Recently,I’ve spoken several times about when I started amateur wrestling back in 1991, so I thought that I’d finally get around to writing the memory down.
A friend and I had been searching for a wrestling training school for months, and were always laughed at for our troubles. We eventually found a place that was only 10 minutes away from where we lived. We used the library microfiche to find the start times for the club and away we went. On the evening of our first class, we ended up hiding behind a couple of trees that were across the road from where the wrestling was being held, and waited to see who was going inside. I remember us waiting a long time, before a crappy old Luton van pulled up outside and 6 hulking men emerged from the back. It freaked us out so much, that we both ran away.
Having gone through all of the ridicule from friends and family about wanting to learn how to wrestle. All of the hassle of managing to track down a wrestling club. Turning up to it, and then just running away… Pathetic.
We both stopped at the same time and looked at each other ashamed.
Even if we did get beaten up, we owed it to ourselves to take part in at least one class. So we walked back.
It turned out that the 6 hulking men that got out of the van were there to play rugby on the nearby fields. Thinking about it, it might have been a lot easier facing the rugby players rather than what lay ahead of us on the mats upstairs.
The Valhalla Wrestling Club wasn’t a training school. It wasn’t technically even a club come to think of it.
The Valhalla began as an off branch of a far more renowned amateur wrestling club in the South East of London called ‘The Viking Club’. The Valhalla gained its name from the Nordic resting place for old vikings. The name made sense as the originators of the Valhalla were the older grapplers from the Viking club, that had filtered out to form their own little place to train. Unfortunately, it ended up getting itself a reputation as the place folk went to practice beating people up.
The book was made up of vetran amateur wrestlers who were looking to prove that they could still hang with the youngsters and doormen wishing to rehearse ways to restrain club goers with the maximum of effectiveness. Occasionally you’d get a couple of competitive grapplers who would turn up to drill through the same offensive and defensive moves over and over again. These were often the most dangerous people. They were intense. Brutal. Real shark types.
Enter two 15 year old boys… Feeding time.
You must understand that in 1991, wrestling wasn’t the ‘cool’ sport that it is generally regarded as being today. It was very, very niche, and not welcoming at all.
My friend and I had no idea about amateur wrestling. We grew up on a diet of the WWF and NWA. In truth, at that point in time we considered amateur wrestling to be the stuff that happened at Lewisham theatre and the Fairfield halls. British wrestling.
In the short amount of time that we both had been in the building, we quickly realised from the environment, that it wasn’t the WWF or NWA. Nor was it the British wrestling that we had seen at Lewisham theatre and the Fairfield halls.
This was raw. Scrappy. Intimidating.. but also oddly appealing.
For 10 minutes we anxiously shuffled about at the side of the mats and stared at everyone without being addressed, until a voice shouted over to us questioning if we were going to be doing anything today. We had no idea what we were expected to do, so both stepped into the centre of the mats and just gawped at each other with silly grins on our faces.
We were then screamed at to get onto the coconut mats,(more about those later.) were we were instructed to ‘pull around’. No other direction was given, just ‘pull around’. My friend and I had been mates for 4 years at that point and were always very competitive and would often play fight at school. We gave each other a wry smile and charged at each other.
Neither one of us had a clue, but our efforts and tenaciousness drew acknowledgement from a few curious eyes from around the room, which led to offers to be shown some techniques.
There were 2 matted areas. The main matted area,(5, 8 foot long blue, padded mats placed together, that were twice the thickness of judo mats.) and then there were the coconut mats. This name was given to them because their surface was similar to the shell of a coconut. Nobody liked using the coconut mats, but they were still always brought out every session.
The techniques that we were shown to us, were described as being a physical de-briefing of the principals behind freestyle wrestling. It ended up being a stark reality check for us, that we were entering a new world. I can honestly say looking back at it, that was the day that changed my life.
Over the course of the next 2 hours, Matthew and I were skerffed around the mats. With no real understanding of defensive manoeuvres, we were at the mercy of some true brutish treatment. Precision mat burns being delivered from our foreheads to our chins, across the corners of our eyelids so it was painful to blink, and the most memorable, were the ones that were given to the inside folds of our elbows, so that we couldn’t bend our arms.
As much fight as I still had in me, I quickly learned when to stop resisting certain pin attempts, as this angered the veterans and seemed to just taunt the monstrous doormen. Matthews back was almost snapped because he resisted having his neck bridge broken down for a pin. Every session with each wrestler that night lasted 6 hellish minutes. We were given no rest periods, no water, no tips between bouts.
When the ‘class’ ended, we were told that we had to put all of the mats away by ourselves. Utterly exhausted, with sweat seeping its way into the fresh mat burns across our eyes, and also being unable to bend our arms fully, it took a while to clear things away.
We were then told that our first lesson was free, but next time, we had to pay the grand total of £2 each. That was the signal for us that we were welcome to return.
With the same silly grins back on our faces, we thanked everyone remaining in the hall, and made our way home. Hobbling all the way. The memory still sticks with me how proud I felt for surviving without quitting during my first session, and how focussed I was about improving in my next.
For the next couple of months, for 2 times a week, we endured the same kind of roughhouse treatment. Yet we continued to return.
I can’t recall exactly when it happened, but we eventually became regarded as regulars, and were greeted warmly upon arrival. Thats when we were sparred with instead of at.
The Valhalla never received many new wrestlers coming through the doors after us. When they did, Matthew and I went to great lengths to try to prevent them from receiving the same kind of welcome that we were given. It inevitably still happened to them at some point, and after it did, I don’t remember those people staying the course.