Wrestling in Scotland: Lords of the ring

Wrestling, according to the late French intellectual Roland Barthes, "is not a sport, it's a spectacle." He wrote that in the mid-1950s after extensive research at squalid Parisian bouts. Had he lived long enough to venture into the town halls, sports centres, gyms, pub backrooms and holiday camps of Scotland's central belt, he would today find plenty of punters and wrestlers to put him right.

Wrestling is a sport and a spectacle, they would tell him. Both. It's an athletic discipline that demands speed, strength, physical and mental agility and tolerance of pain. But it's also a flamboyant and faux-violent melodrama of heroes and villains, treachery and redemption, pitched somewhere between Macbeth and Mother Goose. It's complicated, fascinating and weird, and it's happening on any given night in Bathgate, Linwood, Irvine and pretty much any struggling industrial town of the sort The Proclaimers sang about in Letter From America.

British wrestling had its heyday during the World Of Sport era, from the mid-1960s to mid-1980s, when ITV attracted enormous audiences with Saturday-afternoon grapplings between the likes of Big Daddy, Giant Haystacks and the magnificent Dundonian George Kidd. But the domestic scene was eclipsed by the glitzier American stars of the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment). Now, however, a new generation of young Scottish wrestlers, reared on a televisual diet of American wrestling, are fighting for their moment in the spotlight. For many, their ambition is to be discovered by a WWE scout, but others are happy to keep wrestling on home turf.

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The biggest event in the Scottish calendar is the Gathering, which will take place at the Kelvin Hall, Glasgow, on Saturday, with an expected crowd of around 2,000. Top of the bill will be Adrian 'Lionheart' McCallum, defending his Scottish Heavyweight title. McCallum is Scotland's most high-profile and successful wrestler. I first get a look at him backstage in the Sports Caf, on Glasgow's Sauchiehall Street, towards the end of August, when he is preparing to go out and fight. He's 26, lives in East Kilbride and sells mobile phones in a call centre. He is tanned, toned and tattooed, his body hairless and flawless. On the slightest provocation, his biceps leap up like excitable puppies. He's handsome and knows it. "What a poser," says Marti Michaels, the dapper emcee, who is crossing the locker room at the time. "But that's the first rule of wrestling – you've got to know how to pose."

Tonight's event is called After Hours, and draws a crowd with its promise of "blood, sweat and beers". Professional wrestling is a business, so the various Scottish promoters offer different sorts of show to different sorts of audience. The Gathering, promoted by SWA, the Scottish Wrestling Alliance, is suitable for families. After Hours, also an SWA show, is aimed at over-18s and features serious bad language and graphic violence such as wrestlers hitting each other with chairs and even using a can of deodorant as an ersatz flame-thrower. The spectators, numbering somewhere between 75 and 100, include a significant proportion of "smart marks" – wrestler jargon for those who understand that the outcomes of the matches are predetermined.

To make these people suspend their disbelief, the wrestlers go to extremes. Often the match spills out of the ring and on to the floor of the bar, forcing spectators to move out of the way fast. Some aren't quick enough. One young man, perhaps the worse for drink, is knocked to the ground and rises angry and covered in lager. He's ready for a square-go with the offending wrestler but is bundled away by security. Real violence is not encouraged at wrestling shows, though sometimes mistakes are made and someone will get hurt in the ring.

Towards the end of the night, Adam Shame, 'the Paisley Wrecking Machine', receives a blow to the head with a pool cue that leaves him flat out. Dragged away backstage, his head comes up in a huge cartoonish lump. This wasn't supposed to happen. The match was to conclude with Shame getting hit by the pool cue, but there are, apparently, ways of doing that so that it doesn't cause an injury. Not that he's bothered. "It looked good," he grins. "So many people write off wrestling as fake and nobody ever gets hurt. Well, I can handle taking one of them just to prove the doubters wrong. Anyway, I've had worse."

He has had stitches all over his shaved head from various injuries, and two years ago, while wrestling in Bellshill, flipped over the ropes and broke his ankle. It was all floppy and pointing the wrong way round. "Aye," he says, "you can see it on YouTube."

