HOLTAMANIA IS RUNNING WILD

The incredible story of how Grant Holt went from cult footballer to pro wrestling hero

The great thing about football – and sport, generally, though the English football pyramid in particular – is that it creates hundreds of heroes up and down the country. Not your Lionel Messis, or your Harry Kanes, or Beckhams, Zidanes or George Bests. Instead, the local heroes, the young men who can become literal gods in a certain city or region, while just being a stat on the BBC website to the rest of the nation.

In a way, it is almost possible to feel sorry for those who, through family alliances or glory hunting, follow the big clubs. They will never know the thrill and ecstasy that comes with loving a Bobby Zamora, a Jordan Rhodes, or a Glenn Murray. Or for that matter, former Norwich striker Grant Holt.

After banging in 68 goals in 154 games for the Canaries in the early 2010s, Grant Holt made his triumphant return to Carrow Road this month. But not as a footballer, or even in a legends charity match. Since retiring from the game in 2018, Holt has been training to be a professional wrestler, and had his first big headline appearance in front of 4,000 fans, at one of the biggest British wrestling shows since the glory days of Giant Haystacks and Big Daddy.

Holt was set to take part in a six-man tag match, backed up by one of the most random teams in wrestling history. His partners were both ex-WWE wrestlers. One was Billy Gunn, a genuine star in his day as part of D-Generation X. The other was journeyman French-Canadian Renee Dupree, whose biggest moment came as part of bad guy Francophile team La Resistance, at height of Iraq War-era, ‘cheese eating surrender monkeys’ anti-French sentiment.

It would be one of the strangest spectacles Carrow Road had ever seen.

To look at Holt’s Wikipedia page, you could easily peg him as the archetypical footballing journeyman: Number of clubs played for in double figures. Random sojourns to Sorrento and Sengkang Marine. Four games on loan to Blackpool in 2008, no goals scored. The tail end of his career stretched out with spells in Scotland and non-league.

But the four years he spent at Norwich City between 2009 and 2013 tell a very different story. His first game was a notorious 7-1 home defeat to Colchester United on the opening day of the season, having been relegated to League One the previous year. It was the worst possible start, yet it was actually the most perfect set up for the impact he’d have on the club. That humiliation resulted in the sacking of manager Bryan Gunn, and was the kick up the arse that instigated a remarkable comeback story for Norwich, securing back-to-back promotions over the next two years and bouncing back to the Premier League.

Holt would be the superstar of that golden period in the club’s history, winning Norwich’s Player of the Year award three times in a row, and being inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame. And while he’d eventually hand in a transfer request and made a sideways move to Wigan in 2013, those years have made him the definition of a local footballing hero.

Norwich is even Grant Holt’s home now. Originally from Cumbria, he moved back to Norfolk after hanging up his boots for good in 2018 and being offered a coaching role at the club’s academy. He says his kids have grown up here, and all their friends are here. Copies of his recently-published autobiography take pride of place at the front of the club shop.

Grant Holt’s entry into the world of wrestling came through another Norwich institution – the Knight family, Norfolk’s answer to the Hart Dynasty. The Norwich-based World Association of Wrestling (WAW) was founded in the 1990s by veteran British wrestling couple Ricky Knight and Sweet Saraya, the parents of current WWE star Paige. A long-standing fixture of the British scene, the promotion got national exposure when the Knights were the subject of Channel 4 documentary Fighting With My Family – which then in turn caught the attention of none other than Dwayne Johnson, aka The Rock, who produced and starred in this year’s big-screen adaptation of the same name, with the Knights being played by Shaun of the Dead’s Nick Frost and Game of Thrones’ Lena Hedley.

“Holty’s a massive wrestling fan,” explains Zak Knight, the son of Ricky and Saraya and one of WAW’s biggest stars. It was through BBC Norfolk presenter Rob Butler, a friend of Holt who also works with WAW, that the Norwich legend got involved. “Rob came to me and said Holty is interested and it's something he’s always wanted to do. We got him down, did some training sessions, and then we literally just chucked him in the deep end – ‘ We got a 40-man rumble, what do you say?’. He's done himself justice.”

In May 2018, it was announced that Holt had signed a deal with WAW to appear on multiple shows – and in particular their big ‘Fightmare 3’ supershow in June 2019. Celebrities showing up at a wrestling show for a cheap pop is not unheard of, but Holt was not half-arsing this. He was serious about wrestling, throwing himself into full training over a year before the scheduled bout.

He made his surprise debut in that 40-man Royal Rumble match in September 2018, and the hard work paid off. He ‘skinned the cat’, Shawn Michaels style, and delivered a thunderous dropkick that Daniel Bryan would be proud of.  

