Pro wrestling in Douglas Clark’s era was an often muddled blend of reality and fictionalised drama, as indeed is this book.
Clark certainly had a life worthy of chronicling. He was among the pioneers of rugby league, winning numerous championships with Huddersfield and England, and is among just 25 members of the sports Hall of Fame. While a rugby professional, he was also a perennial top contender in Cumberland and Westmorland Wrestling, a legitimate contest where grapplers aim simply to trip or throw an opponent to the ground.
Following an eventful stint as a supply driver on the battlefields of the First World War he was given a disability discharge and ordered to give up professional sport. Instead he continued winning rugby championships throughout the 1920s before turning to pro wrestling where the addition of submission holds helped revive the business. Now in his 40s he claimed a British and later world championship, touring Australia and New Zealand.
Author Steven Bell has amassed a wealth of source material including newspaper archives, Imperial War Museum records and even Clark’s own diaries and memoirs. Sadly Clark died before chronicling the pro wrestling years, so we don’t get his direct insight in this section, which makes up the last third of the book.
This does draw attention to a deliberate editorial choice Bell made: to dramatise scenes such that the book is often close to a historical novel (in the style of Mike Chapman’s Gotch) than a straight biography. For example, in a section where the submission style is demonstrated on Athol Oakeley’s lawn, the dialogues it taken almost word for word from Oakeley’s own (somewhat unreliable) book. However, Bell has added detail such as what the men wore and ate which appears to be a pure creation for literary effect.
Whether this is a positive or a negative is somewhat a matter of taste, but it does mean the reader having to make frequent assumptions about which parts of the content are a case of literary license and which are based on Clark’s own writings.
With the pro wrestling section based largely on contemporary newspaper reports and promotional material, the book is written as if Clark’s matches were 100 percent legitimate. It makes for a consistent narrative and any other approach would have been largely based on speculation, but the book does give enough to work with in trying to figure out the “real” story behind the scenes. For example, Clark has several series of matches (including outdoor bouts at rugby stadiums) where disputed finishes are clearly part of a long-term rivalry booking. There’s also a clear falling out with Oakley that suggests Clark may have been reluctant to lose to a less legitimately-skilled opponent.
The book is certainly a strong recommendation for anyone interested in sport and culture in general. From a purely pro wrestling perspective it may be more of a niche proposition, but those with a taste for historical details should appreciate such a detailed account of a key figure in the period between the wars when British pro wrestling truly took on the form we’d recognise today.
[Disclaimer: The author provided a review copy.]