Needless to say, Oakley would later claim his wrestling was entirely legitimate, with no hint of impropriety in the business until after he retired. Oddly enough, promoter Oakley soon beat Welshman Bill Garnon to become the first British heavyweight champion. If nothing else, the fact that business took off to the extent that many wrestlers were working twice a day suggests that wrestling was by that point firmly established as purely business, albeit one where legitimate amateur credentials were part of the job requirement.
Under the British Wrestling Association banner, Oakley's promotion took off with the likes of Tommy Mann, Black Butcher Johnson, Jack Pye, Norman Ansell (Norman the Butcher), College Boy and Jack Sherry on the roster, along with a man named Leonard Abbey, who wrestled as Jack Dale, and would go on to play a key role in the business after the war.
One of the famed 'insider' stories of the time came when Jack Pye met Bert Assirati in what was billed as a supreme grudge match. The pair had agreed to draw the match one fall apiece, but immediately after getting his opening fall, Pye loudly complained the referee was biased and walked out of the match, leaving Assirati the technical winner, but Pye the victor in the crowd's eyes.
Business was going great for a while, with the best part of forty regular venues in London alone, and reported crowds of up to 14,000. Indeed, if you choose to believe Oakley's recollection, two million people watched a four match show as part of the celebrations when the Graf Zeppelin airship visited Heathrow Airport. It is perhaps worth bearing in mind that Oakley also claimed to have performed a headscissor takedown on an opponent that stood over nine feet tall.
Unfortunately the great demand for wrestling meant there weren't enough skilled amateurs to go around, and many promoters switched to a more violent style, with weapons and chairshots part of the proceedings. Women wrestlers and mud-filled rings also became common gimmicks. In the late 1930s, the London County Council banned pro wrestling, leaving the business in rough shape just before the second world war.
Attempts to relaunch the business in 1947 failed to catch on, with a major show at London's Harringey Arena featuring Ireland's Jack Doyle knocking out the Estonian 'Butch' leaving journalists condemning the gimmickry and as good as calling the show a fake.
The 'shock' of this revelation prompted Admiral Lord Mountevans, a fan of the sport, to get together with Commander Campbell (a member of the popular 'Brains Trust' radio panel show), member of parliament Maurice Webb and Olympic wrestler Norman Morell to create a committee to produce official rules for good clean honest wrestling. They also created seven formal weight divisions:
The various promoters of the day smiled very sweetly and got on with their business, using the committee's existence solely as a counter to any accusations of funny business. Instead, the business was revolutionised by the promoters themselves. Just four years after the formation of the NWA in the United States, a similar idea was adopted in 1952 with the launch of Joint Promotions. Officially this was an alliance of promoters attempting to regulate the sport and uphold the Mountevans committee's honourable ideas. In reality, it was a promotional cartel designed to carve up control of the business between a handful of promoters - and it did so with ruthless efficiency.
The group was represented in London by the Dale Martin promotion, which had incorporated in 1948, and involved Les Martin, and Jack, Johnny and Billy Abbey, who worked as the Dales. Other promoters included Norman Morell and Ted Beresford in Yorkshire, Billy Best in Liverpool, Arthur Wright in Manchester and George de Relywyskow in Scotland, with Arthur Green the secretary of the group. By agreeing to rotate talent, and block out rival promoters, Joint was soon running 40 shows a week, while leaving wrestlers with little bargaining power.
The financial advantages of this arrangement helped the members survive the tough conditions caused by a post-war tax that took 25% of all entertainment revenue. Other promoters were not so successful. The closure of Haringey Arena in 1954 was the last straw for Atholl Oakley, and Joint Promotions were the only major player left to benefit when Chancellor Peter Thorneycroft abolished the entertainment tax in the 1957 budget.
At this point the only independent promoter of any real note was Paul Lincoln, who survived on a shoestring budget, working his own main events as the masked 'Dr Death'. The Joint stranglehold also spelt bad news for Bert Assirati, whose hardman reputation had him marked down as a troublemaker. He held the group's heavyweight title in 1955 but quit without dropping the belt the following year. Such was his confidence, he even showed up in the audience in a December 1957 show at the Royal Albert Hall and issued a grandstand challenge to the visiting Lou Thesz; Dale Martin promoters and security staff made sure Assirati never had the chance to test his reputation.
