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  • Meet Chyna, conqueror of men The lift takes Molly about seven feet into the air from which height she is then thrown bodily onto the canvas.

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    Grimacing in pain, Holly crawls away towards the safety of the ropes. The author is Joanie Laurer, better-known as Chyna, the world's most famous woman wrestler, the 'Ninth Wonder of the World', a Playboy model, a fitness video queen and a comedy actress.

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    This is taking place on a Tuesday afternoon in Nashville's Gaylord Entertainment Centre, which normally houses the home games of the Nashville Predators ice hockey team. Nashville is as good a place as any to meet Chyna.

    It is the home of country music and Chyna's life story has all the ingredients of a good country song: You can almost hear the pedal steel guitar and the fiddle in the final chorus.

    The ring where Chyna and Molly are going through their moves has been set up that morning by an army of WWF roadies and their throws are being choreographed by other members of the team.

    The programme is as tightly scripted as a soap opera, which is essentially what it is. The mastermind is Vince McMahon, the year-old Connecticut-based entrepreneur who has turned WWF into one of the most lucrative forms of entertainment in the world with a television revenue that has increased 1, per cent in five years. The basic plot around which the night's nine bouts revolve is a labyrinthine tale concocted by the show's resident writers in which a fictional, inter-generational McMahon family feud, complete with sexual and business intrigue, is enacted against a backdrop of wrestling.

    Part of the storyline is the pursuit of an array of 'international championships' which are won by whoever the script writers choose that day. The wrestlers themselves often don't know who they're fighting - and whether they win or lose - until the afternoon of an event.

    This formula has somehow struck a nerve in the heartlands of not only America but of many of the other countries where the 'fights' are screened, including Britain, where they're shown on Channel 4 and Sky. As with all successful shows, a dress rehearsal is necessary. So the throws and submissions are tried out, the neck-locks and grimaces practised.

    First the Dudley Boyz go gently through their paces with Chris Jericho and Chris Benoit who, I later learn from the WWF's official magazine, came into the business for 'one reason and one reason only: Then Molly and Chyna try out with their fight co-ordinator.

    Good wrestlers are like ballet dancers: While the plot lines and the howls of pain may be fake, the landings and the take-offs are for real. Watching Chyna and Molly rehearse in this chilly Tennessee hangar is like watching a surreal miniature ballet.

    A stomp, a grimace, a couple of slow-motion throws. Chyna practises hoisting Molly aloft and dumping her on the canvas. The moves agreed, the rehearsal is over.

    Chyna gives her smaller blonde friend a hug and they relinquish the ring to the Undertaker - or 'Taker, as I feel I can call him by the end of the night - who is about to arrive on his motorbike to practise his moves with his partner, the masked Kane.

    Kane's face was tragically disfigured as a boy by a fire started by his half-brother, 'Taker, which also killed his mother.

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    Kane then spent his childhood locked in a basement by his cruel father; but that's another story - with story being the operative word.

    My first experience of wrestling was about 40 years ago as a middle-class Edinburgh schoolboy. The venue was not a state-of-the-art ice hockey rink but a vast Dickensian warehouse called the Eldorado in Leith. I can still remember the first fight I saw, taken along by my worldlier friend, Norman. One of the wrestlers was called Mighty Ian Campbell and he was piped into the ring, where he took his kilt off and folded it neatly with the cooperation of his cornerman.

    He was wearing swimming trunks. A dignified man with a beard, Campbell was the crowd's favourite and duly bested his opponent. Even then, performers had clearly defined personas and back-stories. On the posters advertising the bouts, the names of the contestants would always be listed with their place of origin in brackets, thus it would be Ian Campbell Oban or wherever, Tarzan AfricaThe Monster Matto Grosso.

    There was the same ritual of the evil cheat, usually masked and foreign, against the good guy, usually someone noble like Ian. I can also still remember the crowd that night in the smoky, forbidden atmosphere of Edinburgh's docklands long before gentrification and nouvelle cuisine had taken over from trawlers and McEwan's heavy. One of the wrestlers had been thrown onto all fours and his opponent had butted him in the backside. The crowd collapsed in laughter. This was the life, I thought, I had struck gold.

    No wonder it was called the Eldorado. There were women there that night, right at the front of the crowd and they jabbed The Monster and the other baddies with brollies as they left the ring. But there were no women in the ring. And certainly there were no women who would be able to beat a man in the ring, earn a million dollars in a year and then write a bestseller about it all.

    As Chyna has done. The book is entitled If Only They Knew and judging by the sales a lot of people now do know. It sold 30, copies in its first week, and worldwide sales are now close toIt was co-written with Michael Angeli, a magazine writer and producer from Los Angeles, who got the job after two other writers had been jettisoned for not telling the story the way Chyna wanted it told.

