Inside England's Annual Toe Wrestling Championship

Baseball may be America's favorite summer pastime, but across the pond, a unique, no-hands sport reigns supreme—and we're not talking about soccer.

Toe wrestling—yes, toe wrestling—is such a popular pastime in Northern England that there's an entire championship centered on this sport every summer. Since its inception in 1976, the Toe Wrestling Championship has taken the Derbyshire community near Manchester by storm.

The sport got its start when a group of friends at the Ye Olde Royal Oak Inn lamented England's lack of dominance in athletics—they wanted a sport where Brits could reign supreme, and somehow, toe wrestling became the chosen activity. (Ripley’s, however, notes that a Canadian visitor won the third annual championship, putting an early damper on the British preeminence of the sport.)

After 40 years and many toe tangos, the sport of toe wrestling continues to gain traction, even if the International Olympic Committee has refused to accept it as an official Olympic sport. Though it might not be a competition on the global stage, toe wrestling definitely attracts interest from around the world. Wendy Livingstone, general manager and events coordinator for Toe Wrestling Championship venue Bentley Brook Inn, notes she gets interest from various international media. In fact, one U.S. film company is shooting a mockup of the competition this summer with long-time champion Alan "Nasty" Nash.

Nash, known for his intimidating "strong man" physique and even more intimidating big toes, has made quite a name for himself in the toe wrestling space. According to ESPN—which profiled him in 2011—Nash won the title on his first try in 1994. Since then, he's won a dozen titles, including perhaps his most triumphant event in 1997 when he broke four toes in the semifinals, then popped them back in and took home the gold. The toe wrestling titles also led Nash to a stint on this year's Britain’s Got Talent show for his attempt to regain the title of "Most eggs crushed with the toes in one minute." (Spoiler: He succeeded.)

HOW TO TOE WRESTLE

Toe wrestling is a competition between two participants. With their bare feet in a square ring, opponents sit on the floor, lock their big toes, and then battle in an arm-wrestle style to wrangle the other’s foot to the sideboard of the designated wrestling area. The art of toe wrestling is more skill than strength; opponents are required to keep non-competing feet in the air with hands flat on the ground.

It’s a best-of-three competition that typically lasts one hour, and fear not: Toe hygiene is a priority. Nurses inspect all toes for fungus and hidden weapons prior to competition. Livingstone says they see about 10 to 30 participants annually. Winners move on through the bracket until the leaders go toe-to-toe in the final tournament.

TOE WRESTLING STRATEGY

To win at toe wrestling, Livingstone recommends developing those toe muscles however you can.

"The champion, Nasty Nash, invented his own 'toe exerciser' to make his toes the strongest!" she tells Mental Floss. (His exerciser essentially looks like a mini resistance band that he uses across his flexed big toes.)

But even Nash knows strength can only get him so far. He pairs strong toes with extreme intimidation to take home the victory.

"My technique ... is to hurt the first person that comes into the ring with me; hurt them bad and terrify everyone else," Nash told Reuters.

Speaking of injuries, the Toe Wrestling Championship is not for the frail. Livingstone notes in the past, toes have been broken (Nash broke nine as of 2012) and she’s seen a few strained ankles. It also takes a toll on the back, so she advises those with back or spine issues to stay in the crowd.

TEST YOUR TOE WRESTLING TALENTS

Chomping at the bit to lock toes with a stranger? You're in luck. Participants can enter up until the day of for the August 19 Toe Wrestling Championship. There are two divisions: male and female. For those seeking pre-tournament prep, the Royal Oak Inn (the birthplace of toe wrestling) in Ashbourne, England, has a Toe Wrestling Charity Fundraising Event on July 15. Nash will be in attendance, and kids are also invited to put a toe in the ring with the 2017 Kids Championship.

The Real Case of Spontaneous Combustion That Inspired a Death in Dickens's Bleak House

iStock.com/GeorgiosArt
iStock.com/GeorgiosArt

In The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth: And Other Curiosities from the History of Medicine, medical historian Thomas Morris presents a collection of bizarre but fascinating stories culled from the pages of old medical journals and other accounts. In this tale, he discusses the final moments of an aristocratic older women, Countess Cornelia di Bandi, whose demise would provide fodder for Charles Dickens over 100 years later.

 

Do human beings ever burst into flames? Two hundred years ago, many people believed that they could, especially if the victim was female, elderly, and a heavy drinker. Spontaneous human combustion became a fashionable topic in the early 19th century, after a number of sensational presumed cases were reported in the popular press. At a period when candles were ubiquitous and clothes often highly flammable, most were probably simple domestic fires in which the unfortunate victim’s subcutaneous fat acted as supplementary fuel. Nevertheless, the circumstances in which some were discovered—with the body almost totally incinerated, but nearby objects left untouched—led some to believe that these conflagrations must have another, more mysterious, cause. Numerous theories were put forward to explain the phenomenon: some supernatural, others scientific.

