Monday, 9 May 2011

"Greetings Grapple Fans" - 70's British Wrestling

It's funny how things can trigger off a buzz in your brain.... A couple of weeks back I was (finally) cobbling together my order for Olympic tickets, in amongst which was a session of Wrestling. When relaying my selections to a colleague at work, I said that I hoped Catweazle, Big Daddy and Rollerball Rocco would all make it to the semi-finals. The joke fell flat, and I was solemnly told that the type of wrestling those guys did back in the day was 'fake', and not the same thing as Olympic wrestling at all. Pheww, tough crowd my office at times. I took it on the chin....

But as a kid I was obsessed with British wrestling, and would watch World of Sport religiously every Saturday afternoon to catch all the latest bouts.... all enthusiastically commentated on by Kent Walton (and his weekly welcome of "greetings grapple fans"). One of my fondest memories of childhood, is the large chunk of the 70's when my dad would take me on a monthly trip to see the wrestling live. What a magical world it seemed to me back then... so glamorous, so exciting, such passion, and of course, such sport!

Despite my dad always telling me it was 'fixed', I just couldn't comprehend it at the time. The thought that the two warring gents in their underpants in front of me, may have hours earlier shared a pie, a pint and the petrol money to get there was just too absurd to take in... The atmosphere was electric, and the crowd would really live each bout. The front row was always hogged by dangerous old grannies, armed with handbags and umbrellas with which to thump any unlucky 'baddies'. Of course you could smoke where you liked in those days, and the image of the heavy cigarette smoke rising towards the huge hot lights above the ring is still crystal clear in my mind.

Wrestling has a long and distinguished history in Britain, however it wasn't until the 50's - when ITV started to broadcast it - that the nation really started to take it to it's heart. By the 60's it was just about the biggest sporting attraction on TV, and many of the stars of the day became household names... Jackie Pallo (Mr TV!), Mick McManus, Billy Two Rivers (real life father of designer Wayne Hemmingway) and many more.

Just about the most recognisable name ever to come out of British wrestling started grapplin' in the late 1950's, but it would be almost another two decades before he had become Grandma's favourite.... The Blond Adonis, Mr Universe, Yukon Eric, and The Battling Guardsman were all names that Shirley Crabtree wrestled under (who had at one point been a member of the Coldstream Guards). But it's as 'Big Daddy' that everyone will remember him. Until 1976, he mostly wrestled as a villain (known as a 'heel' in the trade), and most notably was 'tag-team' partner with Giant Haystacks, who would eventually become his biggest foe. But with the introduction of a sparkly top hat, union jack clobber and glittery cape (and not forgetting the 'We Shall Not Be Moved' intro music!), Daddy was quickly transformed into the ultimate good-guy ('face'). The most recognisable British wrestler ever? Probably... One of the worst British wrestlers ever? Most definitely. Bouncing opponents with his huge belly, then flattening them with it whilst they lay sprawled on the canvas ('The Big Daddy Splash') were hardly the most technically gifted of moves. But the crowd loved it (and apparently the poor guy who got flattened by his ever expanding bulk used to get an extra fiver in his pay packet, so not all bad).

I can still remember the extra excitement that a visit from 'Daddy' would bring to the live shows. Yet in reality, he was a distinctly unpleasant man. His carefully portrayed image as the 'friend of the children' was far from the truth, and he would always ignore and push past the adoring kids who gathered around him, as though they weren't there... until the occasional months when ITV were in attendance, recording for World of Sport, when of course he magically became their best pal... well until the cameras stopped rolling anyway. He was even worse after the shows... I was always hungry to obtain autographs at the end of the evening, but after several attempts, gave up on the ignorant Daddy as he ritually brushed past me month after month as though I didn't exist.

Ironically, a much nicer man was the ultimate British heel, and Big Daddy's nemesis; the 40+ stone Giant Haystacks. A man I was truly scared of as a child, but never were the words 'gentle giant' more apt. A deeply religious man (apparently he would never wrestle on a Sunday), Martin Ruane was quite the gent, and would always chat and sign autographs.

I saw them all at 'the wrestling' during the 70's and early 80's.... Big Daddy, Giant Haystacks, Catweazle, King Kong Kirk (who tragically died in the ring, after receiving a Big Daddy Splash in 1987), Mark 'Rollerball' Rocco, Pat Roach, 'Cyanide' Sid Cooper, 'Cry Baby' Jim Breaks, Mike Marino, Kendo Nagasaki, Honey Boy Zimba, Mick McManus, Tally Ho Kaye, 'Iron Fist' Clive Myers, 'The Bear' John Elijah, 'Superstar' Mal Saunders, Wayne Bridges, Steve Grey, Sharky Ward, Johnny Kwango, Alan Kilby, The Royal Brothers (Vic and Bert Faulkner), Roy and Tony StClair, Les Kellett, Skull Murphy, The Amazing Kung Fu, 'Mighty' John Quinn and many more!

