Keith Elliott at Large: The Mr Big of the arms trade: Gary Mason and arm-wrestling

Click to follow
The Independent Online
I was trying to guess what the registration of Gary Mason's Roller would be. WON 35? SOK 1? CHA11P? (Cruel boxing followers might suggest FAT 1 or SLO 1.) Instead, he rolled up in a seven-year-old BMW.

'People always think I made a fortune from boxing, but it's not true. By the time everyone else had taken their cut, there was nothing left for me,' he said.

Now there is a familiar tale. Dimbo fighter manipulated by accountants, managers, promoters, get-rich-quick schemers, with just a face that looks as if it has been inside a wasp's nest to show for it all.

Except that in Mason's case, he's still young (29), street-smart and better-looking than Bruno. Only the squidged nose gives his background away. True, he's had 36 bouts, been ranked No 4 in the world and still ended up poorer than most of his fans.

But despite leaving school at 14 - 'I just stopped going' - he is determined not to end up working as a bouncer nor selling fruit off a market stall. Gary Mason, one-time boxer, has ambitious plans to be Gary Mason, entrepreneur.

He's got a secretary and austere offices in West Hampstead (with Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream' in big letters on the wall). He's got a mobile phone. He's reading books on poetry and Chinese wisdom. And he's doing his hardest to convince people that he's got more to offer than an occasional appearance on You Bet. But the last 18 months haven't been easy.

'It's been a big learning curve. As a boxer, people would do things for me. I had no worries. Since I stopped fighting, I've been dealing with problems I never even knew existed. But the biggest has been getting people to take me seriously as a business person.

'I would ring up people and they would say: 'Come round'. But they never listened to me. They just wanted to say that they had a meeting with Gary Mason. I was so desperate, and they were so dishonest. That's why I gave up rugby league. The club was using me as a publicity vehicle, yet I believed they were serious.'

Do not get the impression that just because Mason has found a sort of religion (brought up a staunch Catholic, but recently fascinated by the concept of karma) and because his girlfriend Maminda is pregnant, he has become earnest and boring. He changes voice when he is bullshitting - 'You didn't believe any of that, did you?' - then laughs like a man who never notices Mondays.

But has he really got the organisational powers, the patience and determination to turn arm-wrestling into a sport bigger than darts or snooker? For that is Mason's business plan. 'I want to move it out of the pub and make it just like the World Wrestling Federation, with colourful personalities, razzmatazz and great entertainment for the whole family. Mark my words, it's going to be enormous.'

No, this is Mason being serious. He is so convinced the sport is on the verge of superstardom that he has booked a leisure centre in Kent next month for the debut of his World Armwrestling Consortium, and produced a brochure selling it to punters and sponsors. For just pounds 15, a family of four will get badges, cheap travel, cut-price admission to tournaments and discounts on fitness training.

Now you may interpret this as incontrovertible proof that too much boxing has jumbled his basal ganglia. But consider this. Arm-wrestling dates back to at least 5000 BC. It is established in more than 50 countries and has high hopes of being included as a demonstration sport in the 1996 Olympics.

Furthermore, it is not necessarily tattoo-decorated hunks who dominate. There are four women's classes too, and one of our leading exponents, Katherine Monbiot, looks more like Linda Lusardi than Hulk Hogan. An alternative therapist, she learnt to arm-wrestle at her boarding school.

'It's 80 per cent mental awareness,' said Clive Myers, the man who popularised arm-wrestling in this country. 'Strength comes into it, but so does speed, technique and the right mental approach.'

A former professional wrestler, Myers formulated the 15 techniques such as Cobra, Chicken Wing and Thumb Wrap that constitute arm-wrestling moves. Twice world middleweight champion, he trained Sylvester Stallone for the arm-wrestling scene in Over the Top and though he is 46, Myers is going to the Tokyo world championships later this year - as distinct from the Geneva world championships.

And there you have the heart of the problem facing Mason. Although the two British federations have just amalgamated, there are still two world championships, and all over Britain, small promoters set up arm-wrestling bouts 'for the British title'.

Mason's plans add a further complication. 'The sport has to unite. This is the only way it can be taken seriously and move forward,' Myers said.

But Mason is confident that his World Armwrestling Consortium can live happily with the warring factions and become an international organisation. 'We are making it worthwhile for the wrestlers. Instead of competing for a trophy and a tenner, they will stand to win good money, from pounds 500 up to pounds 2,000 and more.'

For this sort of reward, they will be required to introduce a high level of exhibitionism. But Mason believes that characters such as Rambo Lennette, Pretty Boy Mitchell and Tony 'the Lunatic' Josling will not find the transition too hard. 'What's more, it will all be genuine - at least at first,' he said. Mason will not be taking part himself, though he is back in training. 'I've been a busy fool for too long. Now I'm going to be busy but I won't be a fool any more.' And would you argue with him?

(Photograph omitted)

Comments