I was 10 when a television arrived in our house. It was hired from an electronics shop in a market town about six miles from the village where I lived. The TV was large with a fake wood surround and fixed to a set of wheels so it could be rolled, across the stone and wood floors in our house, from one room to another. We were early adopters of mobile technology.
With only three channels (BBC One and Two and ITV), programme choice was limited. But one programme quickly caught my attention: ITV’s World of Sport. More precisely, the last hour of the programme – the wrestling slot.
I was a bit bookish and loved theatre so my favourites were the professional wrestlers with huge personalities and, to my mind, great performances: Mick McManus, Big Daddy, Giant Haystacks, Kendo Nagasaki. As a child growing up in rural Buckinghamshire I sometimes wondered what it would be like to be a wrestler but I never imagined my first experience of wrestling would be many years later in a draughty church hall, just off Lewisham High St.
The banner for Lewisham Wrestling Club has probably been fixed to the fence outside the hall for as many years as I’ve lived in Lewisham but I looked at it properly for the first time this year, found the website, and called the club.
Founded by Olympic wrestling coach and volunteer youth worker Muladi Badibengi in 2003, Lewisham Wrestling Club has an impressive outreach programme – providing education, activities, workshops, and training for young people in SE London.
Coach Muladi, ‘just call me John’, took it in his stride when I explained I wanted to join a training session. But he is the man who trained Chloe Spiteri and, spotting her potential, encouraged her to train for London2012. A five-times British Wrestling Champion and Glasgow Commonwealth Games Finalist, Chloe now trains in Mixed Martial Arts.
When I walked into the hall, John was sparring on the mat with his assistant coach while two other men were warming up, running laps around the mat on the floor. John welcomed me, explained much of wrestling was about physical fitness, outlined what to expect in the training session, and reminded me to bring a separate pair of trainers to wear when I came to the next training session. I thought: I have to get through this one first.
We started the warm-up: running forwards and backwards, alternately dropping left and right hand to the mat, scissor-steps, star jumps, high steps, and more. After about 10mins, three more young men joined us – my wheezes and gasps were no match for their energy and cheerful manner.
Eventually the warm-up ended. I felt sick. I went to grab my water bottle and asked Trace what time it was. I’d only been going about 30mins and started to worry how I’d cope with the rest of the session.
Back on the mat, we got into pairs to begin wrestling. John paired me with George and showed me how to grapple to stop an opponent pinning your arms against your body. It felt a bit odd to be in such close contact with a man I barely knew but after a few minutes George and I moved beyond the embarrassment of strangers and started to chat about technique, with George generously sharing his knowledge and experience. We went through the moves slowly then faster – each time George got the upper hand.
We moved on to practise dropping on our knees towards the mat and recovering with a step forward – imagine almost tripping over your feet but taking a big step to regain your height. I watched as everyone else completed the drill perfectly. I didn’t. Then it was forward rolls and recovering with a step (or a jump!) forward. Everyone else completed the drill at speed and with height. I discovered I couldn’t do a forward roll – which doesn’t bode well for the gymnastics.
In pairs again we practiced how to move your opponent around the mat and get them off balance. George told me he’d moved from judo to wrestling – which became more evident as the session continued.
John called us together and positioned the assistant coach in a crouch in the middle of the mat. While the rest of the class leapfrogged over the crouched man, I step-jumped awkwardly. But on each circuit, John told me I was doing well and suggested what might work better the next time.
Then the assistant coach stood up and John ran towards him, leapt in the air, and leapfrogged over. Walking back to the group he said: ‘I’m in my forties and that’s what I can do. So it shouldn’t be a problem for you.’
I said nothing.
George ran, leapt, leapfrogged, somersaulted, and landed on his feet. As did the rest of the group. It was my turn. John spoke to the man on the mat, and turned to me and the teenage boy waiting in the line: ‘I want you two to crawl on your belly through his legs.’
We did as we were told. And the assistant coach asked John to remind him when our turn came round again. I didn’t like to ask why.
We repeated the drill a few times while I marvelled at the agility and power of the rest of the group. And remembered how my wrestling heroes of the 1970s had jumped off and on the ropes (and each other), tumbling and turning across the ring. I wondered about the tumbling or jumping in my future.
We paired up again and John showed me how to step into my opponent’s body, pin their arm, turn and drop to pull them across my shoulder and onto the mat. George coached me through the moves a few times and I managed to throw him onto the mat. We chatted about how similar the move was to a judo throw – as a child I did judo for a while so there may have been some deeply residual muscle memory. Or not.
John called the group together again and explained we’d play cat and mouse. We crouched on our hands and knees around the mat and took it in turns to crawl, using only our shoulders and hips, through the human hoops.
As soon as the first person (the mouse) had reached the third hoop, John told the person at the first hoop (the cat) to set off in pursuit. Points were deducted for anyone who raised their belly from the mat or barged into the human hoops. You may wonder who most often fell foul of this rule. I couldn’t possibly comment.
Then we stretched. A lot. And some more.
Over the next few days I noticed a few dull aches and pains – in my shoulders, neck, abdomen. Enough to remind me about my exertions, and the level of physical fitness wrestlers require. I love this sport but I don’t think my body was ever designed to become wrestler-fit. I’ll stick to watching and cheering from outside the ring.
Freestyle wrestling. 13 January 2016
Lewisham Wrestling Club
Cost: Free for first session