The true story of an Esquire man's years in the grapple game.
What makes a well brought up Jewish boy put down his reading glasses and learn to do a ‘chokeslam’? Esquire’s Max Olesker, once Britain’s youngest professional wrestler, is possibly the only person in the world who can answer that question with any authority.
His is a tale of blood, sweat, leather, steroids, motorway service stations and signed glossy 8x10s (£3 each, or £5 for two).
It’s a story of the rise and fall (and rise again) of British wrestling, from the highs of World of Sport and Wembley sell-outs to the lows of town hall brawls, and of one teenage boy’s extraordinary journey of discovery from a quiet bedroom in Portsmouth to a gladiatorial arena in, er, Portsmouth.
On 15 August 2011, in the Pleasance Grand, Edinburgh, I fractured my ankle by somersaulting off an eight foot-high platform onto a concrete floor, in front of a crowd of 770 people.
This isn’t as odd as it sounds, when you consider I was hoping to land on a 16-stone Lou Ferrigno lookalike called “The Vigilante”, Johnny Moss.
Which isn’t as odd as it sounds, when you consider I was only trying to jump on him in order to gain the advantage in a six-man no-rules street fight match.
Which isn’t as odd as it sounds when you consider I am, or possibly was, a professional wrestler, Britain’s youngest professional wrestler, in fact, known to a very select audience as ‘Max Voltage, The Human Dynamo’.
OK, fine. Maybe the whole thing’s fairly odd.
- "Stone Cold" Steve Austin clotheslines The Rock
I was 11 in 1998, which is when I first sat in a schoolmate’s living room in my hometown of Portsmouth and witnessed the implausible spectacle that is the wrasslin’.
His parents had the luxury of Sky TV, which had a number of benefits. First, there were the carnal delights of the Playboy Channel’s free 10-minute late night preview. Second, there was Raw Is War, the flagship weekly show of the World Wrestling Federation.
The show started at midnight in a raucous explosion of pyro and late-Nineties grunge, and it wasn’t long before I’d decided wrestling was my favourite thing in the entire universe.
In the first episode I watched The Undertaker and his grotesque henchman Paul Bearer kidnap “Stone Cold” Steve Austin from a hospital, knock him out with some ether, load him into a hearse, and take him to a funeral home where they attempted to embalm him alive – a quest that was only prevented by Kane (the Undertaker’s psychotic half-brother) bursting through the doors and beating the shit out of everyone.
What’s more, the wrestling matches themselves were awesome. Fiercely charismatic villains like The Rock, high flying daredevils like Taka Michinoku and weapon-toting freaks like Mankind battered each other senseless, and all in front of a baying audience of thousands.
It was an action movie crossed with a soap opera, featuring men who looked like comic book superheroes and women who looked like porn stars. I wasn’t the only one hooked, either. In 1998, the WWF was having something of a “moment”, and everyone was watching wrestling.
The wild, ether-based exploits of The Undertaker et al were part of a stylistic sea change toward adult-orientated content known as the “Attitude era”. Gone was the cartoon camp of Hulk Hogan and his bloated Eighties cohorts — the WWF suddenly felt edgy, trashy and self-aware. There was Shawn Michaels telling anyone who’d listen to “suck it”, a wrestler named The Godfather exhorting audiences to “roll a fatty, for this pimp daddy” (his persona was that of an oft-overlooked role model; the loveable neighbourhood pimp) and Steve Austin getting into a pull-apart brawl with “Iron” Mike Tyson during a press conference.
Suddenly, briefly, wrestling was cool again. To a Portsmouthian adolescent sitting in front of his mate’s dad’s TV, this was a Damascene moment. I knew that I had discovered my calling in life. I was going to become a professional wrestler.
I come from an artistic family and as a result I’d never been hampered by notions of plausibility when it came to selecting my career. “Oh, I think I’ll probably be an impressionist” I blithely informed my parents, aged seven. When I was eight, I was fairly certain that “professional animator” was the vocation the gods had chosen for me. A glance at a Year Three workbook reveals I also announced my intentions to become a “planet farmer”, whatever that might be.
Amidst the wildly swinging barometer of my obsessions I did manage to cultivate a fairly consistent interest in writing and performing, thanks to an impeccable early diet of classic movies courtesy of my cineaste father.
