A latecomer to the world of professional wrestling could be forgiven for thinking that this most eccentric and theatrical form of entertainment was simply an imported piece of American culture, much like basketball, ice-hockey or baseball. In the early years of the 21st Century, the faces on the US shows that beam out of our TVs are, for the most part, as American as apple pie. But if the clocks were turned back by only 20 years to the 1980s, then it would be a very different picture indeed.
In those far-off days of yesteryear names like The Undertaker, Triple H and The Rock would have elicited nothing but a puzzled look from the average wrestling fan resident in the United Kingdom. Back then wrestling took place in town halls the length and breadth of the nation. The air was filled with cigarette smoke and the catcalls of the working man rather than the fireworks and slick special effects en vogue in the modern American promotions.
In these provincial arenas there competed men who looked like they had just been released from prison and others who would have been well cast as the 'before' in a weight loss ad. There were few British wrestlers who foreshadowed the athletic poster-boys of today. Among these men a ruddy complexion nurtured by a fondness for alcohol and cigarettes was more the norm than a bronzed physique fresh from the gym.
But despite this rather grim image, there was a certain something thrown into this mix of working class pride and the traditional British love of an old-fashioned battle between good and evil. Anyone who watched the weekly broadcast that went out on ITV every Saturday afternoon could testify that the wrestling ring made ordinary men into heroes of legend as surely as the theatres of ancient Greece conferred the same status upon the actors cast as Jason, Odysseus and Hector.
The British people loved and hated these men in equal measure. But, today, perhaps the best known and most fondly remembered are the massive Giant Haystacks, the nefarious masked villain Kendo Nagasaki and the quintessential good guy of British professional wrestling Big Daddy.
Back in professional wrestling's heyday there was no doubting that Big Daddy was the biggest and best known name in the game. But apart from being known for his trademark Union Jack top-hat and belly-splash signature move, Big Daddy was also widely known by the virtue of his real name. Not that a person changing their name in order to improve their chances of finding fame is unusual, just ask Reg Dwight or Archibald Leech (better known as Elton John and Cary Grant, respectively). The simple fact of the matter was that few people could equate a man the size of Big Daddy with the name 'Shirley Crabtree'.
The man known as Big Daddy was actually born Shirley Crabtree Junior on 14 November, 1930, his father having both borne the name and pursued a career as a wrestler before him. Hailing from the town of Halifax in West Yorkshire, he followed in the footsteps of countless generations before him and began his working life as a coal miner in the local pit. He also played for rugby league club Bradford Northern, but never made an appearance for the first team allegedly as he proved a little too rough even for such a tough sport.
Eventually Crabtree found his way into the world of professional wrestling just as his father and brothers had. Here was an arena in which he could take advantage of his physical prowess and work out some of his aggression to boot. Over the years, Crabtree worked under ring names such as 'The Blond Adonis', 'Mr Universe' and even 'The Battling Guardsman' (drawing on his brief time as a member of the British Army's Coldstream Guards) with mixed reactions. It wasn't until the mid-'70s that the gimmick for which he would be best remembered was born.
Based originally on the character of the same name played by actor Burl Ives in the 1958 screen adaptation of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Big Daddy was first given life by Crabtree in 1976. Clad in a leotard emblazoned with a large 'D' and fashioned by his wife Eunice from their chintz sofa, Crabtree as Big Daddy stormed out of the industrial north of England and into the annals of pro-wrestling history.
In his prime Big Daddy was an imposing sight, weighing in at a hefty 26 stones (or 364lbs) and boasting a 64 inch chest that had earned him a place in the Guinness Book of Records. Though his matches typically consisted of nothing more than his squashing his opponents (often both figuratively and literally) with moves utilising his considerable bulk, it was always the pomp and fanfare that surrounded the character of Big Daddy that accounted for his popularity.
