Cumberland and Westmorland Style Wrestling - the integrity of man to man combat



In the old Market Hall in Carlisle, in the seventies, I watched as the masked villain, Kendo Nagasaki, was poked by an old lady with an umbrella as he lay on the canvas of the wrestling ring. The crowd bayed and howled as big men in black suits led the old lady away, back to the dressing rooms, no doubt. A night of tremendous entertainment and passion was calmed down by a final skilful bout between two clean-cut young men, whose overt sportsmanship approached saintliness, and the satisfied punters went to catch the bus.

That night had a compelling narrative, well rehearsed and delivered. What it lacked was any sign of genuine competitive wrestling.

Our local wrestling may have been blighted by barneying over a century ago, but for ever and a day the sport is conspicuous by the integrity of each bout of man-to-man combat. We have the genuine competitive wrestling; what we sometimes lack is the compelling narrative.

At the recent AGM of the Wrestling Association there was a discussion about whether all wrestling should be best-of-three for each bout. The issue had come to a head at the Westmorland Show where single falls, otherwise known as "sudden death", were the order of the day and there was some discussion about whether that was appropriate when wrestlers had travelled so far to participate.

In the sixties I remember travelling from my home near Barnard Castle in North Yorkshire to compete at Jedburgh Games, where I lasted about ten seconds in the 12 stones and less in the All Weights. Single falls were and had been universal in our traditional wrestling, but times they were a –changing. When hundreds of wrestlers turned out to compete, then the organisers had no option but to have several rings simultaneously and sudden death until the final. But, when the entry lists were short, the bouts had to be longer.

When Wolsingham Show in Weardale asked me to organise the wrestling in the seventies, I had good prize-money and a big range of categories on offer, but only when I advertised best-of-three wrestling did the event take-off in a sustainable way. Without wrestlers there is no narrative.

In Scotland they struggled with entry numbers and moved to a pool system, a round-robin, where wrestlers compete many times at each venue. This gives plenty of action but a lack of clarity for the spectators. In England wrestlers were battling at length to take hold before the action could start, and long, defensive wrestling was common. Without spectators there is no wrestling.

Our old unchanging sport has actually changed greatly for the better in the past decades in the way it presents itself in the ring: the referee controls "tekkin hod", the table organisation has fewer gaps in the flow of bouts, most events have their own wrestling ring so are not ousted by racing terriers or horse-jumping, speaker systems keep the crowd informed, and with the simple, well understood knock out system of rounds leading to a final, the crowd has a clear story to follow before the winner gets the cup.

Calling all referees

a big presence in the ring: referee Joe Harrington in charge at Penrith Show Active refereeing: John Wilson keeps things safe at the Cumberland Show

The Wrestling Association is holding an important meeting for referees at Carlisle Rugby Club (7.30pm, Friday 20th April). The role of our referees has changed basically in the last few years, and there is a constant need for consistency and good practice. Old Fred from down the pub can no longer have his ten minutes of fame refereeing at the local show. The Association has a list of approved referees, and this year for the first time they will be allocated centrally by the CWWA, so that the position does not become monopolised by the few. To back up its determination to improve refereeing standards, the Board expects attendance at the referees meeting each year, and those missing two will automatically drop from the list until they attend again.

Each referee will be formally assessed each season and informally advised, as necessary. Who on earth is qualified to be an assessor? Well, we will not know until next week, for the referees attending the meeting will choose three wise men to do the job. This is a master-stroke, for the assessors are not flown in from a different authoritarian world, but are those most respected by their peers.

The route into refereeing is through taking charge of Junior wrestling and then moving up to take charge of the Seniors. All referees on the CWWA list, both Junior and Senior, should attend, but the meeting is also open to anyone who is interested in officiating.

Written by © Roger Robson. Photographs by © Roger Robson, Julian Richardson or Linda Scott (2012)


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