Games: On the trail of the abdominal showmen

From the pages of `The Independent' to the stage of the Albert Hall, Binkie Braithwaite - `the Gutfather' - explains the finer points of Barging to William Hartston
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Fourteen months is a long time in Gut Barging. Just over a year ago, few of us had heard of this ancient British recreation, but yesterday night it completed a remarkable return to prominence with its first high- profile international contest, "The Brawl in the Hall", which formed a weighty part of the 21st anniversary concert of The Stranglers at the Royal Albert Hall.

Gut Barging owes its present popularity almost entirely to the efforts of Binkie Braithwaite, 46, a man of no mean gut himself, who first told of the joys of Barging in the pages of the Independent on 30 April 1996. Before that date, you will find no mention of Gut Barging in any modern work of reference. For the traditional sport, in which two men attempt to push each other out of an 8ft by 6ft playing area using only their stomachs, had been driven underground in Victorian times.

"Anthropologically speaking," says Mr Braithwaite, much of whose adult life has been devoted to researching and promoting the art of Gut Barging, "one would have to place Barging somewhere between Sumo wrestling and the Peruvian territorial game of Dungwatt." The concept of two fat men pushing each other across a mat gives it a superficial resemblance to Sumo, he explains, but its strategic delicacy owes more to the Peruvian game.

Having himself participated in Gut Barging in his youth, Mr Braithwaite spent many years in search of some of the legendary figures of the sport - men such as Mick "JCB" McPlank and the northern champion Billy the Tank - with a view to bringing the game back to public notice. The revival only began in earnest, however, after his piece in the Independent appeared. When the nation at large heard of these abdominally immense sportsmen, lathered in engine oil, who scatter Bombay Mix across the canvas before their bouts, they responded with great enthusiasm. More than 100 people wrote to express an interest in participating themselves. "There was even a skinny accountant from Wiltshire who turned up with his own sump oil," Mr Braithwaite remembers. And there were also eight television companies, from Britain and abroad, who wanted to make documentaries on the sport.

One company, from the north-east, even assigned a researcher to try to track down the elusive Billy the Tank, who had not been seen for some 20 years, though occasional rumours still surface of his Gut Barging exploits in seedy locations in Harrogate. The search, however, failed, and it was left to Mr Braithwaite to track down modern Bargers worthy to don the loincloths of past champions.

First among them was the man with the reputation of being the equal of Billy the Tank or any other barger still alive, "Mad Maurice, the Belgian from Melksham". Mad Maurice's mastery of the "Full Johnny Turk" - an explosive barge that removes the opponent from the mat - had made him the most feared man in the game and its unofficial world champion.

When Mad Maurice defeated the Devon champion "Chernobyl" in the first official bout of the modern era last year, his status was confirmed. Indeed his reputation was even enhanced by the manner in which he won the deciding bout with the extremely rare "Norwegian" - a distraction move involving a shout of "Your shoelaces are undone".

Following the publicity gained by that contest, two Belgian journalists turned up for a Gut Barging contest in Trowbridge this year hoping to write a piece on one of their country's most successful sportsmen. They were somewhat disheartened to learn that Mad Maurice, the Belgian from Melksham was not mad, his real name wasn't Maurice, he wasn't Belgian and, strictly speaking, he did not come from Melksham. "But they were real professionals," says Mr Braithwaite, "and they wrote the story anyway."

Yesterday night, Mad Maurice faced a new challenge from Les Cargo, ("the Trifle Tower") representing France, and Fred Zeppelin, the "Sour Kraut" from Germany. "The lady from German television described this name as `most amusing'," said Mr Braithwaite. He admitted, however, to being pleasantly surprised at the upsurge of interest in Barging in Germany where, he tells us, "Gut ist gut" is the motto of the recently formed Wanstrempelnverband of Westphalia.

The contests will be controlled by Guevra Cliff, the "balou" - or official referee - of the recently formed World Gut-Barging Association, a man whose personal experience of refereeing Mad Maurice's bouts has left him with a unique insight into what makes him such a champion: "He's the only man I know," says Mr Cliff thoughtfully, "with the ability to make his belly-button sneer."