I’m choking. Kendo Nagasaki, the most frightening wrestler this country ever produced, has got me in a three-quarter nelson: my head is in the crook of his elbow; his forearm is tight against my throat and he’s lifting it. I can’t breathe. I’m seeing stars, hearing popping sounds in my neck and trying not to pass out. So I bang my palm against his leg, which feels like steel cable under his red leggings, but he won’t stop. When he does let me go I am in agony. And it’s all my fault. You’ve got to expect pain if you’re stupid enough to climb into a ring with a masked man so vicious he was kept off the television early in his career, before becoming a superstar of Saturday afternoon wrestling in its heyday.
Nagasaki was voted the Wrestler of the Millennium. His ritual unmasking was watched on television by 12 million people in 1977, and shown again last Tuesday as the climax of a show about the best of World of Sport. He wore lenses that turned his eyes a scary red. They sent a chill into the camera and forward down the years into my living room. And here he is, hurting me. “Can’t say it’s fake now, can you?” crows his manager, the motormouth Lloyd Ryan. “Nothing fake about that.”
I’m dizzy, I’m hurting; I’ll agree with anything he says. I was one of those kids who used to throw cushions (or my sister) around after watching Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks and Mr Nagasaki (as I am suddenly keen to call him) slug it out. World of Sport, presented by the super-slick Dickie Davies, held us enchanted every Saturday afternoon in the 1970s. The BBC was in its stuffy pomp, so ITV showed us log-rolling and Evel Knievel jumping buses. Then at 4pm came the wrestling: an hour of burly blokesin a ring.
Most of them looked like the sort of men you might see fighting outside a pub. Big Daddy was a fat former guardsman called Shirley Crabtree. (Wonder why he started fighting?) But Nagasaki claimed to be living “the life of a deceased Samurai warrior”. He even had a ceremonial sword.
Huge crowds turned up to bouts. Old ladies banged on the canvas and roared at the villains, and it was all fantastically over the top, in a sweaty, hairy, wet-Wednesday-in-Wolverhampton kind of way. And it was fixed. The referee started to count but the good guy always got up in time to execute a winning move. It was not sport but violent and sometimes bloody theatre. And it was not all fake, I realise that now as my nerves scream. They played to the crowd, and agreed who would ultimately win, but the holds were genuine. There’s nothing fake about the excruciating pain that starts in the side of my neck and shoots down. I want to throw up.
And Kendo says … nothing. That is his style. His voice was never heard in 40 years as a professional wrestler. The silence and the mask intimidated opponents, fascinated fans and ensured he dominated British wrestling by the time it was taken off air in 1988, having been eclipsed by the absurdities of the American World Wrestling Federation. But Nagasaki’s fame survives: he now appears alongside the American legends in a PlayStation game. Sir Peter Blake was intrigued by the notion of a wordless, faceless warrior and painted Nagasaki’s masked portrait for an Arena film called Masters of the Canvas. The wrestler spoke, but only in subtitles.
Now he has a book out. The Grapple Manual (W&N) is pretty trashy, but I’m not telling him so. He must be 60, so it did not seem all that daring to ask if he wouldn’t talk, would he wrestle? I regretted asking as I arrived at the Drop Kixx Gym in Purfleet, Essex. The doors were locked when Nagasaki’s Mercedes (registration K6 NDO) pulled up outside. He did not want to be seen out of costume. I was in the ring, being shown a move by John Ritchie, the former wrestler who now runs the country’s only serious academy for young men who want to grapple in the World of Sport way. When Nagasaki entered the gym, walking slowly and dressed in a crimson and silver cape, everyone fell silent.
“His name is Peter Thornley,” I told myself. “He lives in Staffordshire and runs a care home for disabled youngsters.” I knew that because he got into a dispute with a neighbour three years ago and his cover was blown in court. But it didn’t help as I stood in the ring. “Hello,” I said. He didn’t answer. I knew he wouldn’t. He just stood there staring me out from behind the mask. Scaring me.
The manager had said Nagasaki would show me a few moves. He did more than that. He stepped forward and delivered a karate chop, an explosion on my chest that made me grateful I had just learned how to fall. When I got up off the canvas he pushed my head down into an armlock and squeezed. That was when I nearly passed out.
“Had enough?” demanded the manager, but this was a (very painful) realisation of a childhood fantasy and I wasn’t giving up yet. “I’m doing this out of respect,” I said to Nagasaki. He nodded. Then he pinned me to the floor so my shoulders felt as if they were popping out. And he turned and held my foot, jamming his elbow between my calf muscle and shin bone. I banged the canvas to submit, but he held it until I screamed, “Enough.”
Nagasaki stood up, stared again, then left the ring and the room. John Ritchie seemed shocked. “I can’t believe what I just saw,” he whispered. “I thought he would show you the moves but he took you apart, didn’t he? He took a few liberties, to be honest.”
I did ask for it. But now I have the advantage over him. I went to the toilet when he had gone, and heard his voice coming through the wall. It made a huge psychological difference. The mystery was gone. He sounded … well, I’m not saying. I have just emailed an address I was given for Peter Thornley and this is what came back: “The cheeky reply would be that you had already pissed yourself and there was a wall between you and Kendo. But on a more serious note, we would suggest that Kendo’s silence be a good guide for you in this matter.” Fair enough. I’m not upsetting that man again. If you want to know what he sounds like, fight him yourself.