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks.
What was it we liked about wrestling in the early 1970s? The anarchy, the prospect of world collapse. The chance of one of the wrestlers flying out of the ring, the chance of Catweazle’s false teeth flying out of the ring. The referee might get accidentally clobbered, or a granny in the front row would deliberately clobber the guy leathering her favourite.
Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling
Mark and I tried to copy the moves on the shag-pile. Later, we signed up for judo together but it was too disciplined. The Olympics version of wrestling was boring. Where was Jim “Cry Baby” Breaks who hated it when an opponent touched his ears? Back at home, back on BBC2, Ken Russell’s film of DH Lawrence’s Women in Love featured Oliver Reed and Alan Bates wrestling naked in front of a roaring fire. The following Saturday Mark and I discussed the actors’ techniques. Ignorant of the homoerotic subtext, we agreed the bout would have been far more enjoyable if one of them had fallen into the fire, better still both.
In later years, acquiring more sophisticated tastes (ha ha), I maintained my interest in wrestling. I bought Simon Garfield’s terrific book, The Wrestling, and interviewed the rock musician Luke Haines about his terrific wrestling concept album, Nine and a Half Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling.
Another who had to watch wrestling in a different house, Haines spoke sympathetically of the great, galumphing exponents “straining for cultural references and not quite managing to grasp them”. Catweazle looked nothing like the children’s character – and why didn’t he just use his real name, Gary Cooper? Adrian Street, dubbed “the glam-rock wrestler”, wondered: “What’s glam-rock?” Kendo Nagasaki’s real identity remained a sweet mystery until he was rumbled by a plumber who came round to fix his central heating. “These were heroic failures,” added Haines. “The wrestlers were ordinary guys working without an internet.”
This is a far less innocent age and wrestling, measured as a brand, is bigger than football’s Champions League, although I don’t know a single person who watches WWE. Still, that does not lessen my admiration for Drew McIntyre.
But I do wonder: how did he handle what you might call wrestling’s elephant in the room? This is the revelation – worse than Big Daddy’s real name being Shirley Crabtree and right up there with (spoiler alert, kids) Santa Claus not being real – that wrestling is scripted. My father told me and when I relayed it to Mark he said with petted lip: “I’m sorry, but I can’t be your friend anymore.”