The comedies always stood out for me. I was entranced by the work of the Marx Brothers, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen — and possibly even the occasional non-Jew — and so retained a vague idea I might find myself attempting to follow in their footsteps. Though only if I were unable to bag the position of “in-house Robot Wars inventor” I’d decided upon that afternoon.
My parents reacted to my announcement I was to become a wrestler quite sensibly. They decided to ignore me, until I’d got it out of my system.
By the time I was 13, buried beneath an avalanche of hormones and hair product, the notion of being a wrestler had consumed me.
My excess pubescent energy was devoted to the cause. Monday night Raw is War became a weekly fix, but I needed more. I used the nascent internet to source VHS tapes (remember them?) of grappling footage from across the world, discovering the gaudy, gravity-defying luchadores of Mexico and the stoic, grunting warriors of Japan.
I’d practice moves in the playground and the living room, vaulting off the sofa in a bid to perfect my flying elbow drop, and coming perilously close to decapitating myself on my desk as I attempted to unlock the secrets of the “moonsault” (it’s a backwards somersault; the secret is it should on no account be practiced off a desk).
I needed an outlet, but my quest was clearly doomed. I was too young to be a wrestler. At 5ft 2in and approximately six stone, I was far too small. And, more to the point, where the hell does a kid from Portsmouth go to learn to wrestle just like the blokes off the telly? Bizarrely, as the fates would have it, the answer was Portsmouth.
The company that ran the wrestling school was called the FWA — the letters originally stood for Fratton Wrestling Association but were quietly tweaked to become Frontier Wrestling Alliance when the company’s ambitions began to eclipse that particular region of Portsmouth.
That wrestling existed in the UK at all was a revelation in its own right — discovering a fully operational training school in my own hometown was a slice of cosmic serendipity too extraordinary to comprehend.
The FWA “Academy” was located on an industrial estate a mere 15 minutes from my house, and there was no question of what I must do. I strapped on my rollerblades and skated towards my destiny.
- Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks, two of Britain's biggest (though by no means best) wrestlers
If you’re old enough, you might remember when British wrestling was on the telly. From 1965 to 1985 there was World of Sport, with gentle commentary by Kent Walton, occupying ITV’s teatime slot on a Saturday.
The nation would tune in to watch as Jackie “Mr TV” Pallo tussled with Mick McManus, and hardman Les Kellett did battle with “Bomber” Pat Roach. British wrestling existed in a different universe to the brash glitz of the American stuff. It developed in a dour, post-war landscape.
It was a discipline practiced by stout, working class men. They dressed soberly in trunks and boots, demonstrating their knowledge of skilful, dextrous grappling. Its natural environment was the smoky town hall, or the working men’s club, or Butlins.
It was patronised by children, and little old ladies who would sit in the front row, screaming blood-curdling obscenities at the villains. It was, in a grubby sort of way, a national institution, like Blackpool pleasure beach or Top of the Pops. Frank Sinatra and the Queen were reputedly fans.
In 1981, the wrestling’s popularity was such that Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks were able to take their monstrous feud to Wembley Stadium (Big Daddy won, incidentally, after a full three minutes of action, when Haystacks tumbled to the outside of the ring and proved unable to waddle back in).
Gradually, though, the wrestling began to fall into decline. Sandwiched between the racing and the football scores, the theatrics of World of Sport became an anachronism.
In 1985, it was bumped from 4pm to a 12.30am slot. Ratings dwindled. Eventually, in 1988, a young TV executive named Greg Dyke pulled it from the air altogether.
Wrestling slipped out of the nation’s consciousness, living on mainly in the memory of those who had cheered loudest – the children, and the little old ladies.
I didn’t know it at the time, as I deftly ’bladed my way past Asda and round the back of St Mary’s Church to where the FWA Academy was based, but British wrestling was emerging from a decade-long slump.
Post-World of Sport, the live circuit had all but dried up. A handful of the old promoters continued to run shows in the same old venues, but the wrestlers were ageing and the scene was moribund.
However, with the WWF reigniting interest in wrestling the world over, there came an influx of “new school” promotions, of which the FWA was one.
It was set up in 1999 by a man named “The Specialist” Mark Sloan, who had been taught to wrestle by an old-time Pompey grappler and ex-docker named “The Rat Catcher” Dave Hines.
