I’m in Govan on a Saturday night and a crowd has gathered around two men squaring up to one another. Veins throbbing, muscles glistening, the two men are eye to eye. One of them – the smaller of the two who looks like he’d end up worse off in a fight – decides it’s not worth it and starts walking. He’s a few feet away when his antagonist hits him in the back with a forearm smash so sudden and unexpected that some of the crowd gasp in amazement. Dropping to the ground, his attacker lays into him with a series of punches, kicks and elbows. The man laughs. The victim moans. The crowd boos.
It’s a scene being played simultaneously in city centres across the country: the villain picking on an innocent victim while an interested but non-interventionist crowd look on. But what makes this scene unusual is that it’s taking place in a community centre, the two men are working to a script and the crowd has paid to be there. Welcome to the world of the Scottish Wrestling Alliance.
Formed in 2004, the SWA set out to create a Scottish wrestling company for Scottish fans. Though they often pool wrestlers from other British organisations, the SWA put on shows across the West of Scotland catering for both dedicated wrestling aficionados and casual fans. Their famed wrestling school in Pollokshaws West has produced internationally renowned athletes, and tonight a Japanese wrestling company called Zero1 is in attendance on the lookout for some of these rising stars.
When it comes to wrestling, most people’s reference point is the WWE. A multibillion dollar organisation famed for its zany storylines and celebrity participation, it’s responsible for the mainstreaming of names like Hulk Hogan and The Rock. Tonight’s SWA show, however, is far removed from this ritzy glamour. It’s taking place in the Pearce Institute, a community facility that will host a Zumba class and an Alcoholic Anonymous session later on in the week. At one side of the room is a massive organ; at the other, a wooden balcony. 150 chairs surround a small, four-sided ring. Across a wall there’s a stall selling DVDS, masks and other merchandise. It’s wrestling on a small, intimate scale. How will it compare to other shows I’ve watched when I’ve always associated wrestling with elaborate pyrotechnics and extravagant stunts?
Very well, actually. One of the elements that remain the same is the music. In wrestling it’s customary for performers to enter to carefully chosen theme music that gives an indication into their character. I’ve got my head down making notes as a piece of classical music starts and an ornate man dressed in a purple robe comes out to booing and jeering. When I look up, I’m amazed to see the polite, generous and helpful interviewee who greeted my arrival to the building has morphed into an arrogant, refined aristocrat who enters to the ‘Spring’ concerto of Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ and calls himself the ‘Lord of the Manor.’ It’s a transformation that would make Daniel Day Lewis proud.
And like the actors in a Hollywood film, wrestlers are either faces (the good guys) or heels (the baddies). Since a lot of the crowd won’t have seen anyone in action before, the wrestlers work quickly to signal whether they should be cheering or booing them. The smiling guy taking his time to shake hands with the crowd? A face. The small guy wiggling his shorts off to (mercifully) reveal another pair? Heel. Carrying a saltire? Then you’re obviously a face. The guy wearing spikes and a muzzle? Definitely a heel.
The matches are personal, energetic and neatly executed. Because the crowd is small, the wrestlers can hear everything shouted at them. When someone heckles Jackie Polo in the opener, he exits the ring, jumps the barricade and eyeballs him. During Paul Tracey’s match, a chant of ‘baldy’ starts that he theatrically tries to put down. At the interval there’s a raffle and photo opportunities, and wrestlers mingle with the crowd. It all adds to a sense of familiarity and family friendliness.
One of the matches – a bout between champion Mikey Whiplash and Jack Gallagher – has the energy, rhythm and aggression of a football match and has the man next to me (who seems to have all his faculties intact) pointing towards the plucky Gallagher and saying, “I want him to win.” But the night’s real treat is a match starring wrestling legend Johnny Kidd. In his late fifties, he made his debut in 1978 during the ‘Golden Era of British Wrestling’ of Giant Haystacks, Big Daddy and Mick McManus. He’s of a generation where wrestling audiences were working class adults who wore suits and ties to shows. In 1963, more people watched an episode of British wrestling than they did the FA cup final.
But the elephant in the room is never far away. Just how real is wrestling? When I ask Paul Tracey this, he reminds me, “You can’t defy gravity. You can minimise the impact of someone jumping on you but it’s still going to hurt. All the holds and the locks we do are real. If you’re still unconvinced just take a walk about the locker-room and count the wrestlers who’ve broken their necks or shoulders in this profession. The risks are very real.”
He goes on to say, “No one goes to a performance of Hamlet and thinks, ‘he’s not actually killing himself, this is fake.’ But because wrestling’s physical it’s regarded as unintelligent and unreal. The X Factor, The Only Way is Essex, even an episode of Coronation Street is more fake than what we do. Tonight we had 150 people and I’m going out there to control their emotions. In that sense it’s performance art.”
The legitimacy of wrestling aside, the night has been a real success. The show was over three hours long and featured seven matches. Afterwards the wrestlers prove themselves polite, thoughtful and intelligent, owing to their background and ‘real lives’: some are students, one hopes to move to Japan to teach English, and Johnny Kidd works for Vauxhall Motors. As for the SWA, the promoter tells me they’re pushing for brand recognition and hope to get picked up on a lower level TV station. Soon enough, a Scottish twist on this age-old morality story could be powerslamming and piledriving its way to a screen near you.