Friday, 11 March 2016

Wrestlers of Yesteryear

 With it being WrestleMania season, here are reprints of my nominations for the Rajah WWF Hall of Fame from 2011. A few write ups talking up favoured wrestlers. 
   British Bulldog    When I was five, I wasn't a wrestling fan. Well, duh, you say. How obvious. Why start off with such an obvious statement. He's gone and ruined the HOF already.

Well, you're a hard audience, but let me finish. Despite not being immersed in wrestling of all kind, I still knew the name of three wrestlers. People everyone knew because they were so famous at the time. One was Hogan. One was The Undertaker, who they sold in the same action figure collection as Hogan, and who remains iconic.

The third was The British Bulldog. Don't scoff. He was massively famous. How famous in the UK? His death was reported as the headline on the BBC news. That puts him in the company of only one other wrestler in the history of ever: Big Daddy.

Bulldog was a star over here. A hero to fans and non-fans alike. As a nation, we love our sporting heroes, doesn't matter if the sport is real or not. So Bulldog was our international star in the world of pro-wrestling. And we loved him.

Summerslam 1992 had the second largest crowd in any WWE event ever, and whilst some of that was down to British crowds being rabid for wrestling, and some was down to a star-studded event, a lot of that was down to Bulldog's draw. He WAS the main event, a wave of patriotism and fervor swept up the entire card as people lived and hoped he could win the Intercontinental Championship, a fine and prestigious championship, off the coveted shoulders of the Hitman, Bret Hart. A man walking the path to destiny and an imminent World title.

For 6 year old me and 10 year old Mandy (how time flies!), we both knew the British Bulldog was going to be in a massive title match at the time. I didn't know what a title match was, or what is was in, but I knew it was happening.

Go watch Bulldog/Bret. More than almost any other match in history, that crowd is living and dying on every nearfall, every swing of momentum. They NEED Davey Boy to pull it off, and pull it off he did.

British wrestling has had many great stars, from Jackie Pallo and Mick McManus, through Finlay and Regal to current day stars like Wade Barrett and Sheamus continuing the trend. But of all of them, in the 1990s, Bulldog was our biggest wrestling export. And boy, did we love him.

To be in the Hall of Fame, you need to draw. Davey drew, and only the demons that took him away so young might have prevented a tilt at the World title. You need to be decent in the ring, and he was more than decent, and even better when he meshed with the right opponent. (Hell, he even got very good matches out of The Warlord. Nobody can do that!) He could change with the times, from tag team specialist, to dependable singles mid-carder and up. He was involved in some of the great angles in our sport, from the Hart Foundation to everyone's favorite, Matilda biting Bobby Heenan.

And he died far too ridiculously young. A fallen hero. But he'll never be forgotten. Not to those selling out Wembley inside minutes in 92. Not to those who remembering him laughing his ass off at Owen Hart's hijinks. Not to those who saw in shitloads of great, great matches over nearly 20 years.

He was, in other words, an absolute bloody legend. And we miss him dreadfully.
    Big Bossman 
(By Telfair H. Brown PA1 - Cropped, Public Domain,
Bossman did things differently from most wrestlers. In many ways he was the 90s path blazer for wrestlers like Batista fond of their breaking of the third wall. Sometimes it felt like Bossman was the only Attitude era villain who watched TV. Whilst other wrestlers would gawk in amazement as Undertaker or Kane sat up from severe offensive maneuvers, Bossman would yell "SIT UP!" at them, kick them in the face and yell "STAY DOWN!" Such foresight is rarely seen in wrestling.

And then he'd lose. But that was his job. He was a very hate-able heel. Why? Because he was a git. Some heels have vendettas. Some snap. Some are cowardly. Bossman did all of his dastardly actions, purely because he could. He'd kill someone's pet dog, or have their mother announce they were a bastard on live TV, for no other reason than shits and giggles. It was amazing. He was a heel's heel. He just enjoyed being a nasty sod to folk.

