“If you like gravy, give me a wavy!” This is bellowed by a competitor going by the name of Pyrexeler (like the, um, cooking dish), dressed up as a red tub of Bisto gravy granules. He’s wearing a headpiece which opens up to reveal actual granules which he proceeds to sprinkle over the audience, like a flower girl walking down the aisle. I’m here – up north in a Lancashire village – for the World Gravy Wrestling Championships, which was nothing short of a miracle as I'm a Londoner who doesn’t drive, but still managed to find a way to travel the five hour journey during a bank holiday and national rail trike. No one can doubt my dedication to reporting a ridiculous event and no one can dispute the fact that this event was, indeed, ridiculous.
You might be used to slathering your roast dinner in the juicy brown goodness, but there’s no time for that here. In the back garden of The Rose N’ Bowl pub in Stacksteads, 1,500 litres of warm gravy is poured into a wrestling ring where 16 men and eight women compete in two minutes of wrestling mayhem. (It can only be assumed that the reason for this uneven split is because silliness might be a hard sell.) Competitors must wear fancy dress and all proceeds go to East Lancashire Hospice charity – apart from the £50 prize pot money for first place male and female. The pub itself is crammed fuller than the six barrels of gravy waiting by the side of the inflatable pool-like ring, but I battle my way to the back garden in time for the fancy dress parade. Wrestlers prance round the ring reacting to raucous applause from the audience and chaotic commentary from a man with a microphone. “Boobs, bollocks, bums, and they will be seen,” he booms into his handheld mic. One man parades around in wrestling Y-fronts with Bisto written on them. “It looks like a TicTac!” screams the commentator at this supposedly family event. There’s no warm up, but for a chillingly awkward rendition of “YMCA”.
About 15 years ago, this annual event started in a car park as a “publicity stunt for a food festival that fell by the wayside”, explains event organiser Andrew Holt. Wearing tiny glasses covered in gravy and a beret, he pops out his false teeth to chat properly. My heart dropped at first, thinking it was an accidental denture emergency, but I was relieved to find out they were just a fun prop. Back to the championship history, and after a successful first gravy wrestle, it was brought back year after year and moved to the back garden of the pub, deemed a fun way to make money for charity. The gravy itself is made in Holt’s black pudding factory and transported in six drums of 55 gallons. “You can’t take this job seriously, you have to take it with a pinch of salt,” he laughs. I finished with the world's most boring cleanliness question: “How on earth do you clean all this up?” The local fire department has that covered, it turns out. The wrestling itself was more chaotic than a day out in Oxford Street during a Black Friday sale. Or as the commentator put it: “There’s more skin on show than Conservative MPs resigning.” It was a mixture of total slapstick and something you might see on WWE. Two names were called out and the wrestlers would hype up the audience before the fight began. Most of them seemed to have almost choreographed routines, but were adamant none of this was practised before. Music ranged from “Yakety Sax” (you know, the classic chase scene song) to “Eye of the Tiger”. The true hero was the referee who was often the butt of everyone's jokes and was flung into a lot of fights. Thankfully, he managed to survive all three and a half hours of wrestling in that slippery ring.
“I’m doing 40 crazy things this year because I'm turning 40,” explains finalist Lauren Bricknall. “I promise that if I win, I’ll do an official cage fight. I won't go back on a deal.” Her wrestling name is Ocean Fury and in the week, she works with people with special needs. Today she’s fighting to support a charity for autism. “I’m not a fighting person, but once I got in the ring I was like let's go,” she adds.The rules of how the competitors are deemed winners were more unclear than why the wildly inappropriate host was picked. I’m surprised someone didn’t try to knock him out after making comments such as “You haven’t done this before have you? ‘Cos I'd remember you” to one of the women, before saying he’d fight her husband for her. A good old spot of body shaming was up next for a woman who used to be Angelina Jolie’s body double (“believe it or not”), but that’s enough airtime for him.
Some of the rules seemed to be made up on the spot, like when competitor Moody Cow got disqualified for dragging the ref in with her. Strangely, others went through to the next round despite doing the same thing. As the day went on, it became clear you were awarded higher points if you provided more entertainment factor. One wrestler was introduced as The Cranberry King. “He once found the world’s longest nipple hair," the host added as the king himself ran round the ring beaming with pride. The flexibility of some of the competitors was impressive, too – backward flips, forward flips and quite a few front dives from above, straight onto their cowering opponent. Chaos really ensued when the wrestlers failed to contain their fight within the ring. They’d be found sliding around like slugs trying to slip back in to finish the battle.
Gravy got in places I didn’t want gravy to get in. It’s still not out of my jeans. As I tried to interview the contestants, I was repeatedly drenched in drips of sweaty gravy, as they all tried to rush off as fast as possible in order to get hosed down by the local fire brigade. Most could be described as almost delirious when trying to speak. “We signed up for a joke, but now I've got 52 weeks to bulk up for the next one,” said one competitor, just as his mate dressed in a Mexican flag bounded over. “I'm a very happy man, I ran away from Tijuana!” he screamed in a strange, presumably Mexican-meaning accent. As if in reply, the original interviewee started repeatedly chanting “USA” until his mate bolted from the interview saying he couldn’t breathe. He ended up having to get cut out of the flag, which was wound too tightly around his neck, by a medic. In the chaos of the moment, I wasn’t able to grab either of their names.
All good days must come to an end, though – even ones filled with more laughter than a street of kids in Shoreditch doing NOS. By the end, Ravin Gravy (Nathan Kendall) and The Bacup Bavarian (Patina Bury) were declared the rightful winners and an incredible £5,444 was raised for East Lancashire Hospice. Sadly, so much gravy and chips were consumed on site that there was nothing left for my dinner – luckily, I had enough on my jeans.@ElizabethMcCaf