I walk past a very smiley man in reception, past a smelly changing room, into a matted space. It’s like walking into a Street Fighter II level. On one side, teenage boys practise sit-ups in tandem. They rise and fall, like grubs. On the other, tough guys pretzel each other in submission holds. Punchbags lie around bearing words such as “Venum” [sic] and ‘“Blitz”. I’ve come to 10th Planet Jiu Jitsu at Diesel Gym, London, to try wrestling, but I’m not happy about it. Wrestling is a thing brothers do, to littler brothers, to sisters, to the cat. As an only child, I never had any interest in the performing of piledrivers over sofa cushions. I like ferns.
I’m looking for John, I say, to a muscular, topless man. An awed look passes over his face. My trainer today, mixed martial artist John “the Hitman” Hathaway, is clearly revered. “Hey!” says a voice behind me. It’s the man from reception, who was smiling at nothing. Standing up, he looks different. He looks like Jonathan Rhys Meyers, playing a French baker in a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film. He has soft eyes, and the widest smile. I later look up videos of Hathaway in action, mercilessly raining elbows on to his opponents’ heads. I’m very confused.
Other class members have trooped in. “Let’s warm up with some pummelling,” announces Hathaway – hardly comforting to hear. Pummelling actually involves slipping hands beneath your opponent’s arms to gain a superior position. I’m teamed up with another beginner, Jack, and we practise underhooks and overhooks in pairs. I begin to get a grip on the basics. Wrestling involves staying low, arms narrow, and being quick on your feet to avoid being pinned or locked. Grappling moves are very specific, which I had never realised. It’s a dance, slipping in and out of dominant position.
Wrestling is among the oldest forms of combat, featured in world mythologies such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad and the Mahabharata. Most countries practise their own form, and folkstyle wrestling is taught as standard in US high schools. There is an elementary resourcefulness that explains its appeal and endurance. “It’s the simplest contest of strength, and way to settle an outcome,” says Hathaway. I think the simplest contest is throwing things into a waste paper basket from a distance. They just don’t talk about it in the Prose Edda.
For an hour, we practise low single-leg holds. I sweep low, holding Jack by the ankle with a head against his knee, slamming him to the ground. Jack practises a defence against this move, yanking me up by the chin and armpit, then dropping me, and scooting round and hugging my chest. I learn a defensive move too: placing a foot on his shoulder and jack-rabbiting to safety. It’s not a striking art, so serious injuries are limited. It does take it out of you, though. It’s exhausting, and we course with sweat. One man has taken his top off very early. Of course, he has a six-pack. (I don’t believe they feel the heat more than the rest of us.)
When we practise footwork drills, trying to tap each other’s foot to win a point, my lightness becomes an asset and I dance away every time. But I want to try my hand at the real stuff, not the baby steps. “OK, let’s try a few moves,” smiles Hathaway, and I enter a ring alone with the elite Ultimate Fighting Championship fighter. Hathaway holds an incredible 17-2 record, and trying a few moves involves throwing me around like pizza dough. He threads his legs through mine and stretches out my achilles. He locks my limbs and applies pressure to my head. He wraps me up like a python. My body is making noises never heard before: gurgling, moans, squeaks – the sort gases make when exiting a corpse.
I experience triangle and anaconda chokes, arm bars and foot locks, heel hooks, something called a “darce”. Although I am in tremendous pain, there is a somewhat goofy energy to this. Hathaway grins more than anyone I’ve ever met. He is also narrating what he is doing in real time, under his breath. “We can grab him in a scarf hold, like this, then drop him, like this,” he says, windmilling me to the canvas. He might as well be adding: “The crowd goes wild!”
Hathaway is so nice. I don’t get it. “I don’t want to beat people up! I just like winning, being the best …” he demurs, before that smile breaks out again, “… at beating people up.” Seriously, what kind of people like wrestling? “Tough kids, sissy kids, even kids with chickenpox,” he laughs. I later discover he’s quoting a vintage TV commercial, for Armour hotdogs. Goofy.
I did enjoy the wrestling, against all odds. My body aches for a week, but there is a value to withstanding pain. We are stronger than we know, and that is empowering. There is a bond that comes with shared physical exertion; it has been nicely different to hang out with the tough guys. We’re brothers in arms. And legs, and armpits.
Will I go back?
I’m approximately 1ft tall and weigh the same as a bag of sugar. Absolutely not.