By Chris Eyte
The crowd roars as the contender raises his arms and gets ready to grapple with his opponent in the ring.
Not many people would know that wrestler 'Gareth Angel' had offered to pray for his opponent before the fight began. Nor would they realise that for Gareth, the real grappling happened when he was younger - surviving sexual abuse and sleeping homeless in a trash skip.
Gareth Thompson, to use his real name, recalls that his childhood was one long struggle to survive.
"My parents divorced when I was six and after this my mum hit the drink hard, she became abusive and unhinged.
"My dad wasn't to be seen at all. I would often have to take my two younger brothers to school, feed them, and find my mum in pubs to get the house keys from her."
Gareth's only escape was staying with his Christian grandmother on Friday nights, who prayed with him. His mum went out at weekends and left Gareth with babysitters. One of them sexually assaulted him between the ages of seven and eight.
"This made me withdrawn, very meek and placid. I was confused, hurt and scared. I didn't know what to do, how to stop it. I finally plucked up the courage to tell my mum one night.
"This was November 11, 1995. I remember clearly because of the poppies that everyone was wearing. That night I was taken to the hospital, examined, and my abuser was arrested. Shortly after, there was a trial and once it was all out in the open I thought things would improve.
"My mum took it really hard though, and I was bullied at school."
Gareth says he was thrown out of home at 15 and worked as a window cleaner.
"I lost my job quickly and spent the next eight weeks sleeping in a skip before finding myself at a homeless hostel."
Gareth met his first wife there and they moved to his hometown where they struggled with their relationship and debt.
One day, on the way to get some piercings, the couple met friends who invited them to church.
"This church was different – no pews, no organ. A live band, open space to worship and dance, you could interact. During the service, I felt my heart ripped open in the worship. I caught myself crying, and a real sense of home and love that I had never felt before came over me.
"I decided at that point to give this a shot. I gave my life to Christ."
His faith was almost immediately tested when his grandmother died in March 2011, on the same night as his wedding.
"I almost instantly retreated from God, feeling hurt and blaming Him for her death. I thought things were supposed to be better once you were a Christian. I wasn't looking at things the right way," Gareth admits.
His wife later left him for another man, further adding to his troubles.
However, a friend from church helped Gareth regain his identity in Christ and get out of debt. He later made peace with his parents, as well as his now ex-wife.
The issue of his sexual abuser stuck in his mind however and he prayed about it. One day, Gareth was working in a shop when the man, released from prison for his deeds, suddenly stood in front of him.
"Here I was, face-to-face with the man who caused me so much pain, and changed the course of my life forever. My first thought was that I could hurt him, make him feel what I felt, I wasn't a little boy anymore, I was a man and I had been wrestling for a little while at this point. My second feeling: fear and trepidation. But ultimately I had two choices – make a move or make an excuse.
"I handed him his DVDs, looked him in the eyes and said, 'I forgive you.'
"I felt a huge weight lift off me. I was freaked out yet it was okay. From that moment on, I started taking God seriously."
Gareth's life got better and he now runs programmes in his church, has married a woman he met there, Beth, and infused his wrestling with new purpose.
"I chose the name 'Gareth Angel' to reflect my faith and having grown with Jesus. I've also evolved as a character, quoting Scripture, praying before my matches and doing my best to be a positive role model and ambassador for Christ."
Gareth has launched his own ministry (gtministries.co.uk) with Christian Vision for Men and performs at churches.
He added: "My T-shirts say: 'Pray, Eat, Wrestle, Repeat'.
"I never imagined that I would be performing in front of crowds, with Jesus in my heart, and be leading others to know Him. I am blessed beyond my wildest dreams. Thank you, Jesus, for not giving up on me."
Gareth says he's a work in progress 'as we all are' but he has three things he has learnt already:
1. There is hope for us all and with Jesus, anything is possible.
2. Forgiveness doesn't mean you are a doormat, if someone is hurting you, its ok to cut them from your life.
3. Forgiveness is for the benefit of the forgiver, to release YOU from the burden of unforgiveness.•