One of Joint Promotions' first moves was establishing (and controlling) the championships called for by the Mountevans committee. At first this proved a profitable venture, with title matches leading to raised ticket prices. However, perhaps inevitably, attempts to extend this success by bringing in additional titles led to overexposure. While the World and British titles had some credibility (particularly as they were often placed on the more legitimate wrestlers), the addition of European, Empire/Commonwealth, Scottish, Welsh, and area championships got out of hand, and at one point there were conceivably 70 different titleholders to keep track of within Joint Promotions alone.
But while titles had some success, it was television that took British wrestling to the next level. The first show aired on ABC and ATV (the regional forerunners to ITV) on 9 November 1955, featuring Francis St Clair Gregory (father of Tony St Clair) vs Mike Marino and Cliff Beaumont vs Bert Royal live from West Ham baths. The show was successful, and wrestling became a featured attraction every Saturday afternoon from Autumn to Spring each year. In 1964 it went full-time as part of the new World of Sport show, running from 4pm to 4.45, just before the full time football results. It also had several runs on Wednesday evenings in the 60s and 70s (eventually being replaced by late night football highlights.)
To think of televised wrestling at this time in today's terms is misleading. The shows featured nothing more than two or three matches. There were no storylines. A ten second soundbite before the commercial break was the extent of the wrestlers' vocal contributions. Commentator Kent Walton's softly spoken style was a gentle backdrop rather than the voice of hype. Indeed, there was barely a hint of promotion for live wrestling shows.
What television did for British wrestling was to make the performers household names. When wrestling started on television, there were just two channels available (the BBC launched its second channel in 1964, and Channel 4 did not arrive until 1982). Indeed, commercial television had only begun two months before the first wrestling show. While the ratings success has been greatly exaggerated through romanticised reminiscence, legitimate figures show audiences were respectable. The peak year of the period came in 1965, when wrestling was among the top 20 shows for 15 weeks of the year, peaking at 7.3 million viewers for a Bolton show featuring Roy Bull Davies vs Billy Howes and Johnny Eagles vs Ken Cadman.
Television was a money-maker itself for Joint Promotions, with rumours of a £15,000 weekly fee going in their pockets, while the wrestlers featured in a broadcast would be lucky to get £200 between them. But the exposure of wrestling on television proved the ultimate boost to the live event business - it became part of mainstream culture. Indeed a 22 May 1963 show at the Royal Albert Hall featured Prince Philip as a guest of honour. By the mid 1960s, Joint had doubled their live event schedule to somewhere in the region of 4,000 to 5,000 shows a year. Every town of note had a show at least once a month, and at some points more than 30 cities had a weekly date. For live events per square mile, Mexico City and perhaps Tokyo are perhaps the only areas to rival this spell of business, and it is doubtful that any territory worldwide has ever seen so many shows putting gate receipts in the pockets of so few promoters.
One effect of television was that, by ensuring weight classifications were based on appearance rather than legitimate weigh-ins, promoters could match similarly sized opponents. This, and the illusion of television, meant that personality could get a wrestler over just as much as size. The two biggest beneficiaries of this were Jackie Pallo and Mick McManus, both welterweight heels. Their feud, pitting the tough cockney McManus against the extravagant Pallo have become the stuff of legend. The Pallo account tells of two hard-fought draws on the afternoons of the 1963 and 1965 Cup Finals, while the McManus story has it as accepted fact that the bouts outdrew the Cup Final coverage.
The true story is that the pair fought in two televised matches ending in draws, to set up the 1963 Cup Final Day match, which McManus won by stoppage. There is no hard evidence that the bout drew much more than around five million viewers. On Cup Final Day in 1965, both men appeared on TV but in separate matches. They had a famous rematch at the Royal Albert Hall in 1967, again ending with a stoppage victory for McManus. In any case, Pallo slipping out of the ring and kissing McManus' wife at ringside in the 1963 match was considered major heat at the time, and the feud was so successful that the pair are by far the two best remembered performers of the era. The fact that both men are still around to tell the tale, and do so regularly, perhaps contributes to their enduring legend.