Much like a latter day John Bull, Big Daddy strode to the ring clad in his leotard, Union Jack jacket and top hat accompanied by stirring music and the cheers of the young children and little old ladies who formed the vast majority of his fanbase. The fact that the audience were 99% sure that the match would end when the legendary Big Daddy belly-splash was dropped on his hapless foe. They still chanted 'Easy, easy' with gusto as his corpulent form left the ground and came down like a ton of bricks. The point was those bricks had the Union Jack and British pride stamped all over them.
In 1987 however, Big Daddy bowed out of professional wrestling spotlight after a tragic turn of events in what should have been a run-of-the-mill match. In the final moments of the match against Mal 'King Kong' Kirk, the stage was set and Big Daddy delivered the belly-splash as he had countless times before. But rather than selling the impact of the finishing move, Kirk turned an unhealthy colour which indicated that something was very wrong. Rushed to a nearby hospital, the unfortunate wrestler was pronounced dead on arrival. Despite the fact that the inquest into Kirk's death found that he had a serious heart condition and cleared Crabtree of any responsibility, he nevertheless blamed himself for the other man's death.
Retiring soon after the accident, Big Daddy spent the remainder of his days in his hometown of Halifax. He passed away after a stroke in 1997 aged 67.
Perhaps one of the largest men to ever step into the 'squared-circle' of professional wrestling, Giant Haystacks stood 6' 11" tall and at his heaviest tipped the scales at just over 49 stones (around 686lbs). In the confines of the ring, Haystacks was a consummate villain who berated both the fans and the babyface wrestlers while using his overwhelming bulk to flatten the opposition. But truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction and there was far more to the man who portrayed the belligerent brute than the character gave credit for.
Born in the Camberwell Green area of London in 1946 but moving to Salford in Manchester soon afterwards, Martin Ruane was the son of parents originally from County Mayo in Ireland. Having always been of a large build for his age, Ruane was forced to defend himself constantly from the cruel attentions of his fellow children. As a result, he soon became no stranger to the experience of being an outsider, much like the character he would later portray.
As an adult, Ruane drifted from one job to another working as a labourer, on a motorway construction crew and even as a nightclub bouncer. Eventually a friend suggested that he try his hand at wrestling and take advantage of his impressive physical stature. At first Ruane reacted negatively to the atmosphere of exposure and constant scrutiny that professional wrestling entailed as despite his outward appearance he was apparently a private and deeply religious man who even refused to step into the ring on a Sunday because of his beliefs.
But the world of professional wrestling soon cast its spell over the man now known as Giant Haystacks as he came to revel in the reactions of the crowds. In a world where larger than life characters were the norm, Martin Ruane found that he was able to play to the audience in the arena like an actor on the stage. In the course of his career, Giant Haystacks performed the world over. He was applauded in India, made an honorary citizen of Zimbabwe and claimed that he counted Frank Sinatra as a devoted fan. Giant Haystacks also attracted a healthy amount of curiosity and urban legend generated by his huge size; it was rumoured at one time that he ate a breakfast of three pounds of bacon and a dozen eggs to maintain his weight and build.
During the decline suffered by British wrestling in the late 1980s, Giant Haystacks decided to diversify his business interests. At first he experimented with the motor trade, but later found much more success at the helm of a debt-collection agency (possibly due to the effect the idea of Giant Haystacks turning up on the doorstep had on debtors everywhere). But that is not to say that the 1980s saw the end of Giant Haystacks as a force to be reckoned with in professional wrestling. He continued to perform into the early '90s and was approached by the US promotion WCW (World Championship Wrestling) to wrestle Hulk Hogan under the moniker of the 'Loch Ness Monster'.
But the match never took place as Giant Haystacks was diagnosed with cancer before the appointed day arrived. Martin 'Giant Haystacks' Ruane died of the cancer in December, 1998, aged 52.