My favourite wrestler was a guy called Sammy Lee. On the posters they used to make out he was related to Bruce Lee, all lies or course, but it put a few extra bums on seats. Many years later I would learn that Sammy Lee (real name Satoru Sayama) became a true legend of Japanese wrestling, when he took on the alter-ego of the legendary NJPW (New Japan Pro Wrestling) wrestler 'Tiger Mask'. Tiger Mask was such a huge hit in Japan, that after Sayama left, a whole series of replacements took on the role, and to my knowledge, there is still a Tiger Mask in action today! Sayama was also a hit in the American WWF in the 1980s. He was years ahead of his time in the 1970's and his speed, agility and high risk all action moves were very much at odds with the lumbering beer bellies, and old boys. Unfortunately Lee was often paired up as a tag team partner with Big Daddy, but his solo matches were dynamite.

Yes it was naff, but it was great fun too, and so 'of its time'. But whatever happened to that 'camp' style of British wrestling? When ITV stopped broadcasting it in the mid 80's, it signalled the decline and fall. It limped along for a few more years, but big budget American wrestling put the final nail in the coffin. However British wrestling has returned, but your granny wouldn't like it anymore. To think I was going along from the age of about 7, today's British wrestling is very unsuitable for kids with 'hardcore' matches, chairs & much more graphic violence (real or otherwise). All we can do now is think back to the days when wrestling was in rounds (like boxing) and decided by 2 falls, 2 submissions or a knockout! And don't forget those "public warnings"!

All of this reminiscing (which don't forget, was all instigated by ordering Olympic wrestling tickets!), reminded me that up in the loft I still have the memorabilia I collected in the 1970's. A quick pop up there and I immediately found all the posters I'd saved from the shows. They were huge! and I always tried to nab one off the wall as I exited the venue. Not found my programmes from the shows yet, but it's only a matter of time!

I'll follow this post up in a few days with photo's of some of the posters I found in the loft....

Easy, Easy, Easy!

This clip of a Big Daddy entrance is fantastic! Wonderful shots of the front row grannies throughout, and Daddy on his best 'kid loving' behaviour. Funny enough, Sammy Lee is his tag-team partner in this one, although you won't see much of him. Nice 'Kill Bill' jumpsuit though!

Big Daddy unmasks Kendo Nagasaki!

Big Daddy & Giant Haystacks camp it up on Tiswas (part 1)

(part 2)


Artog said...

I think I might have seen Big Daddy wrestling at Scarborough one time, though I may just be imagining that (I'll check with my dad). I remember I was disappointed that our holiday ended just before the masked marvel Kamikaze was due to perform. He was my favourite. I'm not an expert but was he just a bit of a Kendo Nagasaki rip off?

office pest said...

Great post. You might like this website, if you're not already lookin at it.

The grappler I knew locally to me was Tony Rowney, a super stage baddie; lovely chap - hard as nails, though :)

Piley said...

Don't remember the name Artog, although almost certainly a Kendo rip, as Kendo's finishing move was called the Kamikaze Crash! Big Daddy retired after his stroke, but in an incredibly macabre move, continued to tour the wrestling venues on 'fight night' with a shabby looking stall selling signed photos. It was sad to see, as nobody was interested, and he sat there all fa-lawn, with a lopsided face due to the stroke. Poor bloke, he wasn't a nice man, but wouldn't have wished that on him.

OP - Ta fella! Don't know Tony Rowney either, although perhaps I've seen him grapple??! Great site! thanks!


John Devlin said...

Never really enjoyed wrestling but somehow found myself watching it EVERY Saturday as a nipper! Strangely addictive wasn't it?

Piley said...

It certainly was addictive. And although not as advanced as the American wrestling would become, the 'storylines' were what really hooked me in. Looking back, it was so obvious to sell tickets for the next show, but I took it all in!

Always remember there would be an extended wrestling sow on Cup Final day, which would ALWAYS revolve around yet another Daddy v Haystacks showdown!


Mondo said...

Great post P - right up my retro street. Kendo is my all time fave. Everything you want is there: that lumbering 'leatherface' build and squeals. The head tattoo and blood red eyes. Hard to believe away from the ring he ran a care home for the elderly and lived with his 'manager' Gorgeous George...

Cyanide Syd Cooper was value for money too.

I'm sure it's in the Piley library - but have you read Simon Garfield's The Wrestling? A must read if not..

Who was the old boy that always sat ringside in red and blue tophat and tails. A sort of mascot that popped up at all sorts of sporting events...

John Medd said...

Well researched P - takes me back to Saturday afternoons in front of my nanna and pop's telly in Hull: you'd got Frank Bough's Grandstand on the Beeb, with it's Eddie Waring fronted up and unders, and Davies/Dineage's World Of Sport, and the aforementioned grapplers, on ITV1. Sorry, ITV. We really did have an embarrassment of sports riches back in those heady days of the early 70s(?). God, it makes me feel old!

Andych said...

Terrific stuff, Piley. So much there that dovetails with my own recollections.

My brother also has a whole lot of wrestling memorabilia from that era, including flyers, posters, books, signed photos, etc.