It was then confirmed that the Fightmare supershow would take place at Norwich’s home ground of Carrow Road, and include big name US imports including Mick Foley, Billy Gunn and Hardcore Holly. The stage was set for Norfolk’s very own Wrestlemania.

On the morning of the show, Holt is buzzing with energy. You can see the wrestling fanboy shining through. “Sitting in there with Mick Foley and Billy Gunn, it’s mental,” he beams, standing in blinding sun outside Carrow Road. “I was just laughing with my mam, as she’s come down to watch us – ‘I never thought watching you jumping off of the bed pretending to be Mr Perfect, that you’d actually end up doing it in the ring’.”

Wrestling was something he always wanted to do, but was just never able to find time for. “When you’re being a professional footballer, you haven’t got time to eat, let alone anything else.” You also sense that no manager would have been happy if their star striker was sidelined because of a botched suplex or frog splash, either. At 38, it is unlikely that a second career in the WWE beckons, but Holt says he is “just enjoying it for what it is.”

“I haven’t put numbers on it, or where I wanna go. It’s a thing that I do part-time, I haven’t got the time to take it up full-time, but I enjoy it. It’s a great release for me from doing the football stuff. I still do the Norwich, the academy and TV, and as a release I can do that afterwards.”

He reels off a list of his favourite wrestlers from the 1990s – not just Foley and Mr Perfect, but also The Undertaker, Ken Shamrock and The Mountie. He admits to not necessarily having kept up with wrestling fully since then, having only got back into it when he started training. You can tell he knows the new career has raised a few eyebrows, but he says the football world is full of secret wrestling fans.

“You go to channel 401 on Sky, you’ve got football. You go 402, the golf is on. You go on to 405, but when you get to 403 the wrestling is on. You always watch it for a couple of minutes but pretend you don’t really like it, and then you flip on to the football. And that’s what everyone does. And anyone says they don’t, they’re lying!”

Holt says that nearly two decades as a professional sportsman has given him the fitness needed to be a wrestler – but as a footballer, all his strength was in his legs, and wrestling requires your whole body.

“You need to do a lot of upper body strength. It’s a lot of neck stuff, you’re taking a lot of bumps and landings. It’s not easy, it’s lifting big lads up. I’ll be sore for the next couple of nights, let’s put it that way. You are up down, up down, up down, and that’s what kills you.”

“The legs stay where they are, they still go around, it’s just the body. You’ve got to do more weights that you’ve ever done. It’s not that you need to do weights to be big and strong, you are doing weights to basically make sure that when you [take bumps] it’s not as hard on your shoulders and your back.”

Wrestling, of course, isn’t just the physical stuff. It is acting, playing to the crowd, telling stories in the ring. And that is something Holt relishes. “I think if anyone watched me playing football, they would say I was a character in that. The biggest part of my career was enjoying being with the fans. If you were an away fan booing me, or a home fan cheering me, I enjoyed everything about it.”

Holt was an extremely likeable player, which was a big reason why he became a cult hero at Norwich, and it is that charisma which he needs to transfer to the ring. “Holty needs to go out and be Grant Holt,” says Zak Knight. “Holty was loved by fans, he didn’t care about making himself look silly. He was a strong guy, he’d make challenges, he’d bang in goals. Wrestling is the same. It’s about showing the fans you have the confidence to be out there.”

And it seems he has made the right impression with his fellow wrestlers as well. Wrestling can be a protective business, hostile to outsiders, especially those who don’t pay their dues.  Yet the legendary Mick Foley (aka Mankind) is quick to praise the “great attitude” he sees in Holt.

“He’s obviously excited about pursuing this goal,” says Foley before the show. “All the guys respect what he’s trying to do, I think it’s great. With someone like Grant appearing in our world, it gives us added attention, puts more eyeballs on this show, and that’s good for everyone involved.”

Nick Aldis, the current holder of the prestigious NWA world title that Ric Flair and Dusty Rhodes tussled over in the 1980s and another big name on the Fightmare card, also says how impressed he is with Holt’s progress so far.

“Professional athletes, as long as they have a passion for this, you know that they have the physical ability. It’s whether or not they can apply themselves mentally. And Grant understands since he got into it, just how many layers there are. Instead of being intimidated by it, or thinking he’s a big star and can get away with doing whatever he wants, he’s genuinely interested in delving further and further into it. And that’s all you can ask for.”

“To win over the wider wrestling community,” continues Aldis, “he just has to commit to being good a this, and have a self awareness. No one resents him from being in the spot because he’s helping – there’s going to be 4,000 people here, and he’s a big reason for it. Just treat our business with respect, and he absolutely does.”

