Thursday 22 February 2018

When innocence was bliss

Eamonn Sweeney

I don't think I've ever seen a better film about sport than The Wrestler. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen many better films about anything than The Wrestler which I watched again on Sky last week. Like all great works of art, it sticks with you, haunting you, setting off a variety of responses, resonances and reminiscences which you're still dealing with long after the closing credits have rolled.

The Wrestler, directed by Darren Aronofsky, is best known for being the film which relaunched the career of Mickey Rourke two years ago. And deservedly so because Rourke is astounding, the decade and a half he spent out of the limelight while fighting drug and alcohol addiction feeding into his portrayal of Randy 'The Ram' Robinson, a washed-up exponent of the titular sport who keeps plugging away at the lower end of the market, even though he's too old to do so, because he knows how to do nothing else.

But everything about The Wrestler is pretty much note perfect. It is a great movie about the kind of people Hollywood studiously ignores, people who are just about getting by, bumping along the bottom of the pile, all the while just one bad decision away from total ruin.

From a sporting point of view, it is a great movie about the journeyman, the honest pro who toils far away from the world of elite competition. It is a great movie about how some sportsmen can only make sense of their lives inside the ring or on the field, finding some kind of peace there while remaining utterly baffled by the vagaries of the world outside the ropes and the white lines.

It is also a magnificent illustration of how much dignity and expertise is involved in the professional pursuit of any sport, even one as riddled with phoniness as wrestling. One of its most moving scenes shows the veteran wrestlers work out between themselves in the dressing room just how the fights are going to pan out. Rather than holding them up to ridicule, the dialogue between the wrestlers shows how much pride and mutual respect there is between competitors in any sport. They know things which the fan and the journalist can never properly understand.

The Wrestler also manages to convey just how physically demanding going through these choreographed contests can be for the men involved. The kind of wrestling we're talking about here is like some strange redneck cousin of ballet. You could think of its proponents as the sporting equivalents of the showbands which once ruled the entertainment roost in this country. They weren't quite the real thing and the spectacle looks a bit naff when viewed from a distance but they did provide a great deal of harmless fun for a lot of people.

Randy The Ram was at his peak in the 1980s, a time when wrestling was big, big business on this side of the Atlantic too. Back then the easiest way to explain that you were talking about someone big was to say, 'he was like Giant Haystacks'. Everyone knew who Giant Haystacks was and most of us had seen his battles with his arch enemy Big Daddy.

Never were there stranger sporting icons than those two. Haystacks, all six foot 11 and 48 stone of him, was like some comic book villain escaped from the confines of the printed page, his long hair and straggly beard giving him a distinct Deliverance touch. Big Daddy, a comparative midget at six foot five and 25 stone, was a big-bellied baldy former coal miner who wore leotards that looked like sagging nappies and entered the ring wearing a spangly top hat and Union Jack cape. He was the goodie and Haystacks was the baddie yet it was always the big lad I cheered for, perhaps because I detected something Irish about a man whose real name was Martin Ruane, the son of parents who had emigrated from Mayo. Big Daddy's real name, as most schoolboys of the time could have told you, was Shirley Crabtree.

Maybe my memory is playing tricks on me but during my schooldays Haystacks, Big Daddy and other telly wrestling stars, the likes of Jackie Pallo, Adrian Street, Mick McManus and Kendo Nagasaki seemed to be perpetually touring the nightclubs and parish halls of this country. There was also a brief craze for female mud wrestling which in retrospect was more or less lap dancing with added soil, the popularity of which may have indicated that the average Irish wrestling fan hadn't yet got around to finishing his copy of Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch.

But this kind of cut-rate licentiousness, like those Confessions Of . . . films that screened late on Friday nights in ramshackle country fleapits, bordered on the dangerously subversive in a country where a condom was a prescription item and officially only married people were having sex. Those were the days before Nurofen.

Maybe this interest in wrestling wasn't a nationwide thing; in South Sligo, East Mayo and North Roscommon we were lucky enough to have multi-channel thanks to a variety of illegal deflector systems which abstracted the ITV and BBC signals from the air over the border. Hence our familiarity with Pallo (ponytailed, kind of cool), McManus (dressed in black, tough), Street (Wrestling version of Larry Grayson basically) and Nagasaki (mysterious Japanese dude with identity-hiding mask), all of whom appeared on World Of Sport, perhaps the strangest sports programme known to man, which also schooled us in the finer points of hot dog skiing, stock car racing, speedway and Evel Knievel crashing into a load of buses.

In reality, the invincible samurai warrior Kendo Nagasaki was Peter Thornley from Stoke-on-Trent in the same way that the writer of westerns JT Edson, whose cheap paperbacks filled the bookstands of my childhood, was actually a man from Derbyshire who'd never roped a steer nor been on a bucking bronco in his life. Both men profited from the innocence of the times, peddling the same variety of exoticism when none of us cared too much about authenticity.

At the end of The Wrestler, Randy The Ram, who has already suffered a heart attack and is under doctor's orders to quit the sport, fights on despite getting chest pains. The movie freezes on a shot of him preparing to jump from the top rope. It is a shot suffused with a feeling of death which is true to life. Haystacks died at the age of 52, Big Daddy checked out at 67, Pallo headed off to the great ring in the sky four years ago, although McManus is still going strong at the age of 82.

In 1988, ITV decided wrestling's time was up. Perhaps the powers that be realised that the sport was in the same vein of British working-class camp which gave us the likes of Benny Hill and Dick Emery, also judged to be unsuitable for an apparently more sophisticated age. Today wrestling has made a big television comeback but the new heroes are American, the sell is harder, the ambience Hollywood rather than Ealing. Come Dancing might have come back but it's unlikely that there is a new Giant Haystacks poised to take television audiences by storm.

No matter. Like Randy The Ram, the boys of Saturday afternoon did their job honourably. And perhaps the best tribute I can give to them is that the first time I saw Cat On A Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams, I smirked away for the remainder of the play because the fearsome Southern patriarch at the centre of the action is called Big Daddy. I just kept waiting for Paul Newman to say, 'Don't be having a go at me. I didn't spend years poncing around a ring in a sparkly top hat fighting a seven foot second-generation Mayoman'.

May they, and their Boston crabs, body slams, half nelsons, spinning toe holds, tornado armbreakers and kamikaze crashes, rest in peace.

Eamonn Sweeney's book Down Down Deeper and Down Ireland in the 70s and 80s has just been published and is available now

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