Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Whatever happened to British Wrestling?

This year celebrates the 25th anniversary of World Wrestling Entertainment’s global phenomenon of Wrestlemania; but from the 1950’s right through to the 80’s, even this American heavyweight couldn’t compete with the wrestling Britain had to offer. Matthew Kiernan looks at the rise and fall of British wrestling.

It’s a Saturday afternoon in 1981 and on ITV’s World of Sport Big Daddy is about to grapple with his arch-nemesis Giant Haystacks. All the family, including the grandparents, are gathered around the TV to witness the ensuing spectacle with millions of others across the UK. What they saw was a true clash of the titans and one where Big Daddy would claim a famous victory.

It was this weekly battle of good and evil that captivated a nation for over thirty years. For families and the working man, this was the staple diet of television viewing. Placed in the schedules at 4pm every Saturday, in order to fill time prior to the football final scores, it quickly became a British institution.
While the BBC broadcast rugby and football on Grandstand, ITV fought back with World of Sport a quirky sports programme showcasing all the disciplines, including wrestling that the BBC didn’t want to show. The results were staggering. Ever since its regular weekly television conception in 1955, interest quickly grew until every week around six million viewers would tune in to see their favourite ‘grapplers’ do battle.

National treasures, and indeed villains, such as Mick McManus, Adrian Street, Mark Rocco and the mysterious masked Kendo Nagasaki, were born. Coupled with the enigmatic commentary of Ken Walton, suddenly this was a winning formula. When these stars came to your local town, you could be sure that your local civic hall would rapidly fill up in a flash.

Mal Mason was in the industry at the time, as a referee in the ring and also driver to one of the stars of the time Jackie “Mr TV” Pallo. “It was absolutely fabulous of course. Now it is phoning and asking for a job, then it was phoning and asking if you could have a night off. We would be working seven nights a week and in the summer you would be at a holiday camp during the day and then a show at night. TV created British superstars, it created national heroes and also around the world and it did this long before WWE.”

The secret to this success was largely down to the organisation behind the scenes thanks to Joint Promotions and in London the Dale Martin Promotion. Split up regionally all over the UK, during the 60’s the company was running over 4,000 shows a year and some cities even had a weekly event. So why exactly was it so popular?

Alan Bamber, founder of www.wrestlingheritage.co.uk, links the success down to boxing’s popularity. “Boxing was really in its heyday in the 50’s and 60’s, so wrestling based itself around it and grabbed an audience. It was mainly a working class sport. Tickets were cheap, all the family could get involved and it was an outlet.”

Wrestling’s television success in the UK may well be remembered for its heyday in the 1960’s but in reality audiences across the country for their live shows began to slowly decline towards the end of that decade. Local shows were cut back and future stars were prevented from coming through the ranks. With the same names of Pallo, McManus and Kellet continuously topping the bill, the public stayed away.
There was also the added problem of Joint Promotions’ owners starting to retire and sell up to investors without any prior knowledge of the sport. Things were looking bleak, and the business needed a new injection of life if it was to emulate its previous decades of success. It needed something that would reinvigorate the industry and re-capture the public’s interest. It came in the most unlikely of forms.

In 1975, Max Crabtree picked up the reigns of Joint Promotions as he set about to unveil the next star of British wrestling to the world. The result was the birth of a legend, in the form of “Big Daddy.” A six foot two ex-bodybuilder, well into his forties and weighing around 26 stone with a 64-inch chest, Big Daddy (real name Shirley Crabtree) was hardly an archetypal athlete. Hulk Hogan he certainly wasn’t. Having seemingly quit the sport in 1960, Crabtree had been out of work for 15 years until lured out of retirement by his brother; newly appointed promoter Max.

Despite his apparent lack of conditioning, the public lapped it up. Adored by senior citizens and kids alike, Big Daddy was the new face of British wrestling. He defeated virtually all opponents who came before him, normally with the thorough use of his infamous “belly splash.” His feuds with Mick McManus, Giant Haystacks and his notorious unmasking match with Kendo Nagasaki brought in the ratings and breathed new life into the sport. As his popularity grew so did UK wrestling as a whole. He even had brief foray in children’s television, and in 1982 was due to front the replacement show for Tiswas but he withdrew at the last minute for unknown reasons.

