There have been times in the past few years when top class sport has resembled another circus in town. But the clowns that have seized the sporting public's eye have, by and large, got away with their antics for one excellent reason -they've also been a bit useful at their sport, from time to time.
Boxing fans might well have thought Muhammad Ali was the biggest bore since 'Gone with the Wind', Tennis followers have probably wished that Ilie Nastase had been one of the millions who weren't able to cross the Iron Curtain.
But what has saved both men from the total wrath of followers of the two sports, has been the remarkable ability possessed by both men. When the clowning stopped, Ali and Nastase were per- formers at the very peak of their professions. And no one could argue with that, but the world of wrestling has one burning question to face as the 1970's draw towards a close, Are the number of clowns, entertainers and perpetrators of all the ballyhoo that nowadays accompanies professional wrestling, getting a free ride upon a vehicle which they have no right to be on? Or, to put it a more emphatic way, is the razzamatazz wringing wrestling's skilful neck?
It's a question that more and more true wrestling enthusiasts are asking. Certainly, as Nastase and Ali led thousands along behind them in the best Pied Piper traditions, so the characters and entertainers have multiplied the throng at wrestling events, halls have been filled; TV viewing figures have rocketed and scores of names have become household words to folk throughout the land. But whether those 'names' have got into every home by slightly devious means is a question that now gains ground in professional wrestling.
Of course, such a thought is indigenous to the natives of what is still, to a large extent, a fairly refined nation. Three thousand miles across the North Atlantic Ocean, cigar smoking natives in flashy suits with waists spiralling outwards as fast as our own inflation, would think you slightly mad to even ponder the point.
"Sell the seats and forget your cares" is the normal American slogan - and maybe there is some worth in the argument. But in the case of wrestling, there is rather more to it as long as you're assessing the merits of the sport in Britain. The American version is, as they say, a whole new ball game with such delights as eye gouging presented for the mob's delight.
Happily, 'World of Sport' viewers can see wrestling of a rather higher calibre each Saturday afternoon. The sight of true, purist wrestling is still one of the best in TV sport for the skill factor is not to be underestimated. But that's where the discussion comes in. For although wrestling has enjoyed a phenomenal growth rate in the past 5 years as a spectator sport with a difference, the packed halls and filled seats have been achieved by a rather unorthodox form of wrestling.
Where flicked wrists, dropped shoulders and Boston crabs ruled, black masks, stomachs the size of saucepans and glittering gowns have barged in. And wrestling's great worry now is that all the razzamatazz and shownmanship that has appeared will take over from the proper stuff.
It's no idle threat. Wrestling has seen a remarkable change in style and appearance. The crowds have poured in yet the feeling is unmistakeable that it is the showmanship that has attracted them.
Top voices in the sport are already expressing private doubts as to the merits of the gimmick merchants. And the man behind wrestling's most famous voice, commentator Kent Walton, is one of those who doubts the wisdom of the current trend.
Kent is astute enough to know that the showbiz stuff doesn't yet dominate the sport. He says with a tone of relief in his voice that there are still plenty of true. purist-type wrestling matches for the real enthusiasts.
"But we must be careful,? he warns, "We have to make sure we don't kill the golden goose which is what could easily happen. This growth rate has been so rapid that it threatens to get out of hand. We must take steps to ensure it is handled properly."
Kent says that Nastase's example is the ideal comparison. "People love him or hate him but either way they want to go and see him play. That's ideal because once he's out on that court, he can play some marvellous tennis. There's no getting away from that.
"But too much of this gimmick stuff in wrestling has not helped the sport. Promoters have put it on and that is understandable because it has filled halls all over the country. They're in business to make money and sell seats and if they can do that, well it's OK by them whoever is on.
"But there's little doubt that there has been too much of the gimmick stuff. There hasn't been enough of the proper, technical wrestling which requires real ability. I'm worried that some of the modern day performers haven't come up through the wrestling ranks the way they used to; by winning junior titles and then becoming senior Champions and things like that.
"Too much of this showmanship stuff is a bad thing for several reasons. The real skills of wrestling are being left behind and, to those wrestlers of real skill and ability, most of the showbiz stuff is degrading. It can be overdone and I believe it has been overdone at times. One or two exhibition, gimmick type matches on a major bill of several bouts might be acceptable. But at times, there have been two, three or four possibly, and that's too many.
Kent is quick to point out that he's one of the real fans of true wrestling.
"George Kidd was the greatest wrestler I ever saw" he says. "The man had so much skill and ability, he was a real performer in the complete sense of the word.
?I believe that type of wrestling loaded with skill, is a super spectacle. There is a place for the other stuff - but it must not take over from the proper stuff as it could if it's allowed to go on unchecked."
All in wrestling was banned in Britain just before the last war. And we're better off without it, says Kent Walton. Why?
"It was ridiculous" says Kent. "Eye gouging, breaking heads with buckets from the corner, all that sort of thing went on. It was no longer a sport and there was none of the real skill factor to get pleasure from.
"If these showmanship antics we're seeing now continue to go that way, it's quite possible someone will step in eventually and say 'this just isn't a sport anymore.' Wrestling will suffer from that and I, for one, just don't want to see that happen.
"We must aim to bring back wrestling to its skilful style with only the occasional gimmick stuff. At the moment, I fear it's the other way round and wrestling is threatened if that's the case."
Kent's words will not be received well in some quarters. But there is no doubt whatsoever that among the true enthusiasts who have followed the skills of wrestling for many years, those words will strike a loud, truthful note. Wrestling has been overwhelmed by the entertainers, the fearsome looks, black beards and glitter in the last five years, often to the detriment of the ordinary wrestlers who show just skill as their credentials.
Kent says: "If you were to ask all the honest people and the wrestlers with real ability, they'd all agree with me. But the problem is convincing the promoters. I've seen some remarkable sights in the last five years at wrestling events up and down the country.
"I've seen people standing eight deep in the halls with every seat taken. The box office people are more than happy because there has never been such interest. The promoters have a problem because they want to see people coming in to the halls. At the moment they're getting that and they may be reluctant to make changes.
"But for the long term sake of the sport as we know and enjoy it, the skill factor must play a bigger part than the showmanship stuff. The big entertainers are appearing much too often at present for the good of the sport," Kent's real feeling for the sport which he brings to millions of homes each week, shines through. "I just wish more people among wrestling fans would enjoy the wrestling for wrestling's sake rather than for the showmanship sake. I'm worried because we've got to the stage where if things don't improve soon, it's going up the ladder so fast it will go over the top,"
Kent, however, takes encouragement from the letters he receives from the real wrestling fans - stacks of letters each week, enthusing over some highly skilful bout seen on 'World of Sport' the previous Saturday afternoon.
"People write to me asking for the results of bouts and they want to know exact details; when the bout ended and even with what sort of hold. Those people encourage me because they're the real wrestling enthusiasts who are interested in the real skill factor within the sport,
"It is a skilful sport, there is no doubt of that, If you watch wrestlers like Bert Royal. Vic Faulkner, Mal Sanders, Johnny Saint, Tony St Clair, Pete Roberts, Ray Steele, Steve Grey and Mike McMichael you see they have true ability and skill, I just hope the day doesn't come when that skill isn't there - only the gimmick stuff. We must avoid the situation at all costs be- cause there will only be one loser in that bout - true wrestling."
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