    Her parents divorced when she was four and a variety of unsatisfactory step-dads appeared. She excelled at school, received her first kiss from a teacher and travelled the world with her dad, whose Walter Mittyish career path as an international hustler sounds as though it might rate a book of its own. She learnt how to play the cello, won a scholarship, did her final high school year in Spain, studied Spanish literature at college and planned to become a multilingual professional woman with a career in the UN or the Organisation of American States.

    In the book, it says she joined the Peace Corps and spent time in Guatemala but she says her time was actually spent in the rather gentler land of Costa Rica. The experience had been a mistake, she said.

    Once I got there I realised I was going to spend the next three years of my life there and I was so antsy and so eager to entertain and had already travelled half the world that it wasn't something new for me; most people don't travel much outside their state. It felt like giving up three years of my life and I had So I spent six months there and went home. She also applied for and was extensively interviewed by the FBI who clearly let a potential top agent slip through their hands.

    I didn't want the desk job.

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    Apart from being let down by one of her teachers as a teenager - he told her, as a compliment, that he had only kissed one other pupil - along the way in Key West she acquired a boyfriend with a dog called Shitter. The relationship ended when she came home late from an aerobics class and the boyfriend threw her across the room.

    She stood up to him, faced him down in a style later to become familiar to millions of television viewers and never saw him again. What changed her from one of countless Americans with a traumatic past and a self-help attitude into a superstar was a combination of her own dogged determination and the Killer Kowalski Institute of Professional Wrestling in Malden, Massachusetts.

    This became, literally, her school of hard knocks. She was already an athletic, tough soul who had won fitness pageants and she had been hooked on wrestling ever since she first saw it on televsion and shouted: She can bench-press pounds more than 22 stone and even then impressed the male wrestlers with her physical abilities. From there on it was a bruising journey towards recognition accompanied by all the predictable insults slung at a muscular woman in a male profession.

    Finally the WWF gave her the part of Mystery Woman, who would burst out of the audience and join in the fighting. She has repaid them handsomely, finally making her name with the fans in in what was called the Good Housekeeping fight. On a historic night in Cleveland, she took on a man, Jeff Jarrett, now with the rival World Championship Wrestling, and 'won'.

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    It was quite a statement. People used to chuck batteries at me in hate. Now it's flowers and teddy bears. When you're a surfer you want to ride that perfect wave and I think I'm the edge of that wave and that will lead a path for other women to come in and maybe earn more than I do.

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    Her stage name was chosen from a list supplied by the writers. Tigress, Venus, Phalan and Teeva Gweeve were the others on offer so it was not a hard choice. She also started to be billed as 'The Ninth Wonder of the World', a tribute to all that work in the gym - which she has enhanced with some plastic surgery.

    She is not the first woman to have made it big in wrestling; that honour probably belongs to Moolah who was in the rings of America in the Forties and the Fifties. But she is a staunch defender of the wrestling world. It is made easier for her by the fact that the WWF long ago gave up the pretence that the fights were real.

    This was a smart economic move as it meant that when they went on to pay-per-view television, they avoided being taxed as a sport. Gymnasts have routines but it doesn't demean anything they're doing on the bars. We tell a physical soap opera under the most difficult conditions. We have all sizes out there taking a beating on their body. We are travelling days out of the year and in a different hotel bed every night. The talents of most of the people in this ring are quite under-rated at a media level but there are 22 million people who switch this on every week and enjoy the hell out of it.

    We are the ultimate variety show. Part of the boy's defence on a murder charge was that he had been imitating the wrestlers he had seen on television. The defence was not accepted and the boy has been jailed for life. Like everyone in the wrestling business, Chyna is familiar with the story.

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    This little boy beat this girl brutally to death. If children can't handle what they're watching on television don't let them watch it. It amuses me when people criticise us [for the violence] when we're coming out in silly costumes hitting each other over the head with tin trash cans. Chyna describes them as the equivalent of the doorbell in the sit-com.

    Chyna is the fourth wrestler to have had a book on the bestsellers' list in the recent past.

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    Jesse Ventura, now Governor of Minnesota, was the first with his autobiography and he has been followed by the business's best-known name, The Rock, and Mankind, both of whose books spents months on the NY Times list. Since most of her fans are young men she had thought that the book, with all its tales of family disaster, would be 'a little bit deep' for them.

    She is described on the book's jacket as 'part feminist'. What did that mean? But I think most feminists take their causes a little bit too far and don't get a lot of coverage because of that.

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