One of the true believers in spontaneous combustion was Charles Dickens, who even killed off Krook, the alcoholic rag dealer in Bleak House, by means of a fire that left nothing of the old man except an object looking like a “small charred and broken log of wood.” Dickens had read everything he could find on the subject and was convinced that its veracity had been proved. His description of the demise of Krook was based closely on that of an Italian aristocrat, Countess Cornelia di Bandi, who was consumed by a fireball in her bedroom. Her case was reported in 1731 by a clergyman called Giuseppe Bianchini, and subsequently translated by a famous Italian poet and Fellow of the Royal Society, Paolo Rolli:

"The Countess Cornelia Bandi, in the 62nd year of her age, was all day as well as she used to be; but at night was observed, when at supper, dull and heavy. She retired, was put to bed, where she passed three hours and more in familiar discourses with her maid, and in some prayers; at last falling asleep, the door was shut."

The following morning, the maid noticed that her employer had not appeared at the usual time and tried to rouse her by calling through the door. Not receiving any answer, she went outside and opened a window, through which she saw this scene of horror:

"Four feet distant from the bed there was a heap of ashes, two legs untouched from the foot to the knee with their stockings on; between them was the lady’s head; whose brains, half of the back part of the skull, and the whole chin, were burnt to ashes; amongst which were found three fingers blackened. All the rest was ashes, which had this particular quality, that they left in the hand, when taken up, a greasy and stinking moisture."

Mysteriously, the furniture and linen were virtually untouched by the conflagration.

"The bed received no damage; the blankets and sheets were only raised on one side, as when a person rises up from it, or goes in; the whole furniture, as well as the bed, was spread over with moist and ash-coloured soot, which had penetrated the chest of drawers, even to foul the linen."

The soot had even coated the surfaces of a neighboring kitchen. A piece of bread covered in the foul substance was given to several dogs, all of which refused to eat it. Given that it probably consisted of the carbonized body fat of their owner, their reluctance to indulge is understandable.

"In the room above it was, moreover, taken notice that from the lower part of the windows trickled down a greasy, loathsome, yellowish liquor; and thereabout they smelt a stink, without knowing of what; and saw the soot fly around."

The floor was also covered in a “gluish moisture,” which could not be removed. Naturally, strenuous efforts were made to establish what had caused the blaze, and several of Italy’s best minds were put to the problem. Monsignor Bianchini (described as “Prebendary of Verona”) was convinced that the fire had not been started by the obvious culprits:

"Such an effect was not produced by the light of the oil lamp, or of any candles, because common fire, even in a pile, does not consume a body to such a degree; and would have besides spread it-self to the goods of the chamber, more combustible than a human body."

Bianchini also considered the possibility that the blaze might have been caused by a thunderbolt but noted that the characteristic signs of such an event, such as scorch marks on the walls and an acrid smell, were absent. What, then, did cause the inferno? The priest came to the conclusion that ignition had actually occurred inside the woman’s body:

"The fire was caused in the entrails of the body by inflamed effluvia of her blood, by juices and fermentations in the stomach, by the many combustible matters which are abundant in living bodies, for the uses of life; and finally by the fiery evaporations which exhale from the settlings of spirit of wine, brandies, and other hot liquors in the tunica villosa [inner lining] of the stomach, and other adipose or fat membranes."

Bianchini claims that such “fiery evaporations” become more flammable at night, when the body is at rest and the breathing becomes more regular. He also points out that “sparkles” are sometimes visible when certain types of cloth are rubbed against the hair (an effect caused by discharges of static electricity) and suggests that something similar might have ignited the “combustible matters” inside her abdomen.

"What wonder is there in the case of our old lady? Her dullness before going to bed was an effect of too much heat concentrated in her breast, which hindered the perspiration through the pores of her body; which is calculated to about 40 ounces per night. Her ashes, found at four feet distance from her bed, are a plain argument that she, by natural instinct, rose up to cool her heat, and perhaps was going to open a window."

Then, however, he lets slip what is probably the genuine cause of the fire:

"The old lady was used, when she felt herself indisposed, to bathe all her body with camphorated spirit of wine; and she did it perhaps that very night."

Camphorated spirits (a solution of camphor in alcohol) was often used to treat skin complaints, and as a tonic lotion. The fact that it is also highly flammable is, apparently, quite beside the point.

"This is not a circumstance of any moment; for the best opinion is that of the internal heat and fire; which, by having been kindled in the entrails, naturally tended upwards; finding the way easier, and the matter more unctuous and combustible, left the legs untouched. The thighs were too near the origin of the fire, and therefore were also burnt by it; which was certainly increased by the urine and excrements, a very combustible matter, as one may see by its phosphorus."

So it was the “internal heat and fire” that caused the countess’s demise. Only an incorrigible skeptic would point out that an old lady who was in the habit of bathing in inflammable liquids, before going to bed in a room lit by naked flames, was a walking fire hazard.

Book jacket for The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth
Dutton/Penguin Books

Excerpted from The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth: And Other Curiosities from the History of Medicine by Thomas Morris. Copyright © 2018 by Thomas Morris. Published by arrangement with DUTTON, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

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