Professional wrestling is "worked". That's how the wrestlers, or workers, as they call themselves, put it. The result of each match is decided before either wrestler steps into the ring, sometimes even years before. Wrestling has been described "a soap opera for men", which is a good analogy as, like TV soaps, it is plotlined. It is the promoter's job to work out the story arcs – which wrestlers will eventually triumph and which will be defeated along the way, and the various grudges and rivalries, twists and angles that go into that. It's a question of making the wrestling as dramatic as possible in order to keep the crowds coming back show after show to discover how things pan out.

Within those larger story arcs are the individual bouts – the equivalent of soap episodes. Within those individual bouts, there is a degree of improvisation, akin to actors making up lines. Sometimes in the locker room just before each match, the wrestlers will practise agreed series of moves, or "spots", but the more experienced performers simply make it up in the ring – "working on the fly" – each in tune with what the other wants to do. They can also talk, furtively, during matches, one perhaps bending down and suggesting a spot while he has the other in a headlock. As Adrian 'Lionheart' McCallum says, "The best way to look at it is that it's a job. You are paid a wage and the end result is what the promoter who is paying you wants to happen. It's really no different from working towards set targets in a regular job, except it's much more fun because you get to throw people about."

This staged aspect of professional wrestling was at one time the sort of thing newspapers loved to expose. Now, what with rugby's "bloodgate" scandal, ball-tampering in cricket and allegations of match-fixing dogging football and snooker, wrestling doesn't look quite so much like the crooked cousin of legitimate sports. In any case, the atmosphere of wrestling matches is so heightened that it's hard to see how anyone could complain about it not being genuine. You might as well grouse about the inauthenticity of an acid trip.

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These days wrestlers are fairly open about their sport being worked, depending on who's asking. But they would rarely admit it to a child, and during shows they can be quite narky about strangers glimpsing the secret world where they are all pals who share a deep bond and Deep Heat. "Christ! Pull that curtain," one shouts backstage at After Hours.

According to Peter Murphy, who is 6ft 3in, tips the scales at over 20 stones, wrestles as Conscience and runs the Scottish Wrestling Alliance, there are two reasons why the matches are worked. "Preservation and money." If the bouts were completely real then serious injuries would be common. Also, the wrestlers would take so long to recover that they wouldn't be able to work often, and so wouldn't be earning. The money isn't great as it is.

Exact fees are kept secret, but between 30-40 for a night's work is said to be common at the lower end of the scale. Some of the better-known wrestlers might get 100 and a hotel room if they have a long way to travel. Often, the fee will do no more than cover the cost of petrol and a meal. That's why almost everyone on the Scottish scene also has a day job. There's a postman, a pub landlord, even a physics teacher in Arbroath, who wrestles as 'Crazy' Craig Byers. Wrestlers with the WWE, by contrast, earn hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.

So no-one in Scotland is in this for the money. The appeal seems to be the buzz from the crowd and the ability to slough off your own workaday identity and assume a colourful wrestling personality. As Peter Murphy puts it, "You get to be a superhero for a couple of hours a week."

Adam Shame, 29, whose real name is Adam Alexander, always makes sure he has time alone backstage to transform into his wrestling alter-ego. He changes his breathing, speeds his heart rate, psychs himself up. "It's like turning into the Incredible Hulk," he says. Wrestlers will perform as either hero or villain, "face" or "heel", the decision made by whoever is promoting the show. The promoter may take into account the personality of the wrestler. Scott 'the Butcher' Renwick – "I'm not a butcher, to be honest, I'm a meat processor, but that wouldn't go doon as well as a wrestler's name" – tried to play the heel but couldn't stop smiling, so now he's a face. The 25-year-old from Livingston was simply miscast.

In addition to being divided into faces and heels, wrestlers perform as specific characters with some kind of gimmick. Adam Shame is a Paisley hard man, a street brawler. Ditto Kid Fite, except he's from Glasgow. 'Crazy' Craig Byers fights opponents against whom he has no chance, such as Warsaw, a 28-stone masked wrestler who has moved to Scotland from Poland (see, it's not just the bus drivers in Glasgow that are Polish). Barry Miller, all belly and string vest, has some kind of Rab C Nesbitt thing going on.