I arrived at the Academy to discover a dusty gym in a half-built industrial unit. It smelt of old sweat and even older damp. The toilet had no lid. But there, in the middle of the room, just like on TV, was a wrestling ring. I was in heaven.
Wrestling training is just like training for any other sport, sort of. There’s the warm-up, the drills and then the advanced manoeuvres.
It’s just that, in wrestling, warming up involves bouncing back and forth off the ring ropes at great speed, the drills involve “bumping” (training yourself to land on your back, stomach and sides, without letting your head smash against the floor) and the advanced manoeuvres could be any one of a billion gloriously-named techniques, from the “missile dropkick” to the “Death Valley Driver” to the “space flying tiger drop”.
I trained under the tutelage of Sloan and skilled old-school wrestler Justin Richards, for ten hours a week, alongside a group of likeminded disciples.
I was the youngest trainee by about four years and the lightest by about four stone, but if anything this made me a more popular sparring partner; it’s a lot easier to pick up and slam your opponent if they’re one third of your size.
Now is probably as good a time as any to tackle the question of wrestling’s legitimacy. Louis Theroux, in his superb Weird Weekends documentary about American wrestling, attends a training session at The Power Plant in Atlanta, a famous facility that once churned out wrestlers for WCW, the WWF’s great rival.
Whilst training, Louis has the temerity to ask Dwayne “Sarge” Bruce, the Power Plant’s terrifying, Napoleonic head trainer, whether wrestling is fake. Sarge loses his shit. He forces Theroux to undergo a brutal workout, pushing him to keep going until he throws up, and finally makes him lie on the floor and utter the words “Sir, I am a dying cockroach, sir!”
This was, arguably, a little extreme. But what I think Sarge was attempting to communicate, via the medium of his stunted, vindictive rage, is that wrestling is one of the most athletically difficult things it’s possible to do.
Just because you know in advance that a 30-stone man named Pitbull Bulk is going to sit on your head doesn’t make it any less painful (that genuinely happened to me, in a town hall in Gosport. The smell was harrowing).
The mystique surrounding wrestling’s fakery stems from its murky beginnings as a form of legitimate combat, but it was all for show long before the very first episode of World of Sport hit the screens. As Hulk Hogan, wrestling’s Ronseal-tanned first son, said when he creaked his way on to Loose Women recently: “These days we let everybody know that it’s predetermined, we know who’s going to win and lose, duh!”
As the Hulkster has blown our trade secret wide open, I may as well elaborate. Of course the matches are rigged. All of them. And wrestlers tend to know the key bits that are going to happen — the “highspots”, as they’re known — but the rest of it, would you believe, is more or less worked out on the fly, in response to the reaction of the crowd.
Pro-wrestling is a shared physical language, involving two performers working together to manipulate an audience - a sort of extremely violent improv game. It’s physically demanding, and it’s exhausting. And even though wrestlers hit each other where it’s safe, and try not to injure one another, the moves really do hurt.
Despite all the trade secrets injuries are common, if not inevitable. Does wrestling’s planned nature make it any less of a sport? I don’t know. What I do know is that there are people out there who think pétanque is a sport. And frankly, they can go and fuck themselves.
I trained at the FWA Academy three times a week for a year before I had my first match, because that’s how long it takes to learn to wrestle properly — to learn the finer details like when to “sell” (take a beating) how to “feed” (time your movements so you’re always in the right place in the ring) and how to get your “heat” (make a roaring comeback, with the crowd egging you on).
Then, with the prospect of my debut looming, it became time to think of a gimmick. In wrestling, your persona is just as important as how many moves you can do: Hogan is proof of this; he continues to elicit mammoth reactions when he steps into the ring, despite being a completely immobile 58-year-old with knees held together by Blu-Tack and hips made of MDF.
After much thought, I devised a high-energy, enthusiastic good-guy character, with the moniker of “Max Voltage”. It took my real name, incorporated an extremely brilliant pun, and carried with it implications of speed and danger. Strong.
A name of this calibre naturally required a costume to match, so I sat in my bedroom, Peter Parker-like, and sketched out a suitable outfit for my alter-ego. I arrived at a bold look, merging the finest sartorial traits of MC Hammer with those of the Power Rangers, in one imposing package.
