Unexpectedly, the first episode of ITV4’s Freddie Flintoff vs the World was rather good. It could have been just another celebrity reality TV vehicle about nothing much at all. Instead, it turned into a study of mortality and the Mexican psyche.
I’m not joking. That was why paintball paragliding, the first of the three extreme sports that Freddie and Darren Gough turned their hands to in Mexico, fell flat on its face, almost literally. It told us nothing about the place.
Freestyle wrestling (lucha libre), on the other hand, tells you almost everything. Flintoff, who sat it out due to a cracked rib, laughed from the sidelines, but Goughie gave it all he had. It wasn’t glamorous (in fact, it looked like it was staged in a primary school gym) but the locals loved it.
Despite taking more punishment from pro-wrestler Horus (‘which in Spanish means … Horus’) in one bout than he did from the Aussies over a nine year Test career, and then escaping from the ring while saying ‘no more, enough’, the former Yorkshire fast bowler was even crowned champion. His arm raised in triumph to the half-empty hall, his voice cracked as he thanked Horus and Mexico. He fitted in perfectly. It all seemed so Mexican.
Both Flintoff and Gough are, of course, completely likeable, and they only had to be themselves to demonstrate how different, and at the same time, how similar, they were to the Mexicans who clapped them from the ring. That was why an earlier Englishman-abroad visit to a taqueria seemed so out-of-place and unnecessary.
The final challenge was the only sport in Mexico more Mexican than lucha libre – cliff-jumping in Acapulco. Flintoff showed his nerves as instructor Angel showed him where divers prayed before jumping (‘I need to get away from this place, it’s freaking me out’), but it was instructive that he paused in the same place for a moment’s reflection before making his final, impressive ten-metre jump.
So we learnt a little about Flintoff and Gough and a lot about Mexico. We even approached something more profound as Freddie reflected that he had ‘never experienced fear, excitement, adrenalin like that in my life before’. If Freddie Flintoff versus the World is all about our hero searching for contentment post-cricket, it may have been successful.