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Seconds Away, Round One by Nigel Roth

Dernière mise à jour : 17 juil. 2021

When I was thirteen, I was locked in a dungeon.

Well, actually, a cellar, and I wasn’t exactly locked in. I had to work there bringing bottles of wine and spirits and beer up from the depths of the dank darkness to the light of my father’s liquor store.

The weekly after-school work wasn’t so bad, because evenings in my house were generally spent watching awful TV shows like Starsky & Hutch and Kung Fu, while balancing a carb-laden dinner plate on your lap, and so being late to that because I was ‘working’ seemed a great excuse to miss the entertainment, eat at a table, and quietly not consume the pasta, potatoes, and rice that passed as vegetables.

Weekdays were one thing, but Saturdays were another altogether.

It wasn’t that I was desperate to work on my train layout, adding a tree-line to the Swiss hills above Ryness Valley, or to play LPs on my Dual 505 turntable, or even to re-catalog my miniature bottle collection, noting the examples I needed to replace, my grandfather having secretly opened and swigged down the contents, thinking I hadn't noticed.

No, my desire to end my bottle run quickly was because of one man, and he went by the name of Rollerball.

Rollerball was everything. Suave and dark, strong and fast, clever and calm, and above all, a hero.

These were the days of World of Sport, when Dickie Davies in a suit and tie, with his neatly coiffed hair and healthy moustache, led the country through an entire day of sport, a virtual landscape of galloping horses like Rubstic, and show jumpers like Caroline Bradley on Tigre, rugby highlights with Bill Beaumont flying through tackles, and cricket lowlights with batsmen like the morose David Gower, tennis moments with the ultimately-likeable but always unlucky Roscoe Tanner, and every result of a football season that culminated in Liverpool winning an eleventh league title, and, most importantly of all for me, the wonder of wrestling.

Davies would smile his broad smile and hand over to Egyptian-born Kent Walton, who’d greet me and the millions of others eagerly anticipating this week’s bouts with his signature welcome, ‘Good afternoon, grapple fans’.

And us grapple fans would cheer and holler, and get ready for the grand entrance of such luminaries as Shirley Crabtree, known to his followers as Big Daddy, a ‘face’, a good guy, or the two-metre-eleven-centimetre Martin Austin Ruane, also known as the Giant Haystacks, and a bad guy, a ‘heel’. And we all knew we were in for an afternoon of excitement and craziness, and the heavy bouncing of huge bodies.

You never knew who was on the bill until Walton announced it, and then you’d see the mysterious masked Japanese Samurai Kendo Nagasaki (actually Peter Thornley) come bounding into the ring, or King Kong Kirk (real name Malcolm) would appear in the gangway, his huge frame wobbling furiously.

There might be the Irish fighter Fit Finlay (really, just David), or the Dynamite Kid (plain old Tom Billington), with his multi-coloured boots, or the disheveled Catweazle (Gary Cooper), or the mighty Mick McManus (Bill Matthews, I’m afraid), a favorite face of the wrestling crowd.

And, if it was truly my lucky day, Mark ‘Rollerball’ Rocco.

Rollerball was probably a bad guy, with the nickname Manchester’s Mean Machine, though he seemed to float between face and heel seamlessly. He was svelte and muscular, and wore a leotard covered in stars and stripes, which, given he was born in Manchester, England, as Mark Hussey, in 1951 made little sense.

But that didn't matter to me.

Because here came the Rollerball, leaping onto the canvas sprightly and energized, his starry one-piece clinging to his muscular body, tall silver boots shining, his black moustache trimmed neatly, his dark eyes focused on the task.

And so was I.

As Rollerball and his opponent grappled and wrestled, pinning each other down, with half-Nelsons and full-Nelsons, backdrops, cross-presses, folding presses, and double-handed face bars; flinging themselves and each other against the ropes for piledrivers and knee-drops, being counted out until they revived at the last minute, I, in my jeans and T-shirt mimicked the moves, rolling and contorting and learning from the master.

I don’t thank my parents for an awful lot in life, but I do consider their choice of a thick ugly shag pile carpet in my bedroom a saving grace, without which I may have done myself real damage, throwing myself around the room from wall to wall in imitation of my hero.

A hero who wasn’t supposed to be a wrestler at all really, because his father was keen for him to follow another career altogether, even banning Rollerball from his gym. But, while his father, who was also a wrestler, was on tour, he would practice and learn from veteran wrestlers, honing his craft enough to begin amateur wrestling at sixteen, and turning professional three years later.

By the age of twenty-six, he was the British Heavy Middleweight Champion, after he beat Bert Royal (in real life, Victor Faulkner) and again a year later, beating Gentleman Chris Adams, before beginning a classic feud - an ongoing rivalry that wrestling fans adore - with Sammy Lee (whose real name was Satoru Sayama, though he was often known as Super Tiger, Tiger King, Tiger Mask or The Mask of Tiger).

And off Rollerball went.

To France, and to Pakistan, to the USA to team up with Greg Gagne, and fight Terry Bollea and Bret Hart, and to Japan, where he wrestled under the name Black Tiger. Matches and re-matches, myriad tag teams, where wrestlers fight in teams of two and can switch in and out of the ring if they can reach out to physically tag their partner, if your opponent hasn't tied your arms through the ropes, and the famous Kendo Nagasaki incident.

While wrestling as a tag team against 'Ironfist' Clive Myers and Dave ‘Rocky’ Taylor, Myers attempted to de-mask Nagasaki, and in trying to prevent that catastrophic event, Rollerball accidentally whacked the mask off of the secretive Samurai, who fled, as the not-so-mysterious Thornley, to the dressing room. The partnership never resumed, and another feud began.

My only feud was with those bottles in the cellar, because as Rollerball carried on fighting, I carried on dragging them up and down stairs until my father decided to close the shop, and we moved home.

And with that move, as if that small, brown Grundig television, and the pinkish carpet, and the scuffs on the walls against which I’d self-flung a dozen times, were the glue of my wrestling years, my fascination ended, and Rollerball had to fight on without me.

While I studied and noticed girls for the first time, he wrestled and rolled, slammed and pinned, until 1991, when he collapsed after a match with Fit Finlay, and doctors found his heart was only working at thirty-percent capacity, and he was forced to stop wrestling, immediately.

I’m glad I missed that bit at the time, because heroes don’t have rare heart conditions, or retire to Tenerife.

Heroes wear leotards with stars and stripes, and leap through ropes, pin bigger opponents down, and get carpet burns from rolling around their bedrooms .

photo by Mike González

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