Two weeks later, I held my first set of wrestling gear in my hands. It had been designed, according to my preposterous specifications, by my mum. I had parachute pants, shoulder pads covered with lightning bolts, and everything was made of pleather. Max Voltage was ready to wrestle.
- The garb of a warrior
It’s May 2, 2002 at Portsmouth’s Buckland Community Centre, located just off the dual carriageway and over the road from Aldi.
It’s roughly two weeks before my 16th birthday. Today is the day that I assume the mantle of Max Voltage for the first time, step through the curtain and make my debut as a professional wrestler. My opponent for this contest is none other than my trainer, Mark Sloan. Witnessing our battle is a rabid crowd of approximately 30 people.
As I charge through the entranceway and around the ring, high-fiving the fans, I spot my school friends, my parents and — in what marks a high watermark in my life to date — a row of people I’ve never met, cheering for me in unison.
Even more bafflingly, two of them had taken the time to make a cardboard sign with my name on it. My debut wasn’t even advertised on the card, and to this day I have no idea how they managed this feat.
Anyhow, spurred on by their astonishingly prescient moral support, I was victorious. I defeated “The Specialist” with my finishing move (a “powerbomb” variation ingeniously dubbed “The Max Factor”). I was elated, and felt it marked a clear milestone in my journey. I had been a fan and I’d been a hanger-on, but now, finally, I was one of the boys — a professional.
This is how I imagined the life of a professional wrestler:
- Wake up.
- Answer fan mail.
- Work out in private gymnasium.
- Record anti-drug PSA, due to status as role model for young people.
- Ride tour bus to hotel. Shower.
- Take limo to venue (sports arena, stadium, or so forth).
- Rest before show in private changing room.
- Wrestle before adoring crowd.
- Shake grateful promoter’s hand.
- Take tour bus home.
- Receive sizeable cheques at end of month.
This is the reality of life as a professional wrestler:
- Cram into the car of whoever’s driving.
- Bicker furiously over who gets to ride shotgun.
- Stop at services.
- Bitch about other wrestlers.
- Discuss plans to “get into really good shape”.
- Complain you suspect other wrestlers are “on the gas”.
- Discuss plans to start “getting on the gas”.
- Make outrageous boasts as to recent sexual activity.
- Phone other wrestlers in other car who have got lost.
- Arrive at venue (town hall, or working men’s club, or Butlins).
- Unload ring from ring van.
- Set up ring.
- Discover crucial component to ring is missing.
- Improvise crucial ring component from bits of metal found lying around in the back of the ring van.
- Get changed in communal changing room, or hallway, or car park.
- Wrestle in front of sparse crowd of promoter’s friends and bewildered locals.
- Spend interval of show furiously shilling merchandise – foam fingers, T-shirts, or signed glossy 8x10s – to eager kids and their reluctant parents.
- Receive £40, cash in hand, from equally reluctant promoter.
- If driving, receive expenses that cover one-third of actual petrol costs.
- Head to hotel.
- Discover “hotel” to be “B&B”.
- Discover bedroom will be shared with seven other wrestlers.
- Dump bags and go out to local high-street bar.
- Spend entire pay packet on drinks, consumed at speed in competition with fellow wrestlers.
- Stagger back to B&B. Sleep on floor, with head propped up on feet of another wrestler.
- Drive home, via services.
- Severely penalise anyone who falls asleep during car journey.
- Arrive home sleep-deprived, sore, and marginally poorer than prior to trip.
That description of a — fairly typical — roadtrip shouldn’t be taken as an indicator that we didn’t have fun. On the contrary, I (and my fellow FWA Academy graduates) absolutely loved it.
Never mind the fact the shows we were doing bore absolutely no resemblance to the TV stuff that had hooked us in the first place; people were paying to see us wrestle, so we were on our way.
Besides, we’d bonded by this point, so the terrible shows — “pisspots”, in loving wrestler-slang — were looked back on just as fondly as the good ones.
One show began with a spectacular burst of indoor fireworks which promptly set off the venue fire alarm, forcing the entire crowd (of perhaps 20) to troop outside in single file before the show was restarted.
On another occasion, a stern-faced caretaker informed us wrestling was henceforth banned from his venue as he “strongly suspected” someone had stolen a packet of his biscuits. Whatever. It was all grist for the mill as we bragged and bantered our way back down the M4 at 6am.
