For generations of ‘World of Sport’ fans Saturday afternoon meant wrestling. Stars like Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks were loved by millions. ITV has commissioned a wrestling special to air on New Year’s Eve. Wrestling commentator Greg Lambert looks back at a golden age for sports entertainment
Everything stopped at four o’clock.That’s what they used to say of 4pm on Saturdays in the 1950s through to the late 80s – when British professional wrestling was on ITV.
British wrestling was a national institution back then. Heavyweight stars Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks were household names. Even the Queen was a fan.
Now a new generation of UK grappling stars have the chance to become heroes (and villains!) to a TV audience thanks to a one-off special airing on ITV1 on New Year’s Eve.
But back when Daddy and Haystacks were in their grunting and groaning prime,
Lancashire had a major role to play in the popularity of pro wrestling.
In Preston, venues like the Majestic Skating Rink, the Queens Hall at Saul Street Baths, the Public Hall (better known these days as the Corn Exchange and the Assembly) and the Guild Hall hosted wrestling during its golden age.
During the 1960s two promoters regularly presented shows in Preston. At the Corn Exchange was the independent Cape Promotions, while at the Queens Hall the shows were run by Norman Morrell and Ted Beresford, members of Joint Promotions and able to present the big names like Mick McManus, Les Kellett, Jackie Pallo and Kendo Nagasaki.
Preston has itself produced a number of professional wrestlers, most famously the WWE star Wade Barrett in recent years.
But back in the glory days of TV wrestling, Preston-based Rajendra Singh, a tall, slender middleweight originally from India, made a name for himself on the UK circuit.
Another pro wrestler, Harry ‘Paul’ Duval, died in Preston in 2013. Duval was born in Montserrat in the Caribbean and moved to the UK as a youngster, and later became famous around Preston as a stylish cab driver who always wore a chauffeur’s cap.
Up the road in Morecambe, British wrestling was cheap and cheerful entertainment for seaside crowds from the 1930s onwards.
The Native American star Billy Two Rivers was a top attraction at the Winter Gardens theatre in the 1950s. While appearing in Morecambe, the Mohawk chief from Canada romanced a local girl and fathered a child. The young lad grew up to become top designer and TV personality Wayne Hemingway, who recalls as one of his earliest memories being paraded around the Winter Gardens ring on the shoulders of his famous father.
On July 24 1969, while on a UK tour, a gargantuan young Frenchman named Jean Ferre wrestled in Morecambe, beating John Cox by technical knockout. Ferre would go on to global superstardom as the 7ft ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’ Andre the Giant, who played Fezzik in The Princess Bride and was the original WWE Hall of Famer.
An ITV World of Sport broadcast taped in Morecambe on August 17 1977 was an exceptional bill, with names such as Cyanide Sid Cooper, Mick McManus, Johnny Saint and the masked man Count Bartelli, a wild double disqualification between Marty Jones and Rollerball Rocco, and a match pitting ‘British Bulldog’ The Dynamite Kid against Jackie Robinson, the European Lightweight Champion.
Jackie loved Morecambe so much, he would in later life settle in the town to run a go-kart track on the seafront.
Another British wrestling legend, Steve Logan – former tag partner of McManus –
also moved to Morecambe and spent his final days living in the resort prior to his death in 2003.
The Winter Gardens closed in 1977 but bouts continued both on the Central Pier and at a brand new venue on the promenade, The Dome, as well as at The Carleton and the old Pontins holiday camp at Middleton Towers. TV wrestling also carried on in the resort until 1981, with names such as Tony ‘Banger’ Walsh,
Steve Grey, Alan Kilby, Mal ‘King Kong’ Kirk, ‘Ironfist’ Clive Myers, Jimmy Breaks, and the Auf Wiedersehn Pet and Raiders of the Lost Ark star ‘Bomber’ Pat Roach on the bills.
The 1980s also saw the biggest household names in British wrestling, the super heavyweights Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks, pull huge crowds to the Central Pier.
In 1991 and 1992, the ageing Daddy was still the star attraction on Thursday evening summer shows at The Dome.
Names such as ‘Burly’ Barry Douglas, ‘Kindhearted’ Keith Myatt and Dave ‘Fit Finlay’ (with Princess Paula) were regulars alongside up-and-comers like Johnny Angel, Tony Stuart and Blackpool-based Steve Regal, who would later earn fame and fortune in America as William Regal in WWE.
Wrestling continues in Preston and Morecambe today, thanks to promoters
Steven Fludder of Preston City Wrestling and Kieran Engelke of Alpha Omega Wrestling respectively. Morecambe even has its own wrestling ‘hall of fame’.
Blackpool, too, has long been a hotbed of ‘grunt and groan’. The aforementioned Regal started out as a teenage wrestler at the Pleasure Beach on shows promoted by Bobby Baron in the 80s. His local contemporaries included Steve Peacock and Tony Francis, who ran a second-hand cooker shop on Central Drive when he wasn’t donning the trunks.
Regal’s first bout for the renowned UK promoter Max Crabtree (brother of Shirley ‘Big Daddy’ Crabtree) was against Barry Sherman, a Blackpool councillor whose ring name was Rex Strong.
Wigan, too, has a rich history. Two of the most decorated UK wrestlers, Davey ‘Boy’ Smith and Tommy ‘The Dynamite Kid’ Billington from Golborne, started out on the British circuit in the 70s before forming a tag team called The British Bulldogs who went to America, Canada and Japan and became huge worldwide stars. Wigan is also the home of Billy Riley’s infamous Snake Pit wrestling gym. From its
origins in the 1940s, the Snake Pit developed talent such as British champions Bert Assirati and Billy Robinson, cousin of Jackie.
Billy took his ground-based submission style all over the world and helped lay the
foundations for the success of Mixed Martial Arts and the Ultimate Fighting Championship today.
Wigan remains a popular haunt for grapple fans as home of Grand Pro Wrestling based at The Rose Club in Hindley.
The two-hour special World of Sport Wrestling is being shown on ITV on Saturday, December 31 at 5.00pm.