Few children have ever had a sweet tooth like me. That boast is neither idle nor proud – it just strikes me as a good place to start this story. Back then, I could compete with a heroin addict and, naturally, that worried my parents. Ice cream and chocolate were carefully rationed with hiding places and tally charts but one thing escaped the clamp down: diluting juice, or high juice squash. Mum marked the bottle level from time to time but the addition of water made it only a moderate level health risk. How wrong she was.
Tropical was my flavour of choice, with its bevy of exotic fruits. Why have one when you could have ten? Regrettably, that was my attitude to many things back then. The marigold nectar became my midnight feast, especially at the weekend when my parents went to bed after watching Parkinson. I would wake at 12.30 like a cuckoo in a clock, my mouth dry and craving sugary goodness. My bare feet landed softly on every other step on the staircase, leaping the creaky, mid-way landing like it was a crocodile-filled ravine. The adventure gave my young heart a real work-out.
My brother Daniel and I used to do everything together: football in the back garden, football in the park, football on the computer, football in notebooks on car journeys. Even when we moved to separate rooms, we’d have football sleepovers in the school holidays. But now, at the age of 14, he had become a nocturnal beast. Daniel was two and a half years older than me and that came with special privileges. First among these was TV. To protect his vision, Mum marked out a ten yard distance like a football referee but that was pretty much the only legislation on a Friday night. So Daniel brought his duvet and pillow down and set up camp on our new sofa. Within weeks, it held the deep imprints of his contours.
I crept along the hallway like Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible. The kitchen light was still on and I stealthily poured myself a strong one, running the cold tap at a quiet trickle. A double, I’d call it now. Usually, that was the end of it but on this occasion, I was wide awake and curious. I padded over to the lounge doorway and peered around the corner. The volume was turned right down and at first, the screen was pitch black. Then a single gold spotlight appeared in the top corner and confetti swirled through the air. The camera panned slowly down to reveal a dimly-lit figure with long blonde hair, wearing an extravagant golden robe. I can still remember the mix of fear and excitement. It’s the same feeling I get now when I watch the YouTube video.
‘What is this?’ I whispered.
With cat-like reflexes, Daniel changed the channel. But a Dad’s Army repeat wasn’t fooling anyone.
‘Why aren’t you in bed?’ he asked.
‘I could ask you the same question’ I thought to myself but I didn’t say it. Instead, I went with ‘Just getting a glass of water.’ But I stayed where I was and Daniel had a decision to make: keep pretending to watch Dad’s Army, or trust me to secrecy. With a searching look, he chose the latter.
‘It’s Smackdown,’ he whispered, lowering his head back to the pillow as if his work was done.
I lay down on the thick green carpet, close enough so that I could hear the commentary. I can still remember the cold touch of the metal threshold on the tips of my toes. The blonde-haired figure was now standing at the centre of a square that was fenced around with ropes. It looked like a boxing ring but where were the gloves? Slowly, the robe was removed to reveal a tight gold and black suit. Then, off came the long blonde wig to reveal a man with short blonde hair and a face painted gold. His eyes and mouth were painted black like a panda. I still had no idea what I was watching. ‘GOLDUST’ the TV caption said. That made some kind of sense.
When the lights came back on, Goldust began to fight. But this was no playground fighting. The duel had the back-and-forth energy of a courtroom drama, and the acrobatics of a synchronised gymnastics routine. When someone got punched, they didn’t pretend that it didn’t hurt; they fell to the floor like they’d been shot and then stumbled back to their feet. They stood, dazed, and waited for further punishment. Was this how adults fought? I looked at Daniel and we shared a complicit smile, our first since he had started secondary school two years earlier.
The commentators spoke an alien, raucous language of ‘turnbuckles’, ‘supplexes’, ‘pins’ and ‘sleeper holds’. Daniel seemed to know what was going on but it wasn’t the time for questions. I just watched and absorbed. It was like a comic book come to life, a pantomime with heroes and villains and ‘he’s behind you’ moments.
1! 2! 3! It’s over!
And so began the wrestle.
Smackdown became our weekly, brotherly ritual. Often we cheered on rival fighters, placing bets of 10p a time. Sometimes, my pocket money disappeared altogether. But best of all were the matches where we were routing for the same team. And no-one received our shared devotion like the Legion of Doom.
What a RUSH!
Road Warriors ‘Hawk’ and ‘Animal’ rode motorcycles to the ring and wore big, spiked shoulder pads. My guess is that now they’d be Donald Trump supporters but back then, they were our heroes. They had Mohawks and painted faces, and were the greatest Tag Team Champions in WWF history. Red and black were their colours, the same colours as the football team that Daniel and I played for.
Their big move was the ‘Doomsday Device’, a grand term for a flying clothesline. One Road Warrior would lift an opponent onto his shoulders and the other would jump down from the top rope. Once the ‘Doomsday Device’ had been detonated, the match was always over. It was amazing how devastating an arm across the face could be.