Often, the wrestlers have an elaborate back-story. For instance, Scott Renwick, according to the SWA website, is supposed to find it cathartic to butcher animals. Often, though, the real-life stories of the wrestlers are much more interesting and inspiring than their invented biographies. "When I was born I had club feet," says Renwick, the rising star of Scottish wrestling. "I've got scars all over my legs because I had to have that many operations. The doctors told my mum and dad I wouldn't be able to walk. So I like the fact that I'm running about, throwing myself around, and proving people wrong. It's a real sense of achievement. It makes you a wee bit happier."

Although they are, to some extent, acting, for many wrestlers their 20 minutes in the ring is when they feel most like their ideal selves. That's why they don't like cynics laughing at wrestling; it's important and meaningful for them. Many of the wrestlers interviewed for this article admitted to having been bullied at school. "I was the runt of my class, the smallest kid there," says Shame, who is now 6ft 3in and built like Paisley Abbey. "I was born premature, weighing only four pounds. So I was always small and skinny growing up. With that and wearing glasses, you are always going to be a target. That made me go back into my shell and become a quiet young boy who spent a lot of time on his own. I would sit and watch all my wrestling tapes and play with my wrestling figures. That's where I escaped the bullying, and was another reason why I wanted to become one of these guys I saw on TV."

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Paul McLaren, 28, from Tillicoultry, wrestles as 'Falcon'. He too was bullied at school. "I'm awffy shy and nervous," he says, "but when I've got the mask and everything on, because they can't see my face, I'm a completely different person. Over the last couple of years, I've become a swimming teacher, working with a lot of kids, and I'm slowly letting 'Falcon' come over more. He's more confident. And just because I'm not wearing the mask doesn't matter. I can switch. I can feel when I'm in 'Falcon' mode or Paul mode. When I need more confidence, I know where to take it from."

To go from runt to grunting muscle-man takes a lot of hours in the gym and a great deal of training. It used to be that prospective pro-wrestlers would have to go to England to learn the moves, but there are now a few training schools in Scotland. One of these, Area 52, is run by Peter Murphy's Scottish Wrestling Alliance, on an industrial estate in Linwood, between a Chinese takeaway and a made-to-measure blinds showroom. Graffiti all over the walls bears the names of alumni including Shame. There are a few rusty weights lying around and Saltire bunting strung across the ceiling between two steel beams. It doesn't look like much, but this space is a crucible, a transforming space, and for some a kind of sanctuary. "Once you walk through the doors you forget about your troubles," Scott Renwick tells me. "You're just thinking about wrestling. You don't have to worry about loans, money. Just go in there, do your stuff and come out with a big smile on your face."

On a chilly Wednesday evening there are nine people at Area 52, including myself. The session is led by Peter Murphy, who is keen that I take part so that I better understand how hard everyone works. I want to know what wrestling feels like. Wrestlers really do hit each other and really do get knocked around. At After Hours, when a wrestler stamps on an opponent, it is sometimes possible to see the print of his boot on the flesh. Clearly, it does hurt, and it seems important to get a sense of that.

Even after the extensive warm-up, I already feel like death warmed up, left to cool then microwaved as part of a light supper. And the actual wrestling is challenging, to say the least. First of all, I am invited to "throw a Clothesline" against Damian O'Conor, a young 6ft 2in Irishman with size 14 feet. This involves running towards him and striking him across the chest with my left arm. It's like hitting the Blarney Stone, except afterwards I don't feel much like talking. Apologies for the Oirish clich, but O'Conor wouldn't care. He's really called Damian Mackle, but chose O'Conor because it sounds more Irish. His nationality is his gimmick. He wears a shamrock on his chest and wrestles as a heel. "It's very easy in Scotland," he says. "You come out wearing green and already half the audience are antagonistic towards you."

What do people shout at him? "'Go home tattie picker!' Every racist slur you can imagine. To be honest, I love it."

We practise the Clothesline for a while, and the wrestlers get their chance to do it to me – which is interesting at first, although the novelty wears off by the fifth time I feel my head snap backwards and smack into the mat. After explaining the Steven Seagalish delights of the Spinning Back Elbow, O'Conor asks me to attempt a Cross Body and throw myself upwards and against him. Afterwards, in the photographs, this looks quite impressive, I think, but at the time I feel like Olive Oyl leaping into the arms of Popeye.

"Are you up for being pressed?" Peter Murphy asks next, as if I am a grape. "What do you weigh?"

I tell him about ten and a half stones. "Right," he nods. "Just slightly more than lunch."