Which was a direct counter to his face run in the early 90s, when he was extremely over. His face turn seemed quite abrupt - in the midst of the usual "handing Damian (Jake's snake) over to Ted DiBiase" sketch, Bossman suddenly got angry they were getting paid for this, yelled "I'm not a corrupt cop" and handed the snake back to Jake. But whatever the reasons, he was right from that moment getting big cheers, suggesting the fans always wanted to see him turn face. Either that, or they REALLY hated Akeem.

There was a long running fallacy online about a decade ago, not so strong now as it was, that Bossman was a terrible wrestler. Not in the slightest bit true. He wasn't flashy, but he knew how to tell a story in the ring, and had many very good matches over the run of his career. His series of matches with Bam Bam Bigelow, Mr. Perfect and The Barbarian were brilliant. And he remained a very agile man for his size. Look at the 1992 rumble match: King Kong Bundy ain't taking that elimination!

As for Ray Traylor, the man, well, by all accounts he was as gentle natured as his character was mean. Nobody will ever know how much money he raised up single handedly through his work for charities and worthy causes through his life, but figures at the time of death suggested tens of millions easily. It's so easy to be your character, then sod off somewhere. Using the chances your career gives you to work as hard as Ray did for others makes him of a rare breed.

And then he died. 41 years old. There's a big Bossman shaped hole in life where he should be, either on RAW as a corrupt authority figure screwing up John Cena's plans for the World title because "he feels like it" or on the active charity scene.

Why should Bossman go in the HOF? Not simply for being a great heel. Not merely for his long career. Not merely for being such a great hand in and out of the ring. Not just because he was the most flexible of wrestlers, accepted as Hogan's nemesis and top ally within a year of both. But all of them together, plus the indefinable magic (and the best damn signature move of all time, the under-the-bottom-rope-punch-in-the-mouth, which someone ought to give a proper name someday) of being Bossman, and we have a surefire HOFer.
Brian Pillman

There's no doubt in my mind that in an alternate universe somewhere, he ended up healthy and rose to fame as the Roddy Piper to Steve Austin's Hulk Hogan. I just wish that story had played out in real life because the business would have been a hell of a lot better off with Brian Pillman around.

Mike Johnson

Brian Pillman was controversial. What's that, you say? The XXX Files, Bookerman, threatening to piss on the ECW Arena, car crashes, near death, swearing, firing guns, dressing in drag and being the hottest free agent in all three major US wrestling promotions. Yes, ok, slightly controversial.

Pillman was the underdog from the start. Childhood cancer led to forty vital operations before he was three. His small size (5 foot 10, 226lbs) found him overlooked in his short American football career, despite his best efforts. In the world of wrestling, especially breaking in in the 1980s, when everyone was larger than life, he was a small man. A cruiserweight. There to make the big guys look good, obstensibly. And yet, through sheer talent and charisma, and IT, he made a far bigger impact on pro-wrestling.

In the NWA and WCW he started off as Flying Brian, your typical smaller agile wrestler, with two key differences: one was he was substantially a better wrestler than others about, and that his ability to get the crowd onside as the never dying babyface was seconded only by his later ability to get the crowd rioting at him as a heel. He had great matches with Barry Windham, Jushin Liger, Lex Luger and Ricky Steamboat.

Then came his first heel turn, and along came Stunning Steve Austin.

"I roll into a TV taping and ah, I fix me a book with Harley Race and go after the U.S. Heavyweight Title and Brian Pillman comes up to me and he says, 'We need to come up with a finishing move, because we're a tag team now.' And I said, 'What the Hell are you talkin' about?' Because I didn't know any of this."

In typical WCW fashion they'd just thrown two singles wrestlers together without any pre-thought. In typical WCW fashion, this created wrestling gold they had no idea what to do with!

"We came up with The Hollywood Blondes thing, turned into World Tag Team Champions, and the way things worked down there, back then, they jerked the carpet out from under us, and shut The Hollywood Blondes down. And it's just too bad because, in my opinion, it coulda' been, one of the best tag teams of all time."

