It was a moment I had rehearsed repeatedly, ever since as a nine-year-old my pal Jazman lent me a VHS of the World Wrestling Federation's Summerslam '90. Raising the tag team championship belt high above my head I soaked up the applause. Eventually, with all the care of a father cradling his newborn, I delicately allowed it to drop down vertically along my right shoulder. From my elevated position in the middle of the ring, I scanned through the ropes, meeting the gazes of the captivated faces looking back at me. Expectantly they waited for me to deliver my first ever 'promo' as their champ. All I could think was do I deserve to hold this beautiful, heavy championship title? How did I get here?
The reality is this was the climax of my first ever professional wrestling class. The assembled throng gathered around the canvas were actually former office colleagues, some of more than a decade's standing. People who had repeatedly given a stone-cold response to my attempts to enliven the staff satisfaction survey powerpoint presentation by channelling the Macho Man or Ric Flair. I could never have envisaged them organising such a brilliant leaving present for me, as in our various physical states and sizes - resplendent in PE kit - we congregated at The London School of Lucha Libre (Wrestling),
Lucha Libre is tucked down a darkened, heavily graffitied alley close to Bethnal Green tube station. It's really good graffiti though, the arresting kind more street art than Chris Woz 'Ere. Immediately upon entering the school the smell of human sweat hits you like a stiff forearm. It courses from the exposed brick walls and floor - a testament to the hard graft that goes on here. Garry and Greg, who run the show, are both serious physical specimens. Long hair tied up, heavily tattoed with arms so big that you almost want to ask them to put you in a headlock just to see how it would feel ... almost. They are incredibly welcoming and it's clear from the get-go they love what they do.
For most of its history professional wrestling was presented as a legitimate sporting contest. Originating from open challenges at fairgrounds where the resident hard man would take on all comers. This heritage meant even as recently as 20 years ago the idea of a wrestling school, open to the general public, was unthinkable. For those working as professional wrestlers, maintaining 'kayfabe' to outsiders (that matches are bonafide fights) was their first rule of fight club. They believed if punters doubted it was authentic they wouldn't pay to watch.
As a longstanding fan I had read horror stories of young lads, desperate to break into this secret world, suffering severe physical abuse at the hands of wrestling 'teachers', determined to ram home just how 'real' it was. Only those mad enough to come back for more, following this trial by fire, would be allowed a glimpse behind the curtain at wrestling's arcane workings.
'Protecting' the business of wrestling in this way became less of a necessity as a series of internet informants and documentary filmmakers exposed its secrets. Breaching the magic circle, however, didn't ruin the trick. In the case of wrestling, I'd argue knowing more about how a match is put together only enhances the magic. Professional wrestling had always suffered from its self imposed clandestine approach. It could easily be dismissed as a con, performed by fake people with fake bodies. Something grubby and vacuous. The newfound liberty to disclose the intricate detail involved in making a match changed this. The insane dedication and craftsmanship of professional wrestlers became undeniable.
Back at the London School of Lucha, Garry - having asked who in our group watched pro-wrestling, and seeing only one hand go up (mine obviously) - immediately begins to grapple with this. He explains how wrestling is the most challenging form of entertainment; 'it's part martial art, part dance. its comedy and its drama - you have to be able to perform all of them, that's how you tell a compelling story'
Following an incredibly intense warm-up set against euphoric house music, Garry compliments the group as all having good rhythm. I can only think he had his back to me the whole time. He now tags in Greg to take us through one last stretch. Greg, who wrestles under the name MetallicoKing of the Scrap Heap, instructs us to: extend one arm across the chest; look over your shoulder; elevate the chin and now imagine you're Sloane-ranger sneering at the common people. You can tell Greg makes a superb heel (bad guy) when he wants to.
A crash mat is laid out at the side of the ring, its time for us to do forward rolls. My mind races back to the note I asked my mum to draft to Mr Woodhams during my first year at secondary school. 'Can Ewan be excused from forwards rolls please, he can't do them'. You can imagine how that went down with a grizzled gym teacher. Happily, though I've not wasted the intervening 26 years and am now able to produce a serviceable forward or backwards roll pretty much on demand. We all take turns. Those who are struggling, and doubtless wish they had a note from their mum, receive some encouraging words and coaching from Metallico. After a few minutes (and a change of music) we are all rolling, rolling, rolling beautifully.
Everyone is having a great time. We learn how to 'lock-up' next. Basically, this is where to put your hands when grappling your opponent. It goes unconfirmed whether the future allocation of hotdesks is at stake. Locking-up progresses into a series of choreographed movements known as a chain that, combined with facial expressions, tell a story. This leads to one person being placed in a completely painless wrist lock. Being pros Garry and Greg make this look like torture in their demo, all primal grunts and anguished screams. They are expert 'sellers'. Contrastingly I can't even remember which hand I am supposed to be working. It's impossibly hard and ridiculously fun.
When asked who'd like to have a go at trying this in the ring, I try to leave at least a full second's pause out of respect before blurting; 'YES ME I WOULD'. I'm even worse learning how to throw a safe wrestling punch or kick than I was at locking-up. The skill is to theatrically pull back the limb you are about to use as a projectile and then brush your opponent's body with the faintest of touches. This is delivered with a stamp down on the canvas to make it sound like a haymaker. Your opponent now has the cue to convey, as dramatically as possible, that the blow has landed and that they are in a world of pain. 'Sell, Sell Sell', Greg explains. I do eventually produce one kick that looks pretty good and doesn't require much work of my friend John to sell. Largely because I have accidentally kicked him for real square in the balls. Each new move we learn serves to enhance the respect of everyone in the group for wrestlers.
The final skill we are shown is how to run the ropes. This is where you propel yourself into the surprisingly taut ring ropes, bounce off, run across the ring and repeat on the other side. I hold back on this one watching and learning as the other guys give it a bash one at a time. Tim is particularly good at this. He also proves to be a natural at the bad guy facials, such an integral tool for any would-be-wrestler. Reflecting on countless hours spent sitting adjacent to him in an open plan office, I start to consider what his wrestling persona should be ... 'To my left hailing from the United States of America, now residing in London England, The Adminis-traitor' BOOOO
It's my turn at last and being tall I don't have to take more than a couple of steps to make it across the ring. The Undertaker does it in one apparently. I have arranged with John that on my third bounce off the ropes, as I run towards him he'll frisbee into the ring the sombrero we found tucked down by the crash mats. I'll try to catch it on my head without breaking stride, it will be magnificent. I almost stick the landing, but alas I miss by a whisker. Had I pulled this feat off, surely Garry would have had no choice but to instantly turn me pro, booking me to headline their next show. I guess we'll never know.
To close the class Metallico King of the Scrap Heap calls me back into the ring, handing over the precious championship belt. I'm revelling in it as I trash talk the crowd. No doubt in the mirror later I'll be telling myself I could have been a contender. This wishful thinking is effectively smashed over the head with a steel chair by the incredible quickfire match Metaliico and the Buffalo Soldier then put on for us. It culminates with Buffalo escaping Metallico's wrist lock via a superhuman parkour horizontal run along a wall at the side of the ring.
Beginners classes are every Monday at The London School of Lucha Libre.
Someone get the Staff Satisfaction Survey, out quick. I doubt the results will ever be better.