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He lifts me in two hands right above his head. This is the first part of the Gorilla Press. Happily, he doesn't demonstrate the second part, which would involve throwing me to the ground. Still, after an hour and a quarter of this, I'm soaked in sweat – my own and other people's. It's easy to understand how wrestlers grow so close so quickly. Fighting, or even just training to fight, is incredibly intimate. As Renwick explains, it's all based on trust. The more you trust and like the person you are fighting, the harder you are likely to hit them. Wrestlers grow to understand each other's tolerances and to trust that their opponent will fight hard but safely. That's the key thing. Area 52 teaches people how to do all these impressive-looking combat moves, but it also emphasises how to fall safely and exactly where to land blows.

Still, things can go wrong. Nikki Storm, one of the wrestlers at Area 52, has a stookie on her right hand. She broke it in training recently. A move went wrong and it just snapped. She is 20, 5ft 1in, and her real name is Nicola Glencross. She's a Glaswegian in her third year of a history degree.

The Scottish pro-wrestling scene is small, maybe only 100 or so people, and female wrestlers are a minority within a minority. As a result, Storm fights men as well as women. "I don't mind who I wrestle as long as I wrestle," she says. "But I think you can get further if you wrestle girls. A lot of people in the audience, and some promoters, are uncomfortable watching a girl wrestling a guy. And so that's not good entertainment. I also think two girls wrestling is more of a spectacle."

Not in any kind of cheesy erotic way, though. "In WWE, a lot of it is quite sexualised," she says, "and women wrestlers can be regarded as nothing more than eye candy. They have bra-and-panties matches, and I would never do something like that. It's important to me to prove that girls are as good as guys, and our matches can have the same intensity. I'd love it if people would say, 'Yes, Scotland has got a lot of good female wrestlers.'"

My last glimpse of the Scottish wrestling scene comes one afternoon at the Craig Tara holiday camp, on the coast near Ayr. Through the Funworks Arcade, past the Bonga Wonga Beach Club, the Atlantic Showbar is hoaching by 1.30pm, hundreds of holidaymakers ready for the wrestling show. The bar is selling yards of ale at 3.75, or you can spend your money on big foam hands, two for a fiver. "Let's get ready to rumble!" bellows the emcee. There's a smell of popcorn in the air, and screens at either side of the stage advertise a Clearance Caravan Sale.

The show is being run by 'Bully Boy Briggs', Darren Ryder, a plump 38-year-old taxi driver who, some years ago, worked as Big Daddy's tag team partner. The broken heart on the front of his leotard is supposed to symbolise that he's a ladies man, rather than any kind of impending coronary arrest.

Ryder and his wrestlers have spent the summer touring the camps: Craig Tara, Saltcoats, Seton Sands, Haggerston Castle. It pays the bills and they enjoy the reaction from the kids and their sometimes bevvied parents.

It's interesting to see how the wrestlers here approach things differently than at After Hours. There's no blood, nobody getting hit with a chair, and only very minor bad language. But Kid Fite, a young Glaswegian in his mid-20s whose real name is Ross Watson, and who was so abusive and aggressive at After Hours, continues to push the envelope here, more or less calling the audience trash. "Aye, well," he says, after the show, "it was only two weeks ago in here that I made a comment about how there was nobody in to watch the wrestling because they were all in their caravans taking methadone. I was politely told that I'd taken it too far and wasn't allowed to say that again."

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Still, no one seems to take Kid Fite's comments to heart, and the families all file out into the teatime sunshine, past the Deal or No Deal gambling machine, feeling entertained. And that's what wrestling is all about. For all its forehead gashes and forearm smashes, it is, at heart, a sentimental business.

One particular moment stays with me. During the Craig Tara show, 'Bully Boy Briggs' contrives to get himself tangled in the ropes, then a wee boy from the audience, wearing in a Mexican wrestling mask, is invited to put down his orange juice, climb into the ring and kick him between the legs. The wrestler receives this blow with a kind of grim joy. "It makes a kid's day, makes their holiday, to be honest," Bully Boy tells me, with what looks like a tear in his eye.

"Oh yes, it's something they'll remember for the rest of their lives."

The Gathering is at Kelvin Hall, Glasgow, on Saturday. Log on to www.scottishwrestling.co.uk for more details