The style of wrestling at the time was unique, with the system of five minute rounds (three minutes for title matches), best of three falls matches the norm, two public warnings for rulebreaking before a disqualification and no diving moves allowed on a grounded wrestler. Gimmick matches were a rarity; midget wrestling failed to catch on, while women were banned by the Greater London Council until the late 1970s. Tag wrestling proved extremely popular, with Joint televising a mere eight or so such matches each year to keep them special. The Pallo-McManus feud saw Jackie Pallo Jr and Steve Logan added to the mix, while brothers Bert Royal and Vic Faulkner were perhaps the best known permanent team as the Royal Family.
The success of wrestling on television did create a better opportunity for the independent groups. The British Wrestling Federation name was used for a rival championship, built around Assirati (who retired through injury in 1960), and later Shirley Crabtree, a young muscleman who had worked working for Paul Lincoln in the 1950s under the names 'Blond Adonis' and 'Mr Universe'. Crabtree quit after a few years, realising he was unlikely to make much money outside of the Joint cartel; he was also plagued by the constant threat of an embittered Assirati exposing his limited legitimate ability.
Another attempt to get round Joint's stranglehold was the Wrestling Federation of Great Britain, a Leicester-based loose alliance of independent promoters such as lightweight legend George Kidd & referee Joe D'Orazio, 20th Century promotions (consisting of Norman Berry and Max & Brian Crabtree, brothers of Shirley), and Jack Taylor. While such promotions managed to stay profitable well into the 1970s, they would forever be chasing the crumbs of a cake carved up by Joint Promotions.
But, as the old wrestling saying goes, nothing last forever. The men running Joint Promotions were financially well-off from their success, and the day to day hassles of protecting the cartel may not have seemed worthwhile considering their advancing years. When a group of businessmen known as the Hurst Park Syndicate offered to buy out the company but leave the running to the experts, Joint agreed. But by the turn of the 70s, the original promoters had one eye on retirement, and the closed nature of the business meant their experience had not been passed on to any logical successors.
One might have thought the new finances would be used to spark another boom for Joint Promotions, but it was not to be. With so many of the old guard of wrestling out of the business, Astair was forced to rely on people from outside the industry. Eventually he sold out to the bookmakers William Hill, leaving the wrestling industry run by a public company with little experience of this unique business.
The biggest threat to Joint's dominance almost took off in 1975 when Jackie Pallo, arguably past his prime in the ring, but carrying name value in negotiations, quit Joint and set up his own promotion with Max Crabtree as booker, and Johnny Dale scheduled to take over the business side. However, Dale died before he could really settle into the role, and Crabtree was headhunted by Joint as the most experienced booker still in the business.
Crabtree had a simple idea to turn business around, one that would spark the next boom - and bust. His brother Shirley, who had been unemployed for the best part of 15 years, was repackaged as 'Big Daddy', the larger-then-life favourite of children and pensioners everywhere. That he was no longer a bodybuilder youth, rather an overweight man in his forties, did not seem to be an obstacle. Every major heel in the country tasted defeat at Daddy's hands, usually in short order thanks to Crabtree's lack of conditioning.
Within a few months of his return, Daddy had even torn off the mask of Kendo Nagasaki, a mysterious heel that had been a top draw since unmasking rival Count Bartelli in 1966. Nagasaki was one of the few men to avoid jobbing to Daddy, instead voluntarily unmasking in a bizarre ceremony in 1977, before retiring the following year.
There is no doubt that, for the Crabtree family at least, the Big Daddy express proved hugely successful. He was by far the best known wrestler in British history, with his own cartoon show on television; Hulkamania without the in-ring ability. His run was extended by carefully positioning him in tag matches, allowing a host of young partners (which included Davey Boy Smith, Dynamite Kid and the future Steven Regal) to carry the match before tagging Daddy in for the finish. His two biggest singles matches, defeating the Canadian 'Mighty' John Quinn in 1979 and perennial rival Giant Haystacks two years later were both inexplicably successful; claims of 18 million viewers may require a healthy dose of scepticism, but both shows sold out the 10,000 seat Wembley Arena. The loyal followers were even able to overlook the truly atrocious nature of the matches, both lasting less than three minutes.
But, once again, things couldn't last. Within a couple of years, Joint Promotions was down to around 100 shows a month, a notable dropoff. One hero defeating many villains may have made good television, but it hardly produced a deep roster full of drawing power. When Joint were rewarded with a five year extension on their television contract starting in 1982, things looked bleak for the rest of the industry.
