The Last Wrestlers by Marcus Trower

A seven-stone weakling grapples with the spiritual dimension of wrestling
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Mahatma Gandhi was on a train that stopped at a town near Varanasi when a young man called Nate was enlisted to take him some milk. Gandhi noticed the earth on Nate's forehead and asked him if he was a wrestler. Nate told him he was and offered the milk. Gandhi admired his physique, then gave him the milk first - out of respect.

This story was told to Marcus Trower on the Indian leg of what amounted to a spiritual quest. Like most spiritual quests, there was some pain involved. The proverbial seven-stone weakling, Trower became obsessed with weight training and "the life of the body". He proceeded to kick, punch and throw his way through many martial arts. Then came wrestling. Finding it a dying art in Britain, and wondering whether sport can have any spiritual value, he undertakes a world tour of wrestling hotbeds: India, Mongolia, Nigeria and Brazil. In India, he finds a wrestling caste, the Yadav, and discovers that Indian wrestling's spiritual dimension lies in the preparation, not the competition.

He fears he's suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome until low testosterone levels are diagnosed and treated. Transformed into a pumped-up powerhouse, he views the sport in a radically different way. When propagation of the species depended on hand-to-hand combat, a hormone gave men a boost in the primal contest for female attention - and wrestling, perhaps, is the modern leftovers. In Nigeria, young champions can switch from marriages arranged in boyhood to the girl of their choice.

If wrestling represents the vestigial remains of prehistoric mating rituals, it's also enmeshed in the rhythms of the earth. In Mongolia, he's told about the links between wrestling, herding and milking, before finally finding something of what he's looking for in Brazil. There, the Gracies, a family originally from Scotland, taught an idiosyncratic form of jiu-jitsu that mutated into no-holds-barred ultimate combat. The family patriarch, Carlos, believed the mind had to be trained to control desire. Sadly for Trower, though, over time the ethical core faded, and he finds the sport diminished.

Trower establishes that such an aggressive sport is founded on a collision between testosterone and the human spirit. It's clear that a variety of physical pursuits, if followed in a certain way, can confer "spiritual" benefits, and wrestling is one of them. Jackie Pallo and Mick McManus inhabited a different universe.