Also, amidst the bullshit, there were some extraordinary experiences. In between handing in bits of A-level coursework, I found myself battling international competitors from America, Mexico and Japan — some of the very guys I’d idolised from afar on VHS.
I trained with Hall of Famer Bret “Hitman” Hart, current World Heavyweight Champion Daniel Bryan and pioneering Japanese wrestler Mistuhara Misawa (now sadly deceased).
I flew to Milan and was awarded a plaque for my services to Italian wrestling. I was 17. It was great.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the moment at which I stopped wanting to be the best wrestler in the world, or realised I might not even want to be a fulltime wrestler at all, actually.
I never stopped enjoying it, so I didn’t loudly renounce my love for the sport, like some do. That sort of public display seems to have a reverse effect in the wrestling world and results in much-retired veterans such as Terry Funk still lacing up their boots aged 68.
There were a couple of factors. My fast-paced style was starting to take its toll, and I was getting hurt – my back was clicking in curious ways, my right shoulder was now the wrong shape, and my knees popped. I ended up getting my face split open by a steel chair during a chaotic brawl around Orpington Town Hall (I still bear the scar, just above my right eyebrow). I was starting to get tired.
What’s more, the siren song of university lured me away from Portsmouth, the spiritual (and geographical) home of my training.
Suddenly wrestling seemed like a much more abstract concept. A much stranger thing to be doing with one’s time. I still had the Power Ranger costume, I kept it in a bag under my bed. It just didn’t come out as much.
- A Max Voltage missile dropkick
It’s the Edinburgh Fringe, 15 August, 2011. I’m 24, and it’s two years since I left the warm, consequence-free bubble of university. Since then I’ve moved to London and devoted a not-insubstantial amount of energy to securing a job at this very publication.
But I’m in Edinburgh for the Festival pursuing my other great passion; comedy. I’ve been performing throughout the month as one half of Max & Ivan, a comedy double act. But on this fateful day we attempt something far, far more ambitious — a fusion of comedy and violence in the 770-seater Pleasance Grand, the largest venue in Edinburgh.
The show is entitled simply The Wrestling. The idea, which seemed reasonable at the time (many months previously), is simple: train comedians to wrestle. Beg wrestlers not to kill the comedians. Let them do battle within a wrestling ring. Pit good against evil. Sculpt a narrative for the evening and create a wrestling show for non-wrestling fans, working on the basis that experiencing a live wrestling show is experiencing something basic and primal and universal.
You don’t need to know “the rules”, you simply need to understand conflict. Pick a side. Cheer them on. Scream. It’s cathartic. Pretty soon at a wrestling show, everyone in the crowd becomes a child or a little old lady.
The event was, by any set of measurements, an insane risk. We were unrehearsed, underprepared, and almost certainly uninsured (I’m legally required to clarify that we were actually 100 per cent insured for everything. Even the stuff with the chairs getting thrown, and the brawling through the crowd).
And yet, because the Edinburgh Fringe is a mystical, fantasy realm, unburdened by the laws of logic and reality, The Wrestling was a thundering success.
I had no idea the wrestlers and comedians would mesh so well on the night, that the atmosphere of the crowd would become so feral and electric, that the show would go on to win the Foster’s Comedy Award Panel Prize for encapsulating the spirit of the Fringe. Or that I’d shatter my ankle whilst attempting to somersault from the top rope onto “The Vigilante” Johnny Moss, outside the ring — an injury which, 11 months later, has still not-quite healed.
I had no idea about any of that stuff because that wasn’t why I did the show. It was, in many ways, a farewell to the experience that had been a backdrop to my youth, and that I no longer needed now that I was – despite being horrendous at ironing and not great with risotto – grown up.
Because wrestling was my youth club. My means of navigating adolescence – a place where all that additional testosterone could be siphoned off in a whirlwind of teenage tribalism, male bonding and jumping around.
Some people get really into football, or form a rock band. I became a professional wrestler. And, like one last gig or an old-boys’ match, the show was a final chance to capture some of the magic of that youth, and I had no idea if it would work or not. But it seemed like it was worth a punt.
So I climbed to the top rope, looked down at “The Vigilante” Johnny Moss, out to the 770 fans screaming in the sold-out Pleasance Grand, and I jumped.
Words by Max Olesker
Photographs by Idil Sukan /Mark Sloan / David Monteith-Hodge