‘Don’t try this at home’ the adverts always said but we didn’t listen. I would stand in the middle of our parents’ big double bed with a pillow on my shoulders and Daniel would jump off the laundry basket in the corner of the room. With a little more training we believed that we could be the next Tag Team Champions. I was ‘The Glamma Kid’ and Daniel was ‘The Trendsetter’. Together, we called ourselves ‘The Icons of Style’. Our finisher was a flying legdrop called ‘This Year’s Fashion’. My brother wasn’t much of an artist and so I drew our profiles with matching costumes and our vital statistics. I even drew a picture of us fighting against the Legion of Doom. We kept these in a plastic wallet for when we were ready to compete professionally.
It was all fun while it lasted. Looking back, wrestling was the ideal bond, pitched perfectly between us. I was young enough to delight in a ‘grown-up’ thing and Daniel wasn’t yet old enough to show much interest in girls. In other ways we were disentangling but Friday Night Smackdown was our weird and wonderful tether.
There were several key factors in our retirement from the ring. The first came quite early on and it crushed me like few things have ever done since. I’d heard rumours at school but nothing from anyone I considered trustworthy. I decided that only one person could tell me the truth.
‘Dan, wrestling is real, right?’ I asked in as casual a way as possible. My brother didn’t need to know the impact that his answer could have.
There was a long pause.
‘Sorry Sam, I thought you already knew,’ was all he could muster. It was like Father Christmas all over again.
The second was that we broke our parents’ bed. One day as Daniel landed ‘This Year’s Fashion’, we heard the loud snap of slats. We looked at each other, panic in our eyes. We tried to tape things back together but the game was up. We never said a word to our parents but one day, a new bed arrived. It was tempting to continue but we agreed that we couldn’t risk breaking another.
Besides, Daniel was showing signs of restlessness. He wanted to go solo. He was now much stronger than me and so for a while, I became his punch bag. ‘The Chokeslam’, ‘The Rock Bottom’, ‘The Pedigree’ – I experienced them all, with varying degrees of pain. We were careering towards the final collapse, the breaking of this particular tether. It came with a ‘Tombstone Piledriver’, performed on a thinly carpeted floor. Daniel’s technique was flawless with one notable exception. When The Undertaker did it, his opponent’s head never hit the floor. Mine did and at full speed.
‘Sam, are you ok?’ he asked as I stumbled off to get a glass of water.
‘Yeah,’ I said, rubbing the bump that was already rising. I could feel a migraine coming on.
‘Are you sure?’
I nodded and went up to my room. The wrestle was over.
A 30th birthday requires a special gift, especially if it’s your brother. If it can’t be expensive, it has to be really thoughtful. A fancy restaurant voucher? No, I had to do better than that. The adult world had brought us closer again – his son was my nephew, and football was still football.
Mum and Dad were downsizing, which for me meant a long weekend of cleaning and nostalgia. After university, I had never bothered to go home and collect the first eighteen years of my life. They sat there in my old bedroom like a poorly organised museum. It was on the second day of sorting that I found the plastic wallet containing our wrestling profiles. ‘The Legion of Doom’ vs ‘The Icons of Style’. What a time to be alive.
My first thought was Wikipedia – what were Hawk and Animal up to these days? The answer was largely distressing. After years of drug and alcohol addiction, Hawk had died of a heart attack at the age of 46. Animal, however, was still making occasional WWE guest appearances and his son was an NFL linebacker. He had even written an autobiography called The Road Warriors: Danger, Death, and the Rush of Wrestling. With one Amazon click, I bought it for £8.48.
My next thought was Twitter. There were several ‘Road Warrior Animal’ listings but the one with the most followers (4,614) looked to be the real deal. I clicked ‘Follow’ and sent him a tweet asking for him to follow me back so that I could send him a direct message. After two months of trying, he finally did. Not only was Animal now my first celebrity follower but I had the chance to speak to him. I had so many questions but I needed to stay focused.
‘Dear Animal, I hope you’re well. My brother is a big fan of yours and it’s his 30th birthday next month. If I send you something, could you sign it for me please? Ps. I’ll send you money for the return postage.’
A week later, Joe Laurinaitis (his real name) sent me an address in Chicago. I put the autobiography in a Jiffy bag along with my drawing of ‘The Legion of Doom’ vs ‘The Icons of Style’ and a short letter:
Dear Road Warrior Animal,
I really appreciate your help with this. When we were growing up, my brother Daniel and I loved watching the Legion of Doom. I’m very sorry to hear of Hawk’s death. If you could sign the book and the drawing, it would really mean a lot to my brother.
If you don’t mind, I had a couple of questions that I’d like to ask you:
1) Why ‘Hawk’ and then ‘Animal’? If you’re going to call one after a particular type of bird, why call the other something so generic? I always thought you should have been called ‘Falcon’, ‘Eagle’ or ‘Buzzard’
2) Were you ever tempted to leave those spiky shoulder pads on when you wrestled? You would certainly have won more fights that way
I still haven’t received anything from Animal, and Daniel’s birthday was two months ago. Perhaps it got lost in the post, perhaps Animal has a huge backlog of fanmail, or perhaps he reacted badly to my questions.
Luckily, Daniel’s favourite footballer, former Newcastle winger Nolberto Solano, is very active on social media, and his signed shirt hangs proudly on Daniel’s wall:
‘To The Trendsetter,
Best wishes, Nobby’