Wrestling: It's make-believe for real

Adam Szreter watches Klondyke Kate go out like a champion - disqualifie d for biting her opponent
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The Independent Online
It was meant to start at 7.30, but as so often these days the kick-off was put back to a quarter to eight. "And welcome to the Victoria Hall in Hanley, where a capacity crowd is packed to the rafters to witness the end of an era, the last ever appearance in the ring by the local hero Klondyke Kate."

The hospital radio guy was lying through his teeth, but not about Klondyke Kate. It really was the last act for the extra large lady wrestler, and possibly the last wrestling match to be staged at Victoria Hall.

The reason we were late starting was not so much the capacity crowd - the place was barely a third full - as the lack of wrestlers. By 7.15 Gordon Prior was rushing around desperately trying to keep the show together, with no help from the promoter who was apparently on holiday.

"I see Kendo Nagasaki is supposed to be here," I said, attempting to sound at least vaguely knowledgeable. "The first thing you have to learn is to expect to be disappointed," said the hospital radio guy, who was also the official timekeeper, bellringer and deputy public address announcer. Bob Bentley was his name.

Finally Gordon appeared on stage, ready to start proceedings. The lights dimmed, the music blurted out and a door way up at the top of the spectators' gallery flew open. In strode the Viking Warrior. He descended through the crowd towards the stage, hurling abuse and pulling ugly faces as he went. For a newcomer to wrestling it was impressive stuff. He bounced down off the stage into the ring, an impossibly tight, bright leotard keeping his beer belly and builder's backside in place under his Viking helmet. He was a pretty rubbish Viking really.

Then in came his opponent, not the Infamous Invader, as billed, but Mike Weaver - "the Clark Gable of the ring", Bob informed me. After a last- minute scramble around to find a bell, the wrestling began.

In Simon Garfield's immensely readable new book, The Wrestling, he writes that each bout tells a story, which might sound far-fetched but, like many aspects of wrestling, it's not as silly as it sounds. The great debate about "all in" wrestling, as opposed to the more respectable versions like Greco-Roman, is whether it is genuine or not. But that is not really the point. It is not sport, pure and simple, but a peculiar hybrid of sport and thespianism. Like any film or play, it is make-believe - but, as in sport, the unpredictable can always happen.

Clark Gable and the rubbish Viking went through their routine, clattering into one another, neatly choreographed tumbles and dives, dastardly looking headlocks and arm twists, until - ouch! Clark Gable landed awkwardly on his left leg. He looked in genuine pain. He got up and hobbled about, shaking his head and going red in the face. The Viking showed no sympathy and kept jumping up and down on his opponent's bad leg. It looked awful. Mercifully, Bob rang his bell for the end of the round and, though the respite was brief, our hero somehow found the courage not only to come back out but to launch a counter-offensive so devastating that the Viking was suddenly pinned to the floor, and at the count of three the contest was over, a win by two falls to one. Just then it dawned on me and I remembered about each fight telling a story. I'd just been watching the story of Clark Gable's left leg.

Next up was Sergeant Slaughter, decked out in full combat gear, and his opponent, "from parts unknown", the Undertaker, who looked as though he'd come as Michael Jackson. Though they'd worked themselves up into quite a frenzy over the Viking's antics, this time the crowd didn't seem too sure who was the goody and who was the baddie. It didn't last long anyway, the Undertaker holding Sergeant Slaughter upside down and dropping him on his head. Thank you and goodnight: "You either like it or you don't," said Bob, "and those that don't can piss off." I decided I liked it - well I liked Bob, and he seemed to like it.

By now I'd forgotten all all about Kendo Nagasaki, the masked man who once bestrode the scene alongside Mick McManus, Big Daddy, Giant Haystacks and the rest. Long before people in this country were asking who shot JR they were asking who is Kendo Nagasaki. Then Gordon was back at the mike. "Ladies and gentlemen, the legendary Samurai swordsman, Kendo Nagasaki!" And suddenly there he was, mask and all, swinging his big weapon about. He had not come to fight, but he wandered around for a minute or two, giving everyone a good look before wandering off, no doubt to roam the streets of Stoke-on-Trent. "Could have been anybody," someone said. But it wasn't. It was Kendo Nagasaki. I know because I've seen pictures of that mask.

Then it was time for Klondyke Kate, a truly frightening sight, a vast, several bellied lady bowing out of the big time at the age of 35. She was up against a girl about a 20th of her size, and Klondyke Kate, rather unfairly it seemed, was disqualified after biting Miss Dynamite once too often and flattening the referee. But she returned for what really mattered, the ritual burning of the boots to the accompaniment of 12 chimes of the bell.

"I didn't mind about the disqualification, but the thing I wanted was the 12 bells," said Jane Porter, a charming, burly Staffordshire mother of two who, not an hour earlier, had been snarling round the ring as Klondyke Kate, berating the audience and looking likely to eat one of the small children in the front row. "I've been wrestling for 20 years, and that's the way to go out, with the 12 bells, because that means something to every wrestler. Not every wrestler gets it, they just disappear off the face of the earth."

As I made my way out of Victoria Hall, having decided that the future of all-in wrestling lay in pantomime-type entertainment for children, I saw a mother scolding her young son for kicking his even younger brother in the head, just as the rubbish Viking had done to Clark Gable. Then another man stopped me and said, "Great wasn't it? I love all that sort of stuff. I mean, I know it's all fixed. But sometimes it ain't."