The Big Daddy craze appeared at first to do the trick for the industry. There was genuine interest once again, but it was only a short-term success. The shows were now being targeted primarily at children, interested in the Big Daddy character, while the older audience began to become unhappy.
Robert Cope is the founder of www.gianthaystacks.co.uk, a Website dedicated to another leading light in the industry during that period, the near seven foot tall, 46 stone Giant Haystacks. He feels that the Crabtrees made some crucial errors, which ultimately proved fatal. “I think it had got very stale. Some guys could see the way it was going and joined other promoters. In my opinion it was the Crabtrees. Everything was centred on Big Daddy. The first year or two were great, but then he was dishing out the same formulaic tag match. People were starting to get bored.”

The beginning of the end of the World of Sport era of British wrestling came in 1985. ITV controller of sport Greg Dyke had to drop a sport from the programme and his choice came between snooker, darts and wrestling. Unfortunately for the Crabtrees, it was wrestling which was dropped. It was his decision, which caused irreversible damage.
After another three years of being moved around the television schedules as a sole entity, it would be removed all together in 1988, and after 33 years on our screens British wrestling was gone forever. Dyke’s decision though was a controversial one. Wrestling still had high turnouts for live events and their viewing figures were still in the millions. So why was it dropped from the shedules?

One wrestler who had enjoyed exposure on World of Sport, was Eddie “The Amazing Kung Fu” Hamill. He feels that Dyke misjudged the market. “Greg Dyke pulled the plug on wrestling on TV because for a start, he didn’t like wrestling, to him it was neither a sport or entertainment. He thought the only people that watched it were old grey haired OAPs and that it did not appeal to the younger generation, which was rubbish, as even today, I still get fan mail from people who watched me when they were kids.”

Meanwhile the influx of American wrestling could also have played its part. Phil Allely, is a wrestling correspondent for The Sun. “I think it may not have been taken seriously as a legitimate sport. It takes someone to have the interest in it and it didn’t have the following or the backing at the time. Wrestlemania was taking off and that’s when we started having these big muscular guys like Hulk Hogan appearing, it was different.” Indeed Wrestlemania began in 1985 the same year British wrestling was dropped from World of Sport.

The major debate though which surrounded wrestling was the issue of the legitimacy of the sport. Arguably one reason for wrestling’s success was that the majority of those watching thought they were seeing a real fight. The debate constantly raged within the crowds about whether it was fixed, while newspapers tried to expose the industry. The credibility of wrestling was dealt a major blow when Jackie Pallo revealed in 1985 in his autobiography that all his fights were fixed. In the same year, The Sun also got in on the act, with Tommy ‘Banger’ Walsh exposing that he used to cut his face to please “blood thirsty” fans. Only a few months later, Greg Dyke had made his decision.

When the television coverage had gone British wrestling began to decline. As we moved into the 1990’s, the Crabtree’s retired, including Big Daddy and the rest of the World of Sport stars soon joined them. The US promotions of World Championship Wrestling and World Wrestling Entertainment quickly began to boom and British wrestling appeared to be long forgotten.

So as we pass over 20 years since British wrestling was last on our screens, can it ever return? The Sun’s pro wrestling correspondent Rob McNichol believes that a TV route might be too big a task. “TV is a ‘lookist’ medium. If the setup doesn’t look right, then of course you are going to discriminate. If I were a UK promoter I would just concentrate on being a solid base for these young wrestlers to develop and hopefully break into the big time.”

The Amazing Kung Fu, also fears it can’t return. “It was great to be part of the wrestling in the 70s and 80s. I wish I could go back to those fabulous times, I really miss them. The good old days of World of Sport have gone, never to return. They’re gone but not forgotten”.

There may though be some cause for optimism. Fast forward through to the present and the industry seems to be enjoying somewhat of a resurgence. With the WWE and now Total Non-stop Action wrestling, touring in the UK twice a year, the interest in the British form has picked up as well. After a tough period in the 90’s more promotions than ever are in business and importantly attracting the crowds. One of the market leaders is All Star Promotions, which is now the biggest promotion in Europe.
Run by Brian Dixon (one of the Crabtree’s main rivals in the 70’s), the company performs at Butlins all year round and travel all round the UK. Being present at one of their events at Fairfield Halls in Croydon, the signs are certainly positive for the British industry. The tickets are reasonably priced, there’s a 600+ strong crowd (mostly of kids) screaming the house down, and most importantly the wrestling performances are impressive. It may not be the thousands of twenty years ago, but wrestling in Britain looks set to remain for many more years yet.