A true enigma of the British wrestling scene, the man known as Kendo Nagasaki was a part of the industry for nearly 40 years and, in that time, cultivated a legend that endures to this day. Hidden behind a red mask lined with white stripes to simulate the imposing visage of the headgear worn in a formal kendo match and maintaining a stony silence, Kendo Nagasaki was an intimidating sight to behold both in and out of the ring. This combined with a genuine understanding of the theatrical aspect of professional wrestling and a certain degree of athleticism made him an effective performer and a superb villain.
Actual details as to the identity of the man behind the mask of Kendo Nagasaki are exceptionally hard to come by as the aura of mystery surrounding the character has been well maintained over the years. Some sources claim that he was born on the 14 October, but they then strangely neglect to pin down the exact year or even the location in which the event took place. Some even name the man as one 'Peter Thornley', which is a perfectly average moniker, but add nothing more of the mysterious Mr Thornley's biography. And the man himself obviously never spoke, instead leaving the talking to his manager 'Gorgeous' George Gillette whose verbiage was more than enough for the pair of them together.
The duo of Kendo Nagasaki and Gillette went to great lengths to mystify their audience devising complex pre-match rituals echoing Oriental rites of purification and religious tribute. These rituals they would perform in the ring before the audience and the opponent, often assisted by hooded acolytes and tossing around powdered 'salt' much like the formalised preparations surrounding a bout of sumo wrestling (the same variety of 'salt' which has long been a favourite option for a villainous manager to throw in the eyes of the good guy when his charge is in imminent danger of losing the match). The masked wrestler also carried with him a Katana, the sword traditionally carried by Japanese Samurai warriors. In all it was a powerful combination of over-the-top pantomime and genuine intimidation.
One thing that can be documented however, is the exploits of Kendo Nagasaki in the wrestling ring. Nagasaki made his professional debut in November, 1964, in a match against 'Jumping' Jim Hussey at Willenhall Baths. Eight years later he crossed the Atlantic to work for the legendary Stu Hart (father of Bret 'Hitman' Hart and the late Owen Hart) in his Stampede Wrestling promotion on a tour of Canada and North America.
Like many wrestlers before and since, Nagasaki also made the transition from sports-entertainer to actor. Nagasaki played the role of 'Death Angel' in a drama penned by the Barnsley-born wrestler turned thespian Brian Glover titled The Wild Bunch produced by Granada Television. He again appeared on the small screen in a non-wrestling capacity as a guest on the edition of the long-running television show This is Your Life which paid tribute to his in-ring adversary Big Daddy.
One of the enduring themes of Kendo Nagasaki's career was, of course, his mask and exactly what lay beneath it. It has to be said that in general masked wrestlers in North American and European pro-wrestling have been as popular as Vaseline on toast. Unlike the luchadors of South America, whose masks form an integral part of their style and identity in the ring, a masked wrestler in the West usually has his face hidden away due to the fact that he is simply too mundane and boring to elicit any reaction from the audience without it. In the case of British wrestling in particular many promoters used to stick a mask over the head of a particularly nondescript wrestler after his first match of the night, give him a change of ring attire and send him out to work a second match as the mysterious masked grappler. Masked wrestlers like Mick Foley's Mankind character, Kane, The Hurricane and Kendo Nagasaki himself are few and far between.
The fact that Kendo Nagasaki was almost never seen without the mask was of course one of the most intriguing aspects of the character and as a result his matches often featured an attempt on the part of his opponent to remove it. Only Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks can boast of having actually achieved this feat. Big Daddy did so on TV in December, 1975; Giant Haystacks pulled off the mask in October, 1991, in an effort to relieve Nagasaki of the CWA world title.
But none were more aware of the insatiable curiosity as to what lay beneath the mask than Nagasaki and Gillette themselves. Playing on this in the late 1970s, the pair let it be known that the time had come for Kendo Nagasaki to reveal his face to the world. So in December, 1977, at the Wolverhampton Civic Hall, the audience bore witness to an elaborate ceremony involving all the theatrics for which Nagasaki and his entourage were famous. Attended by hooded acolytes and to the backing of a droning chant, Kendo Nagasaki's mask was slowly removed to reveal... a man with the shape of a star tattooed upon his forehead and a top-knot of black hair atop a head which had been otherwise shaved bald. As for his face, this seemed perfectly average to a world which might have been expecting a scarred or otherwise terrible visage to be hiding behind the mask.