Following involvement with the Four Horsemen* that led to many more great matches - a staple of Pillmans career - it was in late 1995 that he began to cultivate the Loose Cannon gimmick which was to make him infamous.

*For the record, when you are in matches with Arn Anderson and he claims you took him "to school", there is few higher compliments.

"Five or six years from now, I'll look back and see it was just a blip on the radar screen."

Brian Pillman, WrestleRadio USA, May 1996 (edited out)

The Loose Canon was edgy. Unpredictable and uncontrollable. He kept the gimmick running at all times. Only a select few knew it was a gimmick - Eric Bischoff, Vince McMahon, possibly Steve Austin, and a handful of others. Others, including his long time dear friend Mick Foley, genuinely believed Pillman had gone off his rocker. How successful must a gimmick be when some of your closest friends in wrestling actually think you've gone insane instead?

One person who Brian did confide it was a gimmick to was Bobby Heenan, after another infamous moment at the Clash of the Champions. Wrestling Eddie Guerrero, Pillman was out on the floor and decided to grab The Brain by his neck. Heenan, with a long but then not that publicised neck problem, panicked and audibly yelled "What the fuck are you doing?" on live TV. Later Pillman apologised, not having known about the bad neck.

Then came Bookermangate. In a match with Kevin Sullivan, then WCW booker, at Superbrawl VI in February 1996, the match gimmick was to make your opponent say they respect you. Less than 2 minutes in, Pillman grabbed the mic, yelled "I respect you, booker man" and walked out.

He was swiftly fired from WCW.

Aha, but there was a plan. Eric Bischoff and Brian Pillman would let Pillman leave WCW, go to ECW to flesh out his Loose Cannon persona more, then he'd come back.

Aha, but a snag. Eric Bischoff never got his hands on Brian Pillman again.

In ECW, he turned a pro-Pillman crowd against him in the space of five well crafted promo minutes.

Then he got his WWF contract, and everything looked on the up.

"I'm in this wheelchair, but Hulk Hogan should be!"

In April 1996, Brian Pillman was in a terrible car accident. He nearly died - he was in a coma for a week - and his ankle was shattered.

"Brian processed great drive and determination, mental toughness, and had no fear of any situation. Brian was his own worst enemy in my view. Brian had a great mind for the business and his long term future, due to his severe injuries, especially his ankle, were as a broadcaster, producer, trainer, manager etc. After the Hummer wreck, Brian’s wrestling days essentially ended when he had to have his ankle fused. Brian was the life of the party and was very social to say the least. I loved him like a little brother and think of him virtually every day."

Working as an announcer or commentator - egging on the Austin v Bret fued - you could see the frustration building up in Pillman, unable to wrestle. Sadly a pill addiction added to his already legendary wild nights were to cost him dearly in very short time.

But before that, he managed to throw in yet more to his legend. He joined The Hart Foundation, THE stable of 1997, and whilst his matches on comeback were shadows of his earlier brilliance, they were still better than some of the people clogging up roster spots at the same time. If you've got the ring pyschology down pat, you can still make your matches decent even if you can't go anymore.

And so it came to be that in the last Summer of Brian Pillmans life, he had become one of the hottest acts in wrestling, he was in the hottest stable in wrestling, and his arch enemy, Steve Austin, was about to become WWF Champion. The gun incident, where Austin broke into the Pillman house, whereupon Pillman produced a gun and shot at him, produced the most controversy RAW has ever seen, and was the first evidence of the Attitude era really exploding onto the screens. Pillman WAS the Attitude era.

Who knows what the future could have held for Brian Pillman in ANY section of pro-wrestling at that point.

If he'd only lived.

"I was at the matches with him," said Eddie Sharkey.

"He came to the matches real early, and he seemed fine -- but the last time I saw him, he was just staring into space."

Sharkey said Pillman had been sleeping on the floor of the dressing room during the broadcast, "which was kind of unusual."

Slam wrestling.

