June 04, 2017

Marvellous, Electrical: The Body Artist

"I'd like to have been an artist, or been able to sing, or play an instrument," Ian admits. "But that creative stuff - that's not me."

I'm still trying to catch my breath. My hair is slick with sweat and Ian has told me that earlier, in my exertions, I went the red of "an old English postbox".

We talk about art while I recover. Since he came to Australia, Ian has become fond of the work of L.S. Lowry, an artist famous for painting the industrial streets of England's north-west, where Ian grew up. 
LS Lowry, Going to Work

Ian doesn't really go back to Salford these days; Australia is his home now. He hints at some lively times in his youth, hanging around with a bad crowd. 

"I didn't pay art any mind when I lived over there. I suppose I might have known the people who robbed Lowry's house," he tells me with a laugh.

But it's on the mat that Ian, for all his self-deprecation, shows me his art.

"Think of this as physical chess," Ian tells me. He demonstrates this by sitting on me, and throwing me, and lifting me off the ground, my forearms crushed against my chest, squeezing so tight that I see stars.

Ian is a champion wrestler and coach, based in the northern suburbs of Brisbane. When I ask to interview him, he agrees, but on condition that I participate in one of his classes at a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) centre out on the fringes of the city.

I walk through half-built industrial estates and residential plots which are yet to be, until I come to a squat building with photos of muscular men pounding the hell out of each other on the wall outside.

Reluctantly I join Ian's wrestling class for their warm-up.

Laps of the gym give way to forwards rolls and tussling little exercises with partners. Then Ian begins to teach technique: ways to grip an elbow and turn the tables on an opponent, how to clasp the head of another wrestler and 'steer' them to the ground.

Ian is fitter and stronger than me by miles, but when he talks of winning a match through 'physical chess', it makes sense. Getting flipped and thrown relentlessly, as I am during our session, doesn't make you feel weak: it makes you feel dumb.

In the three minutes of a freestyle wrestling round, when to back away from your opponent is to concede points, all you are doing is watching for opportunities to defend yourself and put the other person on the ground. It's body weight brought to bear on a knowledge of anatomy, under pressure of time. Your brain does the work as much as your muscles - and when you end up on the mat, it's your brain that has let you down.

"We're always telling people to attack at angles; to find the points that'll let you turn your opponent. But you make that opening. You have to know how bodies work."

Ian denies he's an artist, but when practiced by an expert, wrestling is like dance: art where the body is your raw material.

At twelve years old, the youngest brother in a Salford family devoted to rugby league, Ian was "the short kid, the clumsy kid, the kid with glasses. The angriest midget you've ever seen. Even now, take me off the mat, my coordination just slips away."

But something happened to Ian the first time they let him wrestle. He only got to try it when rugby training was moved indoors because of the rain. Ian was still small and uncoordinated; he still got "pounded", as he puts it. But the coach, a family friend, saw something in him. Ian started to go to wrestling classes.

Within eighteen months he was a champion.

By day, Ian is a body artist of a different kind. He manages the Body Bequest program at Queensland University of Technology. As a former funeral director, he works with communities and donors to ensure that after their life comes to an end, their legacy can make a difference to healthcare professionals.

Working in this sensitive field, talking directly with the dying or the bereaved, Ian speaks with respect and a palpable aura of self-control. In a 2012 interview, Ian was asked if it was hard for him to receive the body of a donor he had been talking with. The interviewer, from the Courier Mail, described his response as non-committal: "It just means I can assist them in doing the last thing they wanted to do."

Perhaps wrestling gives you a generally sanguine character. When I meet Ian, he's wearing a knee brace after training a martial artist who broke the rules and lashed out.

"He managed to kick me in the knee a little bit. Maybe he just slipped," says Ian easily. "You have to accept the things life deals your way." Ian has to be careful to keep the knee straight now, and has taken up cycling to build strength.

Of course, try as I might, I'm unable to shift even the weak leg when Ian baits me to lift him, get him on his back, or even simply flip him over from lying on his belly.

Ian credits his even temper to the time he spent training at gyms like the YMCA in Manchester. 

"It had this feeling of an old gentleman's club," he says. "You'd have homeless guys in there, career convicts, weekly churchgoers, and near-Olympians. It's egalitarian, but fiercely competitive. Even when you're among the best, you can still get your backside kicked. You come to a point where you know: we've all won, we've all been pounded, and there's no grandeur. You're only as good as your last match."

The starkest lesson in this came from Ian's daunting first session as an adult wrestler. Sixteen years old, he graduated from juniors as the British and English champion.

"I was so excited to be joining the adults," he says, "and I walked on that mat, and I got physically smashed for ninety minutes straight. I got on the bus home and I cried my eyes out. It took another six months to learn how to wrestle again."

Ian's parents didn't quite understand what he got out of wrestling. He admits that this suited him: "They only came to watch me a couple of times. It would only have added to my nerves."

Ian's family today feel similarly about wrestling - and about his day job. "My wife doesn't want to hear about the details," he says. "And to be honest, it's not work you want to take home with you. My wife's a great person to talk to about the normal office stuff, she has an outsider's perspective on whatever's been going on with your day - but she's not into my trade, or to my sport!"

He met his wife in Australia after emigrating in the early 1990s. Initially coming over for a three-month working holiday, Ian's plans were thrown when he fell fifteen metres off a roof which he was working on for a friend.

"I've found it's a lot safer if you stay on the building," he says mildly. "But the doctor said wrestling probably saved my life. I knew how to take a fall."

After the accident, Ian found work with the funeral industry almost by chance. He took a casual job driving a hearse and attending services for a funeral director. His composure and competence went down well with the boss, who took Ian on full time and showed him the ropes.

"The big deal was getting on to an embalming course," he said. "That was the transition to being a full professional."

Ian's current role managing body bequests at universities came about after attending an anatomy conference, where he was recruited to the new role.

"Anatomy has been the key to a lot of my work," he tells me. "Sometimes in life, you just find certain things easy, and naturally take an interest in them. When I was fully committed to wrestling, I got into sports massage too. I watched the physios on the wrestling scene, learned a few things and got my certification. It was a great way to fit work around training and wrestling."

"What wrestling has taught me, the lesson I've taken with me into my job, is this: you don't have to be the best at everything, just the best that you can personally be. The best you can be on that day on the mat. The best you can be for that grieving family, for that donor."

Ian takes his sport seriously, and although wrestling isn't as popular in Australia as it is in the UK, he delights in sharing his skills with players of other sports. "I give little bits and pieces of wrestling technique to MMA fighters; I was the tackling and wrestling coach for the Brisbane Lions for a couple of seasons; and I've even shared my skills with ladies' water polo players."

Ian's own personal triumphs on the mat are savoured as memories, but not clung to. He tells me of having stripped the labels from old trophies and donated them to young wrestlers' groups, so the kids could be awarded them after competitions. Silverware on the shelf is of little importance: wrestling keeps you in the present moment, and that moment is where Ian is happiest.

"Whatever happens, compared to Salford, this place is paradise," he says. There's beer and beachfront bike rides and trips to the cinema with his son; and the people of South East Queensland value his skills both in work and at play.

"Wrestling teaches you a great deal about life. After wrestling, life is easy."