Gripping stuff

A decade ago when all-in wrestling was still on TV, it boasted bigger audiences than the Cup Final. Now it's struggling to make a comeback, with troupes of teenage grapplers working Britain's holiday camps. Roger Williams goes ringside. Photographs by Darren Regnier
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"Tell them to hurry up," pipes a small voice from the front row. The children's expectations have been high since the confiscation of their water pistols and a rousing lesson in how to boo and cheer.

"Tell them to hurry up?" echoes the MC, Mike Smith. "They'd beat the bleeding crap out of me. They're vicious, evil gits."

Steve Barker, the promoter, winces. He has already grumbled about the MC's use of a two-finger gesture in referring to the large, foam fingers on sale to the fans. "You have to be careful what you say in front of children," he says. "This is a family show."

Into the ring comes the referee, John Dalton, followed by the first contender, Mat "Kid" Jarratt. Jarratt is 18 and wears Union Jack shorts. He slips through the ropes and walks swiftly around the ring with friendly slaps for the children's outstretched hands. He is the "blue eyes", about to square up to the "villain", Danny Royal, 20, who struts into the ring, rubs the stubble of his short hair and says he has to go back to the dressing-room because he hasn't combed it properly. Even the youngest kid in the crowd knows who is to be booed and who cheered.

It's like slipping through a time warp back to wrestling's TV heyday - three falls, one submission or a knockout; drop kicks and body slams, hip throws and head locks, Boston crabs, kidney punches and the forearm smash.

This is Sunday, a bank-holiday weekend, in the club house of Haven's 42-acre Ashcroft caravan park overlooking the Thames Estuary on the Isle of Sheppey. It is the first engagement in a season of matches in Haven caravan sites and holiday camps from Yorkshire to Cornwall.

Members of the newly inaugurated wrestlers' "federation" arrive in a van driven by Scott "The Body" Conway, wrestler, roadie and co-promoter. In the back are all the component parts of the ring. The 200lb corner posts and straining ropes are assembled in a 40-minute exercise that keeps the team fit; it is set up in front of the stage where Tiger Showtime and the Mischief Monkeys usually keep campers entertained. The ceiling is too low for any serious airborne antics: the glitter-ball hook looks lethal.

In his other life, Conway arranges antiques auctions in the south of England. Barker, who comes from nearby Sittingbourne, is a rep for a chocolate company in London. There are half-a-dozen promoters recruiting in England today, and Barker reckons

he has around 60 wrestlers he can call on at any time. On his circuit, wrestlers can expect pounds 10-pounds 15 a fight, with up to three fights a day. Accommodation, but not food, is provided by the holiday camps. There are no contracts; none of the promoters can offer enough money to demand a monopoly on one wrestler's time.

Since it was dropped from the television schedules 10 years ago, all- in wrestling in this country has plummeted in popularity, while in America and Japan the sport has gone from strength to strength, with ever more showmanship and increased danger.

British old-timers look back with nostalgia to the time when "grapple fans" filled the Albert Hall, when 10 million (including, apparently, the Queen) watched it at 4pm every Saturday, and the fight between Mick McManus and Jackie Pallo could attract more viewers than the Cup Final.

It was Greg Dyke, then head of ITV sport, who decreed that wrestling was too dated and too working-class for the new upmarket schedules, effectively cutting the sport's umbilical cord. Without the backing of television and the sponsorship it brought, wrestling went into decline. The voice of compere Kent Walton, familiar from 33 years' service, was heard no more on the box, and, for the wrestlers whose livelihood depended on it, their world collapsed overnight.

Reports of the death of wrestling are, however, exaggerated. There is talk of a revival, of an injection of capital by a new promoter. New talent is being recruited, and classic matches from the Seventies are being re-screened on Sky TV.

Danny Royal, "the pretty boy from Sheerness",

is one of around two-dozen wrestlers who make a full-time living from the sport. He is 20, but looks older, beefier, and is nicer than he makes out in the ring. He is in his fourth season, and his name is becoming known, although, like many others, he laments the fact that a lack of television coverage means he may never be a household name.

There are pressures to make the sport more dangerous. Cage fights, in which the opponents are lowered into the ring behind bars, have resulted in injuries. In Japan, ropes have been on occasion replaced with barbed wire. In the UK, "hard core" fights are following the US pattern promoted by ECW (Extreme Championship Wrestling). Tables and chairs are hurled around; blood flows.

But holiday camps are no place for the breaking of tables over heads, and Danny Royal's fight with Mat "Kid" Jarratt is a lightweight affair, in which Jarratt loses to the villain.

Jarratt is from Cheltenham and in his second year in the game. He attended the Pete Collins School for Wrestling in Bristol, and is proud to say he fought James Mason, the three-times British champion, while he was there. He has a blue mask, which he designed himself and wants to wear, but he is not allowed to put it on (it seems he is not quite good enough yet to be a consummate villain).

The second fight is a creakier affair, between middle-aged Paul Wilson and Scott "The Body" Conway. Jaime Yallup, the 20-year-old entertainments assistant who keeps the children in order, takes over the microphone after Mike the MC goes off to the next bar to sing and joke for the park's non-wrestling fans. Jaime (pronounced Jamie) is on Wilson's side, so we must be, too. Scott the Body is the villain of the piece. "Tell the gypsies to get back to their caravans," he shouts at the audience. "Look at the state of them."

Another villain is Ray the Manager, a figure with a grey beard and tracksuit, who appears at the corner of the ring, doing bad things to the good guys while the ref's back is turned.

"Ref, ref, look what he's doing," shouts Jaime.

After the tag bout, in which the two baddies beat the two goodies, only to be disqualified, the wrestlers pack up, sign autographs and return water-pistol fire. By 3.30pm, they are gone.

The next date is for the following evening at the Haven camp on the Isle of Wight, though only Mat "Kid" Jarratt joins the four-man team of Karl Kramer, who will take the tour to the West Country.

Kramer, a former member of the national judo squad, has been wrestling for 15 years, doing the camps in the summer, the halls in the winter, and touring abroad. A good "villain", with a speciality of The Splash (skydiving off the corner ropes and flattening his supine opponent), he is in charge of a young team: James Baker from Taunton, the youngest professional wrestler in the country; Andy "The Flyer" Chambers, 18, a British Amateur Junior Champion and erstwhile computer engineer; and Justin "Star" Hansford, 20, from Weymouth, whose flowing locks make him a natural "blue eyes".

All pile into a single room in the Isle of Wight camp. They never stop wrestling, trying out routines, talking about their moves and their outfits.

Kramer believes that English wrestlers are better trained than their counterparts anywhere else in the world, and, he says, they're feared abroad. Meanwhile, wrestling fans such as Ray, the baddies' manager, can only keep up with the game on TV by watching American fights. Ray turns out to be Ray Power, who worked for 30 years at Fairfield Halls, Croydon, as a sound and lighting man. He is also chairman of the British Arm Wrestling Association, another sport in search of sponsors.

"Did you see The Undertaker fight his brother the other week?" he asks. "The whole ring was circled by a wall of fire. They did it with gas pipes. It was terrific. The Undertaker's arm went up in flames and he was trying to put it out. Of course, his arm was padded and it didn't hurt. But it was a great show"