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Literary People in the News: Wrestling With Whakapakari Camp’s John Da Silva

In an occasional feature, Steve Braunias looks at the literary folk who pop up in the news. First up, following recent revelations from Whakapakari camp, Steve recalls John da Silva’s appearance in the 1979 memoir Life on the Mat.

Wrestling legend John da Silva – once the most hirsute man alive – featured in the Weekend Herald’s harrowing investigation about a weird boot camp for youth on Great Barrier Island.

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Da Silva was director of the Whakapakari camp where boys were told to dig their own graves. Matt Nippert interviewed Da Silva, and wrote:

“The former wrestler, who competed at the Olympics and in town halls up and down the country during a curious period in New Zealand history where professional wrestling was a legitimate local industry, defended Whakapakari by noting that no one had died.”

That “curious period” is splendidly captured in the 1979 memoir Steve Rickard’s Life On The Mat. It was published by Rugby Press and ghost written by John Mancer, of Mania, Taranaki, a hack at the Sunday News, and who also played bass in orchestras for eight years. Steve Rickard was a pro wrestler who co-presented the classic 1975-83 TV show On The Mat. The hairy and enormous Da Silva was a regular guest, and master of the famous “surfboard” hold, but was the old man of wrestling by then. His great years were as New Zealand heavyweight champion from 1954 through to 1957, and when he represented New Zealand at the 1958 Commonwealth Games in Cardiff.

Rickard died in April. He was 88. He says in his book that the most memorable bout of his career was a hard-fought draw with Da Silva at the Wellington Show Buildings. The two wrestlers are pictured after the fight; even Da Silva’s rug looks exhausted.

The book is a rough, amateur production. But the contents are lively, and it may be the best wrestling book in New Zealand publishing history, though some might vouch for this one.

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