Never before have chandeliers been shaken by such a camped up, hammed up display of faux-machismo. Never before have big men in tight, bright shorts paraded themselves for the pleasure of a more unlikely populace. And never has the word ‘superstars’ been used with such barefaced disregard for its meaning.
For this week the Victorian town hall of my very Victorian town played host to that most extraordinary of entertainments: grand slam wrestling.
When the advertisements first went up, disbelief was superseded by ecstatic anticipation, wrestling became the talk of the tea rooms and I exaggerate not when I say that literally dozens turned out for the night of sports-cum-pantomime. My party alone totalled ten, and it was with a willingness to be converted into devotees of a fine martial discipline that we sidled into the hall’s back row of plastic chairs, unperturbed by the fact that almost all the preceding rows were occupied by hyperactive pre-pubescent boys.
We had been promised the international ‘superstars’ of grand slam wrestling, and the pedigree of our line-up was duly incontestable. It included a fat angry Welshman who turned all our stomachs by rolling his; a tall, tanned poser in pink panties, who in a grand gesture of self-sacrificial irony sportingly included ‘sexy’ in his stage name; and an Italian in Roman-evoking red panties, who is the cousin no less of an existing WWE star. And there was a Japanese wrestler, a warrior of such renown that he wore a mask throughout –presumably lest we mobbed him in in a crazed effort to touch famous flesh, and definitely not because he was actually the fat Welshman in disguise. It’s ironic really that his accent betrayed him, as it was the first time all night he’d spoken with perfect diction; prior to this the wrestlers had compensated for the lack of international flavour by endeavouring to make their English as incomprehensible as possible.
Only slightly harder to follow than the dialogue were the rules. There was no preamble for the uninitiated, no explanation of fair or foul play. Yet having now observed wrestling for an entire evening, I feel fairly confident that should a rulebook for grand slam wrestling exist, it would read something like this:
- Upon entering the ring the wrestlers must pose, flex, parry audience heckles and heap patronising abuse upon their opponent. It is also optimal at this point to forward the claim that one is a “real man”.
- The two wrestlers must then lean into one another in a series of skirmishing lock-holds and swinging fists.
- On no account may wrestlers pull their opponents hair, kick their shins or scratch their face.
- When punching, on no account may wrestlers make physical contact.
- Wrestlers must spend most of the ‘fight’ flinging their opponent over their shoulder to the ground or jumping down upon their opponent from the corner of the ring.
- When a wrestler is pinned to the ground he must remain pinned until the umpire has counted to three. If before the count of three the pinned man can raise one arm into the air and make a jazz hand, then the ‘fight’ continues.
- According to protocol, the weaker looking man who is consistently pinned down throughout the ‘fight’ must make an inspiring comeback and knock out his opponent in one attempt to conclude the ‘fight’.
In one match, the unlikely victory went to a local lad whose refusal to appear in panties alone had done nothing to dim the support of the crowd. It was the most blatant fix of the evening, but I was not allowed to express my sense of injustice as towering in front of me, blocking my view of the ring, was the wrestler’s wrestler-sized brother.
And had he not turned on me for turning against the local, I’m sure the children would have.
As I mentioned, the audience was for the most part one of young boys, armed with foam fingers, clamouring around the ring and screaming their lungs out in a fury of blood-lust not seen since the women of Paris decided the guillotine was the ideal spot for a bit of knitting. Goaded by the compere’s false promise that “the louder you scream, the harder they punch”, the children were worked up into a high-pitched frenzy, and many ended up not only wrestling each other in the interval but kicking some of the wrestlers as they marched out to the ring.
It was to the children the wrestlers directed their rhetorical questions of “Who’s the man?”, as children are now apparently to be the determiners of society’s definition of manhood. And it was to the children that the wrestlers directed their abuse, for it’s a man’s life telling little boys to shut up.
Yet for all my cynical reflections I would like to conclude by saying that the wrestlers themselves were perfectly polite, charming gentlemen. I can say this with confidence, as I met them. All of them. When I and the one other volunteer from my party of ten bought a backstage pass and sheepishly joined the back of a queue of children to shuffle past the exhausted wrestlers one by one and get their autographs.
From which I learnt that wrestlers get quite sweaty. And that they buy their panties in America. Whether or not the colour of these pants denotes an ability level like karate belts is still, however, a mystery.