That was October 4th 1997.

October 5th 1997 is best known for two things. The Bad Blood PPV, main evented by Undertaker v Shawn Michaels in the first ever Hell in a Cell match. A match widely regarded as one of the best of all time. Also scheduled on that card was Dude Love vs Brian Pillman with Goldust to be handcuffed to the ring post (as part of the ongoing Goldust/Marlena/Pillman angle, itself based on reality, as Pillman and Terri were a couple before she and Dustin). That match never took place. Brian Pillman was found dead in a hotel room.

"A great father, and the best husband"
Melanie Pillman

Pillmans life is tragic, so full of What Might Have Been, that this end seems quite depressing. But depressing is the wrong emotion, really, for Pillman. The heart defect that did for him - exacerbated by pain pills and wild nights, perhaps, but a genetic thing none the less - did for far healthier sportsmen, and ran in his family. He was meant to die a baby, with his cancer. Ill health as a child should have seen him off. He was too small to be a sports star, far too small to be a wrestling star, definitively not at all possible to be a industry changing figure. Yes, a mere 35 years, but it was 35 years gained, when most would have given up.

Brian Pillman's life was a tragedy because it was cut short. But equally, it was the most amazing of achievements, for existing.

I wish Brian was still with us. He was... ah... a helluva good friend o' mine and that's all I got to say about that. Thank you very much."

Steve Austin, at the first Brian Pillman Memorial Card in 1998.
 Ray "Crippler" Stevens

"Anyone who ever saw Ray Stevens in his prime became a slobbering mark for him. I should know because I was the biggest mark of all."
Superstar Billy Graham

They say of Superstar Billy Graham that he was twenty years too early. True, perhaps, but the same could also be said of Ray Stevens: a wrestler, who, had his prime been later, would be remembered today as one of the all time greats. It is scarcely believable the man was only 60 when he died, for the achievements he had stockpiled in his life.

"Ray was the most talented wrestler I've ever watched."
Buddy Rogers

He was the Attitude era, before anyone had even invented the term. In every wrestling organisation he showed up in, controversy would follow. In the AWA, his Bombs Away finisher (a knee drop off the top rope to the throat) was banned after he used to break Doctor X's leg. (Dr X being the equally legendary Dick Beyer - the Destroyer himself - in a good guy gimmick)

But that was nothing compared to the infamous night in the WWF, when he Piledrove Superfly Snuka into the concrete floor twice, teaming up with Snuka's until then loyal manager Captain Lou Albano in a sickening betrayal. (A great angle, as it came right after Buddy Rogers revealed to the world that Albano had been conning Snuka, and a thankful Snuka had asked an emotional Rogers to be his manager.) Nowadays John Cena gets hit by a car and gets up before the ten count, but this was a different world - the Full Nelson was a dreaded hold back then, so a Piledriver on the floor - TWO PILEDRIVERS ON THE UNPROTECTED FLOOR - was nuts. Snuka bled, and fans cried. Freddie Blassie got involved in the beating, the entire angle was wall to wall Hall of Famers. The sight of Snuka in a pool of his own blood, spasming, the fans being held back, gasps of horror: it was angle all the more memorable for being so utterly atypical with what the WWF presented at the time.

Amusingly, Stevens pal and former NWA Tag Championship partner, Pat Patterson, was on commentary, and calmly said: "Oh, well, we're not going to see Superfly Snuka for a while!" I think he's meant to be the face!

And just to really annoy the fans, Snuka never got his payback. In the big grudge match, Stevens took the countout to avoid the Superfly rage, and lived to fight another day.

Such was the faith in the man, that Crippler Stevens was one of the few men to beat Bruno Sammartino during his 60s run as WWWF Champion. In a World title match, none the less.

Sadly, this match ended on a countout, as a KO'd Bruno - after the inescapable Bombs Away - fell to the floor, and escaped by technicality by the skin of his teeth with the WWWF Championship. Other chances came, but this was the closest Stevens got to a World title few could have begrudged him.