Frustration among wrestlers was inevitable, particularly considering how many great workers were around at this point; one could argue that New Japan and Calgary's junior-heavyweight glory days both had their roots in British wrestling of the time. Merseyside promoter Brian Dixon, who had started in the business in his youth, running the Jim Breaks fan club, now had several years experience running his own firm, All Star Promotions, and began capitalising on this disaffection.
Joint had tried their hand at creating a major drawing storyline by crowning Wayne Bridges as the first 'world heavyweight champion' in 1979, with John Quinn taking the title the following year to set up Bridges' chase at revenge. However Quinn jumped to All Star with the title; Joint put the belt back on Bridges, only for him to follow suit in 1983. Within a couple of years, Dixon also had British heavyweight champion Tony St Clair, World mid-heavyweight champion Mark Rocco, British mid-heavyweight champ Chic Cullen and World lightweight champion Johnny Saint on his books. And whatever prestige the titles brought to All Star was more than matched by the superior product, with the fast-paced technical style and show-to-show storylines at regular venues proving more appealing to many than the seemingly never-ending antics of Daddy and company.
But this was hardly the only concern for Joint Promotions. In 1985, regular Big Daddy partner Tony 'Banger' Walsh told all to The Sun about the true nature of wrestling. This was not a first: a 1972 News of the World expose saw a locker room bugged to record two wrestlers discussing a finish. A 1981 court case with wrestler Masambula suing promoters after suffering an injury on a defective ring revealed that he suffered the injury one round before his scheduled defeat. And a frustrated Pallo went into intricate detail in his 1983 expose 'You Grunt, I'll Groan'. But revealing these secrets never truly hurt the business; suspension of disbelief was all too easy for the die-hard fans. What really hurt was the suggestion that Big Daddy's warm-hearted child-loving image was in fact a sham.
At the end of 1986, the Crabtrees received another blow when World of Sport was taken off the air. Wrestling instead got its own show, but the timeslot changed from week to week, slowly driving away the regular audience. And far worse for Joint Promotions, with their contract up, they were forced to share the TV rights as part of a rotation system with All Star Promotions and the WWF. While the All Star's product put Joint to shame (a truly atrocious Dale Martin show at the close of 1986 was followed the next week by an All Star extravaganza featuring Fuji Yamada - later Jushin Liger - plus the return of Kendo Nagasaki in a bizarre 'disco ladder' match), the shows were limited by harsh restrictions on the part of broadcasting regulators. But it was the exposure of WWF television that many have pinpointed as the death blow for British wrestling. As one British promoter put it, what chance did an ageing Joint roster stand when young viewers had seen Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage in a wild lumberjack match before 20,000 Madison Square Garden fans.
What appeal Big Daddy still had took yet another blow on 24 August 1987 during a match with Mal 'King Kong' Kirk. After being pinned by a splash from Daddy, Kirk lay still in the ring. He was taken to hospital and never regained consciousness, dying from a heart attack. When Kirk's widow revealed he was earning just £25 a night, the press tore Shirley Crabtree's reputation to shreds; his attempts to portray the incident as a tragic end to a legitimate sporting contest just made matter worse.
The end was nigh, and it arrived in December 1988 when new ITV head of sport Greg Dyke axed the wrestling show as part of an attempt to modernise the station's image, with 'working class' sports such as snooker and darts also falling by the wayside. Having bought the remnants of Joint Promotions from the William Hill firm just two years earlier, Max Crabtree soon suspected he had been sold a lemon. And with rumours that the WWF were asking just £700 a show while Joint Promotions were getting £17,500, hindsight suggests the demise of televised wrestling was already on the cards when Crabtree made his purchase. When newly launched satellite network Sky (which, in its previous form as a single cable channel, had covered the WWF since the early 80s) offered just £500 an hour for Joint Promotions shows, the game was up.
For Joint Promotions, there was nothing left to do but tour every town and village to squeeze every last penny out of the remaining Big Daddy followers. But the trick could only work a couple of times at each venue and, despite relaunching as Ring Wrestling Stars and bringing over Davey Boy Smith, just six months after headlining Wembley Stadium, it was a losing battle. When Smith returned to World Championship Wrestling, he took with him the last hope of the Crabtree family.
