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29 January 2009

Book Review - The Last Wrestlers (Marcus Trower)

The premise of this book is that Marcus Trower, a journalist, wants to explore “real” wrestling, as opposed to the “fake” pro-wrestling exemplified by Hulk Hogan and the like. Trower searches initially for a spiritual dimension in the sport, then later seeks evidence for his “human rutting” theory. In order to do so, he travels to several countries which have – or at least, used to have – a strong wrestling culture. India, Mongolia, Nigeria and Brazil are all covered, with the last of those four naturally being the one which led me to pick up Trower’s book.

I first heard of The Last Wrestlers on Bullshido, but it didn’t really catch my interest until I read this post. That strongly indicated that there was something relevant to UK BJJ history, which meant I definitely wanted to take a look.

Brazil takes up the last chunk of the book, as the author relates his experiences at Gracie Barra, Brazilian Top Team, Marco Ruas Vale Tudo and Tata Jiu Jitsu. He also gets the opportunity to interview a number of familiar names, like Ze Mario Sperry, with extended pieces on Allan Goes as well. That leads him into a discussion of how BJJ can be a force for positive change in the favelas (Tata established a school in Rocinha partly for that reason). Goes himself emerged from poverty through his success in BJJ and later MMA. Clearly this was a powerfully affecting experience for Trower, as according to this press release (link currently broken, unfortunately), he plans (or perhaps already has?) to set up a wrestling school in one of the favelas himself.

Trower provides a revealing insight into the aspirations and motivations of these fighters, as well as some thoughts on what it is like to train in Brazil and the politics of BJJ. That political dimension is especially strong in the next section, which features a feud between two UK-based BJJ instructors from several years ago. Importantly, Trower maintains his objectivity throughout, always talking to both sides of any dispute.

The immediate comparison that sprung to mind was the excellent BBC Three series, Last Man Standing. While Trower doesn’t engage physically to the same degree (he has various health issues which make that impossible: indeed, Trower's frustration with those problems provides much of the impetus for his journey), the locations are either similar or the same (both Mongolian and Indian wrestling have featured on the BBC program). Like Last Man Standing, it is not only the exploration of the sport which is interesting, but the experience of living in a new country. Trower observes locals dodging through lethal Nigerian traffic, gets his underwear stolen while bathing in the Ganges and watches children grapple horses in Mongolia. You feel part of his journey, and come to admire Trower’s single-minded devotion to his cause despite frequent setbacks.

I disliked the pungent stink of testosterone in various chapters, largely caused by Trower’s desire to prove his “human rutting” theory, in which he claims wrestling may have developed as a means of sexual selection. This is the climax of the heavy male bias throughout the book: women never feature as fellow athletes, but rather as trophies to be won. I’m very keen for more women to take up BJJ and combative sports in general, as there is currently a depressing imbalance. I would have liked to have seen at least some acknowledgement that men are not the only ones who can benefit from grappling’s mental and physical challenge.

Trower’s book appears to view wrestling and combative sports as a purely male preserve, a method of proving ‘manliness’. Trower enjoys throwing out terms like “masculine fundamentalism,” with extended discussions of how he feels men have been emasculated by office jobs and the decline of ritualised combat.

[Update, Oct 2009: Trower (at least I assume its him) has responded to that criticism here.]

That’s a personal niggle with the book, however: Trower certainly doesn’t hide his intentions, the subtitle of his book being ‘A Far-flung Journey in Search of a Manly Art’, so it would be unfair to criticise him too heavily in that regard. Also, as in Last Man Standing, the tribal environment often enforces strict gender roles. I’m still holding out hope for a Last Woman Standing, but unfortunately those societies tend to lack progressive views on women’s rights (though that’s a broad generalisation: I’m certainly no anthropologist).

[Update, Feb 2010: My wish has been granted! Last Woman Standing started last night on BBC 3. See it on iPlayer here, or the official site here.]

The Last Wrestlers is an engaging travelogue, well-written and full of entertaining characters stuffed with colourful anecdotes. Trower is a thoughtful companion through the world of grappling, tenaciously tracking down his subject in distant corners of the globe. If you enjoyed Last Man Standing, or want to learn more about indigenous wrestling, you won’t be disappointed. Available to buy here (US version here).

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