Ray Crippler Stevens was a man ahead of his time, who could make any opponent look amazing, was part of some memorable angles, and was the Ghost of Wrestling Future when such things seemed hard to believe.


“He could kill you with blinking if he wanted to.”
Perry Saturn

There’s usually talk around Rumble time of the “Curse of 14”, in that participents who drew number 14 in the Rumble match tend to have bad things happen to them. The sole exception to this is Haku, proving that even possibly supernatural curses are too scared of double crossing him.

Mount Haku in real life is a potentially active volcano. This all is sort of apt, I feel.

That was my life. I have my parents. I have my family. Relatives. The thousands of cousins back home waiting for me to send them money to live on. I have that on my shoulders and I walk with that every day inside the ring and outside the ring. I have my brothers and sisters here - we could drive 500 miles one way to the town or 20 miles to the town and back trying to make a living in those days. I have that on my shoulders as I walk into the ring and out of the ring every day and drive home safely and whatever. We have a few beers here and there, but that was the business. That was the toughness in my heart and mind that I had to carry these things." - Haku

Call him Haku, Tonga, or Meng, or preferably Sir, there’s no getting away from Tonga Fifita being one of the toughest men and most respected men in wrestling.

After a long story which involved a teenage Fifita winding up in Japan (involving Kings of Tonga, dying mentors and being trained in martial arts), the man who would be Haku met Giant Baba, who trained him in wrestling. He toured the terrorities for eight years, building up a reputation for himself. And then, in 1986, he joined the WWF.

He would stay there for six years, and cement his legacy. One title followed, a tag title shared with Andre the Giant (that in itself an example of the high acclaim Fifita was held in) but Haku swiftly became a man who didn’t need a title to get over. Early in his tenure, he showed up as one of the few men who could go toe to toe and beat Big John Studd, immediately putting himself on the map. As one half of the Islanders tag team, when not spending time killing Paul Roma (a task we can all admire), he aided Bobby Heenan in an act more nefarious than anything Benedict Arnold could have achieved: the kidnap of Matilda, the bulldog mascot of...the Bulldogs. This led to the amusing scenes of Heenan trying to make a tired dog look like it was savaging him, but in the ring, the Islanders got the deciding fall on the Bulldogs. Just one of many big profile tag wins they got in the late 1980s, though they were never to win the tag titles.

However in 1988, the other half of the Islanders, Tama (brother of Rikishi and Umaga) departed to join the NWA. So Haku decided to become a King. As you do. Harley Race had been King of the WWE for several years, a kind of title he earned and sometimes defended after winning a tournament in 1986. Haku would defeat Race (another fine name to defeat, regardless of his increasing years) and become King Haku. Again, as he did in the tag ranks, he used his royalty as an excuse to beat out untold pain and misery on all his opponents.

“After Harley Race left WWF, they decided to make me the King. It was an absolute honor.”

Deciding to peacefully hand Hacksaw Jim Duggan the crown, presumably to laugh at the idea later, he teamed with fellow Heenan Family member Andre the Giant to take the tag titles off Demolition, titles which in the late 80s were as hard to take off the masked men as a world title was to take off John Cena around 2007. That Haku had Andre’s respect enough tells many stories in itself.

Of course, all good things come to an end. The tag titles were lost back to Demolition at WrestleMania VI, and Haku wound up at the heart of another major wrestling moment: Andre the Giant’s last hurrah, as he turned face for his (WWF) retirement, beating up Haku and Bobby the Brain and riding off into the sunset to cheers.

Around late 1990, after many more months randomly killing unfortunate opponents in the ring, Haku was to team with The Barbarian, which started a strangely effective tag partnership, and a strong real life friendship which was to extend both of their careers. A memorable tag match with The Rockers at WrestleMania 7 produced Shawn Michaels first WrestleMania win.

“Barbarian and I were such a great tag team. We both saw eye to eye and we knew what we had to do to make our spot in the business, again. “

All good runs come to an end, though, and for both Barbarian and Haku’s, it was in 1992. There was still a Royal Rumble to look good in though, both beating up Ric Flair in memorable cameos.