Fond memories of watching the wrestling every second Tuesday at Reading Town Hall. I remember, during one particular autograph hunt, Johnny Kwango chatting away in German with my mum after he'd heard her accent :-) Despite the image, Syd Cooper seemed a decent chap too, as did Steve Grey.

Mondo -- definitely with you as regards Kendo. And yes, 'The Wrestling' is a great read.

thisnighthasopenedmyeyes said...

I love this post Piley. To be honest wrestling on tv on a Saturday was somethimg that was kind of just there...taken for granted I suppose. But reading your post and the various comments brings that lovely warm feeling of childhood right back.
My favorite sporting highlight on a Saturday though was the live footy scores, especially the scottish ones. Hamilton Academicles (dodgy spelling) and Forfar. I used to get the free table cards from Shoot magazine and religiously complete the tables each week with the little cardboard teams.I'd forgotten about that...Happy days. x

Piley said...

Mondo - Yes, The Wrestling has been in the library for many years, I even saw the stage adaptation at Edinburgh festival back in the 90s!

Yeah, remember that old boy really well - think he turns up in the 66 Final footage, and is old in that too! Have tried to google him but no joy.

John - Think that's it - it takes you back to warm happy memories. When I watch clips of it now, it's pretty rubbish, so I don't think I really wish it was still around, it was just perfect at the time.

Grandstand V World of Sport, that was it wasn't it?! Dickie Davies! Brilliant! Wonder if he ever finished painting that ceiling?

Thanks Andy - Does your brother still have all his collection I wonder? be great to scan it all in and up it on the web somewhere (here??!).

Southend was always Wednesdays... no doubt we say the same bouts you'd seen the previous night!

TNHOME - Great stuff! I had those little cardboard league table too. Bloody fiddly weren't they?! Loved the BBC vidi-printer, which was pretty much just a typewriter! Love the way there was often a gap between the home and away score, which really built the tension.... Man Utd 1 (wait, wait, wait, wait...) Arsenal (wait, wait) 2. Simple times, but certainly happy times.


Martin said...

Takes me back to the days when it was wrestling on the TV in the afternoon followed by the football results then crumpets toasted over the open fire (in the winter anyway) while watching Dr. Who. Great memories. Went to the town hall in Clacton a couple of times while on holiday and managed to get Judo Al Hayes' autograph. Jacko Pallo and Mick McManus were always my favourites though.

Andych said...

Piley -- yes, the memorabilia is still intact. I must go through it all sometime and scan some bits for you.

I've also got Lloyd Ryan's Express's 'Kendo's Theme' 45, and the LP, 'Ring-A-Long with the Pallos'.....

Piley said...

Martin - I trust the Judo al Hayes auto is still in the collection somewhere??! I agree, it brings back so many memories of that late afternoon\early teatime of the 70's.. it's incredible what memories 'the wrestling' brings back isn't it?

Andy - Cor yeah, we've got to get those scans up on here!


PopCultureCarePackage said...

Nice one, Piles. You know I loves me rasslin'

Re Tiger Mask, I think the character existed as a Power Ranger type thing pre-Sammy - he was given the role to cash in, hence it carrying on after he jacked it.

Have you ever seen the legendary Tiger Mask v Dynamite Kid series of matches? Seminal and way ahead of their time. Imagine Benoit v Mysterio.

Unknown said...

has anyome heard of a wrestlsr whos real mame is jim cormack or mccormack

Anonymous said...

I also went every week to live wrestling with my Dad collected loads of autographs which I still have the autograph book I like Adrian Street and Bobby Barnes

Unknown said...

We are writing to inform you of an upcoming theatre production called I Love Kent Walton at The Customs House in South Shields.
This heart-warming play tells the real-life story of South Shields wrestler Gary ‘The Hardline Pro’ Davison who found himself on the same bill as Big Daddy, Giant Haystacks, The Boston Strangler and Kendo Nagasaki.
Written by Jarrow writer Tom Kelly and co-directed by Ray Spencer and Fiona Kelly the production is a home grown celebration and recognition of British wrestling.
Gary Davies said: “the emotional pride and excitement of a play actually based upon me is something I can never thank Tom Kelly and Ray Spencer enough for, I feel immensely proud that my endeavours in the wrestling business are being portrayed on stage for the viewing audience.”
Watching televised wrestling on a Saturday afternoon was a British institution for millions from 1955 until it was taken off the air in 1988.
Compered by the legendary Kent Walton it combined real athleticism with over the top pantomime. Gary Davison was hooked.
Gary Commented: “Wrestling often can be over the top entertainment, but there is also a far grittier side where things can become a lot more real than people think. This play captures both sides of that coin perfectly. If you would like to have a peek behind that curtain, then this play is definitely for you.”
Get your ringside seats for this knockout show about a man who fought his demons both in and out of the ring.
The show is at The Customs House from September 4 to 7 and tickets can be bought through the box office 0191 454 1234 or via the website
For more information please contact our Publicity Officer Leah Strug on 0191 4278180 or at

Unknown said...

Yeah...jim used to work at out place