split image of Tommy Mattinson gurning and meeting Queen

The Egremont Crab Fair in Cumbria, UK, dates back to the year 1267, when a local lord was granted a royal charter to hold an annual harvest festival.

A variety of traditional Cumbrian competitions are held at the fair, such as Cumberland wrestling and pipe smoking, but the highlight for most people is the Gurning World Championships.

Although the date of the fair’s first gurning competition is unknown, it was written about as an “ancient tradition” in 1852, when it was called “Grinn for tobacco”, later known colloquially as “Grinning for ‘bacca”.

Entrants compete by pulling their ugliest possible face and then pushing their heads through a horse collar, better known in Cumbria as a braffin.

Judges crown the winning contestant based on whoever displays the starkest transformation between their normal face and their gurning face.

The 2023 event was an extra special one, as there had been a three-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic and then the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. It was held in honour of Gordon Blacklock, a seven-time winner "with one of the ugliest faces and kindest hearts in the world", who passed away in 2020.

The winner of the competition was Tommy Mattinson (UK), who claimed his 18th title and extended his record for the most wins of the Gurning World Championships (male).

Tommy Mattinson

Tommy started gurning when he was a young boy, inspired by his father, Gordon Mattinson, who formerly held the record with 10 wins from 1967-77.

Aged 11, Tommy entered and won the first ever junior competition, and a few years later, in 1986, he achieved his first win in the men’s category.

One of the highlights of his gurning career came in 2008, when he showed off his flexible face to Queen Elizabeth II during her visit to the Beacon Museum in Whitehaven, Cumbria.

Tommy Mattinson gurning for the Queen

Tommy likens the physical exertion of gurning to that of any other sport, and he makes sure he’s adequately prepared before each year’s contest.

He said: “Normally, before the championship’s coming up, I’ll do a bit of practising in the mirror, stretching my neck and things like that because, same as any other muscle, there’s a lot of muscles in the face, and it takes a lot out of you.”

Tommy primarily pulls two different gurning faces when he competes. One of them, dubbed “Popeye”, is a traditional gurning face which “has been going for quite a long time”.

He’s also developed his own face, “The Wolf”, which he credits for winning him most of his championship titles. “It’s a bit similar to what my father done, but obviously a little bit of a twist on it,” he explained.

split image of Popeye and The Wolf

Tommy beat out some strong competition during the 2023 event, such as three-time winner Adrian Zivelonghi and fellow gurner Jed. Before the contest, both Adrian and Jed attempted to break the record for the longest duration gurning with the lower lip covering the nostrils.

Adrian fared the better of the two, but he still didn’t come close to beating the current record of 62 seconds, set by Jovante Carter aka “HolyGxD” earlier this year.

Adrian (left) and Jed (right) attempting to break the record for the longest duration gurning with the lower lip covering the nostrils

Also competing at the 2023 World Championship were British stand-up comedians Nish Kumar and Josh Widdicombe, as well as Guinness World Records Editor-in-Chief Craig Glenday.

To prepare him for his first ever appearance in the competition, Tommy taught Craig how to perform the Popeye. The key steps are:

  • Push your lips out
  • Blow air into your cheeks
  • Cross your eyes
  • Look at your nose

Tommy is also teaching his grandchildren how to gurn, ensuring the family tradition is kept alive. 

Although Tommy has more competition wins than any other man, he is still 10 shy of matching the record of Anne Wood (UK, 1947-2015) who has the most wins of the Gurning World Championships (female). Anne took home the women’s trophy 28 times between her first appearance in 1977 and her last in 2014, a year before she passed away.

Anne Wood

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