(It might seem very random to for these big US wrestling stars to be at Norwich City, but both actually have pre-existing connections to Carrow Road. In February of this year, Sheffield United striker Billy Sharp celebrated scoring against Norwich at the stadium by whipping out a sock and recreating Foley’s iconic Mr Socko finisher. After the clip went viral, Foley ended up befriending Sharp and even attended a game at Bramall Lane.

And despite having his biggest success in the US, Nick Aldis is actually English and grew up in Norfolk. He even was once a ballboy at Carrow Road, for a game against Vinnie Jones-era Wimbledon).

Fightmare was, in all honesty, a strange wrestling show to witness in 2019. British wrestling has reinvented itself in the last few years and is in the middle of a boom period, with high flying, strong style talent cultivating a smart, dedicated audience of geeks, outsiders and hipsters. This WAW show, on the other hand, felt like a throwback to a previous era. The outdoor setting gave it a summer fair vibe. And instead of snarky hardcore fans that normally make UK crowds, the stands were full of enthusiastic kids ready to unironically cheer for the good guys, and a smattering grannies booing the baddies.

The show was opened by covers band dressed in zombie make-up, blasting out rockabilly versions of 1960s hits. One awkward moment came when Mick Foley failed to appear despite his music playing – the ring announcer then informed everyone that the hardcore legend was in the bathroom, but would be out shortly. At one point, a dog ran onto the pitch and got one of the biggest cheers on the show.

Despite all this, the event was a definite success. It drew around 4,000 people – a phenomenal number for a non-WWE wrestling show in the UK and something the Knights should be very proud of. Carrow Road holds 27,000 on matchdays, but the ring was wisely set up in one corner of the field, between the South and Barclays stand, as opposed the centre of the pitch, so it never felt empty.

Grant Holt’s bout was the eleventh match of a twelve match card, which certainly took its toll on the crowd’s energy levels, especially on a gruelling hot sunny day. Yet as soon as Grant Holt stepped onto the pitch, the fans snapped back to life instantly.

The match might have been rudimentary and by the numbers, with the trio of Holt, Billy Gunn and Renee Dupree overcoming the odds against a team of local bad guys by the name of Koss Industries, but that didn’t matter at all. By the time Holt opened proceedings with some impressive-looking kicks, Carrow Road was absolutely rocking. Norwich jerseys equalled the number of wrestling shirts in the stands and it was clear who many people had turned out to see. City songs rang out through the stadium. A Grant Holt Samoan Drop puts the crowd into ecstasy.

After the match, Holt stood triumphant, and thanked the crowd – until another four bad guy wrestlers ran out and surrounded him. Things looked bad for Holt, until several members of the Knight family came to fight them off. It all ended with journeyman Championship striker Grant Holt doing a splash off turnbuckle and putting one of the heels through the table.

It was utterly ridiculous, and the crowd loved it. The Grant Holt in the ring wasn’t the real Grant Holt. It was Grant Holt the superhero, adopted by the people of Norwich and entered into legend. It was the Grant Holt that dads will tell their kids about. Not the 38-year-old Grant Holt that currently coaches Norwich City youth players, but instead the idea of Grant Holt, that lives in the memories of the Canaries faithful, forged in the stands of Carrow Road, or at least on Sky Sports.

People who focus of the ‘fakeness’ of professional wrestling are, quite frankly, missing the whole point. Wrestling grew out of legitimate bouts in the nineteenth century, but became a work when the sport didn’t deliver what people wanted. As grappling techniques developed, watching two guys exchange holds for hours on end become a drab spectacle - so promoters started scripting the outcomes to win back the investment of the fans.

The truth is, sport can be boring and a let down. Last week saw the first all-English Champions League final in over a decade, with both Tottenham and Liverpool triumphing through one of the most exciting knockout stages in the history of the competition. The stage was set for a thrilling classic, yet instead both sides offered well below-par performances and the game was decided by a contentious penalty. It was the definition of ending with a whimper instead of a bang.

Wrestling became predetermined to become what sport should be. To tell the stories that ‘real’ sport often teases but rarely delivers on. Offering us the heroes and villains premade, and giving us a satisfying outcome. Sculpting the underdog who triumphs through adversity, or the cheating bad guy who finally gets his comeuppance. Those heroes, they can be real heroes. Real life doesn’t need to get in the way. The wrestling bookers can make sure they don’t miss a penalty in the play-off final, or turn out not to be good enough for the Premier League, or fuck off to Pune City for a massive payday.

In East Anglia, at least, Holtamania will live forever.