For All Star Promotions, the end of television was like a shot of venom; it provided a short-term boost as fans went to live shows to get their wrestling fix, and the show to show storylines kept them coming back, but by the early to mid 90s, the group was down to a handful of regular venues. By 1995 promoter Brian Dixon was relying on sold shows on the holiday camp circuit to keep afloat, while turning down a chance to air on cable station L!ve TV because the station offered no fee for the shows.
Since that time, a return to television has been the Holy Grail for countless members of the British wrestling profession. In the early 90s a Jackie Pallo organised taping saw an £80,000 budget, 36 match show sell for just £15,000. Following the resurgence of interest in the American product, former WWF production crew member Dan Berlinka's UWA group persuaded L!ve TV to air their show for free during much of 1999 in return for covering production costs, but the promotion failed to translate the exposure into profitable live events.
A year later the Mondial Sports company's UCW promotion seemed the most serious attempt to get back to the big time, with wrestlers put under full-time salaried contracts, and two shows drawing impressive crowds without imported name talent. But the financial backers seemed to misunderstand the wrestling industry; with one eye on a national television contract they cancelled plans to run regular dates in 1,000 to 2000 seater venues, reasoning that the promotion would look small-time in negotiations. With full-time expenses and no source of income, the result was inevitable.
While the NWA affiliated Hammerlock promotion produced a series of local television shows with the assistance of their Nashville counterparts, the group soon returned to its original plan of running bare bones live shows to complement their successful training school.
And no mention of attempts to put British wrestling back in the big time would be complete without the debacle of WrestleXpress in which a 19 year old somehow sold 2000 tickets and negotiated a pay-per view deal for a launch show featuring everyone from Rob Van Dam to Eric Bischoff. The cynics were proved right when the show collapsed amid stories of champagne dinners and widespread money-mark abuse, leaving goodwill down the toilet and fans waiting up to a year for refunds.
The irony is that, as much as attempts to regain former glories may have fallen short, there have likely never been so many promoters working in British wrestling as there are in the early 21st century. All Star Promotions operates a simple policy of emphasising low costs rather than high revenues, combining a few regular venues with a couple of hundred touring dates each year with a curious mix of former American stars, British veterans, fresh faces and the ubiquitous 'UK Undertaker' and 'Big Red Machine'. Perhaps the most profitable promoters are the likes of Orig Williams (an independent promoter since 1973) and Shane Stevens, whose 'WWF Tribute' shows can draw crowds in the thousands, only bringing closer the inevitable trademark infringement cases. Long-time promoters such as John Freemantle (running Premier Promotions since 1987), Scott Conway (whose Wrestling Alliance groups dates back to 1989) and Ricky Knight (who formed WAW in 1993) continue with steady crowds in the low hundreds and the occasional success such as WAW's crowd of 2000 for its Fightmare show. And there is almost an alphabet soup of 'new school' promotions based around training schools, the most prominent being the Frontier Wrestling Alliance, which provided much of the talent for the nationally televised Revival show.
When considering the future of the wrestling industry, and British wrestling in particular, people often speak of the 'cyclical nature' of the business, with 'inevitable peaks and valleys'. Yet the history of professional wrestling in this country shows that every spell of success began and ended for a reason. The music hall era ended when promoters could no longer provide a product with the finely-tuned balance of legitimate grappling ability and showmanship. The 1930s craze for 'All in' wrestling went by the wayside when quality was sacrificed for quantity. The TV boom trailed off when a generation of wrestling masterminds gave way to a corporate world that didn't realise wrestling was a business like no other. And the fad of Big Daddy went the way of every promotional drive that replaces steady business with an attempt to hotshot to riches.
But for all the lessons wrestling history teaches us, the most important is that each boom was a product of its times. The world of 2002 is a vastly different place of that of 1982, let alone 1962. In this era of multi-channel broadcasting and home entertainment, even national television exposure gives no guarantee of a place in mainstream culture. The wrestling business in the United States no longer exists in Britain in the pages of magazines; the WWF is by far the dominant player in this country's wrestling industry. Computers can give a promoter of any size national exposure from the comfort of their bedroom, but the effectiveness of such publicity is still in question. And the biggest change of all is that for a generation of young fans, British wrestling as it was is now neither an idealised reminiscence nor an unshakeable stigma; for today's target audience, British wrestling is starting from nothing.
Whether today's promoters can translate the successes of the past to today's world without falling victim to previous mistakes will decide if the history of British wrestling is a tale ending in tragedy or a story with glories yet to be told.
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