After four on a Saturday afternoon, housewives, grandmothers, and young fearless children watched grown men in swim trunks hurl each other across a canvas ring. These men weren’t just wrestlers, they were household gods worshipped by generations: Big Daddy, Giant Haystacks, Les Kellett, Mike Marino, Jackie (“Mr. T.V.”) Pallo, the masked Kendo Nagasaki, and my favorite, “the man you love to hate”, Mick McManus.
British wrestlers were more like stage entertainers, who traveled around the country fighting 4 or 5 times a week in different venues across England. They mixed the camp (Gorgeous George, The Gay One) with the bizarre (Catweazle, Rollerball Rocco) with the best (Mick McManus, Kendo Nagasaki), and by the time wrestling became the biggest hit for ITV’s Saturday’s World of Sport, most of the big names were in their late thirties and early forties, but it didn’t stop these podgy, middle-aged men from becoming sex symbols.
The people’s favorite was Big Daddy (aka Shirley Crabtree), who had made his name as a rugby player before wrestling under the names of The Blonde Adonis, Mr. Universe and The Battling Guardsman, in the 1950s.
Crabtree, with his ill-fitting leotard (decoratively embroidered by his wife) was was coaxed out of retirement and became the most successful and best-loved wrestler of the 1970s and 1980s - even Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was a fan. Though limited by his size and age, Big Daddy brought such novel wrestling moves as the “Belly-Butt” and “Belly-Splash” to the audiences’ delight, who chanted “easy, easy, easy,” whenever the likable Daddy stepped into the ring.
Big Daddy had feuds with various wrestlers, most notably Giant Haystacks, the 6 foot 11, London-Irish wrestler, who at one point weighed 48 stone. How this giant of a man was ever beaten by Big Daddy is beyond belief, and led to suggestions the sport was fixed. This was later confirmed in 1985, by “Mr T.V.” Jackie Pallo, in his autobiography You Grunt, I’ll Groan. Pallo was a flash, show biz wrestler, with long hair and striped trunks, who claimed referees carried razors to nick wrestlers’ ears to add authenticity (Pallo preferred to bite his lip) and said the sport was TV entertainment:
“Of course it was, it was pure showbiz right from the start.”
Pallo had a career in TV, appearing in The Avengers, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum and regularly on stage in pantomime. Where Palo was a showman, wrestlers like Mike Marino, Les Kellett and Mick McManus took the sport seriously. The short, dumpy, balding McManus was the sport’s anti-hero.
He won his first wrestling title, the British Welterweight Championship, in 1949, by defeating Eddie Capelli. He lost it to Jack Dempsey in 1957 but regained it, then lost it again. In 1967, McManus won the British Middleweight Championship with a victory over Clayton Thomson. He also won the European Middleweight Championship in June 1968 by defeating Vic Faulkner. Though lost it again to Faulkner the following year. Never fear, McManus won it back in 1971, and held onto it for 7 years.
McManus was brilliant, always entertaining, and usually bent the rules with some questionable blows. He was famous for his fore-arm smash and Boston Crab, and relished the audience’s jeers. He never seemed to change, and thirty years after his hey-day I once saw McManus in a bar, immaculately dressed in a suit, and looking no different than he did back in the 1960s and ‘70s.
McManus is credited as an influence on Kendo Nagasaki (real name Peter Thornley), who refused to reveal his identity, and disguised himself behind a samurai mask. Nagasaki was another brilliant wrestler, who mixed Martial Arts, Eastern philosophy with incredible skill. He was famously robbed of the CWA World title by Giant Haystacks, after Haystacks ripped off his mask, forcing Nagasaki to abandon the contest.
It was McManus and Nagaski who inspired British Pop Artist, Peter Blake to paint his wrestler series.
Another brief star of wrestling was the world’s first DJ and legendary Top of the Pops host, Jimmy Savile, who fought in golden leotard and boots, before giving it up after losing too many fights.
These fabulous posters from the golden age of British wrestling has been compiled by Jane McDevitt on her fantastic Flickr stream, which can be here. Check out some of the pics and names - wonderful.
With thanks to Tara McGinley