Maybe the unmasking failed to elicit the reaction that Nagasaki had hoped for, or perhaps he realised the importance of the mask to the character that he was portraying. Either way, Nagasaki wrestled for a short time without the mask, but eventually donned it once more and continued to do so for the rest of his career in the ring.
Like many other pro-wrestlers, Kendo Nagasaki announced his retirement from sports-entertainment only to be lured back into the ring more than once by the draw of the business. In the spring of 1978 Nagasaki retired on medical grounds and devoted his attention to the world of rock management. But he was back in the ring by December, 1986. He remained active in the ring until 1993 when he retired once more, this time to 'pursue his role in commerce'.
Still alive and well at the time of writing, Kendo Nagasaki began work on his autobiography in 2002.
The Sudden Fall and Gradual Rise of British Wrestling
The names above hark back to what was a without doubt a golden age for British professional wrestling. The popularity of the sports entertainment that was served up every Saturday afternoon on the terrestrial television channel ITV was never in doubt. But for some reason this was overlooked and the weekly broadcast was axed in the late 1980s. The man often named as the force behind this was one Greg Dyke (current director general of the BBC), who at the time was high up in the running of the channel's sports programming. Eager to move with the times, the channel wanted to distance itself from the old fashioned and somewhat stodgy image which clung to domestic pro-wrestling in favour of more popular and forward-looking mainstream sports such as professional football which had recently undergone something of a renaissance to become family-oriented and highly profitable.
The loss of weekly exposure on national television was the first nail in the coffin of the industry. While hardcore fans were still willing to attend the local shows, a significant portion of the audience drawn by the TV broadcasts simply lost interest and drifted away. Obviously a wrestler cannot become or hope to remain a household name if he cannot find a way into the household in the first place and pro-wrestling slowly disappeared from the view of the general public. Slowly but surely the once-mighty wrestling industry went into a state of decline.
Nothing much happened to change the fate of British pro-wrestling until the advent of satellite broadcasting reached the UK. Rather than being limited to the traditional four terrestrial channels, viewers in the UK could now have access to many more specialist channels for a monthly fee. British Sky Broadcasting (better known simply as Sky Television) purchased the rights to air the programming of the American WWF promotion in the United Kingdom. This brought back into the public eye the cultural phenomena of pro-wrestling and sparked interest in a new generation of fans.
It didn't take long for the Americans to figure out that there were pastures new just waiting to be exploited across the pond and soon both the WWF and the now-defunct WCW promotions were both touring British soil. On the part of the UK wrestling industry however, this was not the start of a Renaissance by any means. Even before it had fallen from favour the industry had been falling behind the times and would have lacked the ability to provide the kind of product that the fans of the American promotions demanded. As things stood the decimated industry could provide virtually nothing at all.
But the interest in the possibility of a truly home-grown pro-wrestling product was there nonetheless and a slow process of growth began. This new generation of fledgling British promotions is only now beginning to blossom as groups such as the FWA (Frontier Wrestling Alliance) and NWA Hammerlock UK (the UK affiliate of the world renowned US network of independent promotions) have made great headway both in establishing a stable and loyal fanbase and even making inroads into the American and Japanese pro-wrestling scenes. Performers like Doug Williams and Jodie Fleisch have competed alongside stars of the US independent circuit both here and across the Atlantic and the trend shows no sign of abating.
So at the dawn of the 21st Century the British pro-wrestling industry finds itself a shadow of the power that it was only 20 years ago. But the new industry that has grown up from the ashes shares few of the flaws that brought down its predecessor. In short the future is bright and the best days of British pro-wrestling are still to come.