Then WCW came calling. As part of the Faces of Fear within the Dungeon of Doom, that bizarre collection of wrestling talent, the duo still made a name for themselves, by being willing to stand up to anyone. The Giant coming calling? Meet Meng (Haku’s new name). The Steiners think they’re tough? Try Meng and the Barbarian for size. Likewise Harlem Heat. Likewise The Outsiders. It didn’t matter who you were, or your reputation, Meng was going to come for you.

Added to his arsenal was the Tongan Death Lock, a surprisingly over finisher, which, like the Mandible Claw, proved difficult to escape once it was locked on.

A further example to the growing prestige of Fifita’s career was when he was chosen to be the landmark 160-0 victim of Goldberg. Goldbergs run continued, but the victory was rightfully pushed as massive boost for the Streak. Hell in the build up, the commentary of Heenan, Schiavone and Tenay were expressing doubt if their undefeated heavyweight champion, who had crushed Hulk Hogan mere weeks earlier, had a chance of beating Meng. Meng was to produce a further boost for Goldberg, not only in jobbing to him three times, but in the third, in 2000 when Meng was in a career Indian Summer, he allowed himself to be squashed within 30 seconds. I say “allowed” because if he didn’t want that to happen, it wasn’t going to. His willingness to effortlessly put over other men added to their mystique as much as it did his reputation. In all three matches incidentally, even the 30 second squash, Goldberg gets a chance to no sell the martial arts kick to the head which had floored everyone from Hogan to Flair.

In between runs with the WCW Hardcore title, Meng played the role he’d played for the best part of two decades: go to ring, kick someone’s ass, leave. In 2001, he even won the WCW Hardcore title again, before promptly departing for the WWF. Amusingly, legend has it he handed the WCW Hardcore title to The Barbarian, telling him to go defend it in WCW, not realising Barbarian had been released months previously.

A surprise Rumble appearance led to an Indian Summer in the WWF for Haku, teaming with Rikishi. Alas, Rikishi got injured right before WrestleMania 17, so Haku also missed out on the show. With the birth of the WCW Invasion, the time of Tonga Fifita in the top flight was coming to an end. He left the WWF in July 2001, and though semi-retired, still shows up in a variety of indies to this day, usually to beat up some other sucker.

If you polled old school wrestlers on who the legit toughest man in their lockerroom was, you’d be likely to have a landslide in Tonga’s favour. Bad News Brown, no slouch himself, once referred to seeing three Navy seals pick a fight with Haku in a bar. The Navy boys were hopeless overmatched, and got their asses handed to them. Other wrestlers have upped the ante with tales of Haku against four, five, a million men trying to pull a fast one and being too tough for all them, like a wrestling version of Spencer Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock. Some of the stories are almost certainly apocryphal (though the man himself confirms the biting off the guys nose story), but many seem based on genuine stories. Jake Roberts later was to comment:

“If I had a gun and was sitting inside a tank with one shell left and Meng is 300 yards away? He's mine, right? Well the first thing I'm gonna do is jump out of the tank and shoot myself because I don't want to wound that son of a bitch and have him pissed off at me."

He was however, a man who knew his own limitations. When Eric Bischoff suggested they had an MMA match, Meng v an ultimate fighter, Fifita gracefully declined, knowing full well the likely outcome of a younger, fitter man against him. Which is nice. Many others might have given into the stories and their ego. (Wrestling is full of such hubris)

The man who played and was the toughest man in wrestling has no ego to speak of though. Even to this day he is known for responding to fan mail and autograph requests, and Bobby Heenan is on record as saying he is one of the nicest people in pro-wrestling, as long as you don’t act like a sod around him. 
 Mick McManus  

In the 1960s, the seeds of my wrestling love were born, as my great-gran was a passionate fan of World of Sport. Every month she would follow the storyline between hated heel Mick McManus and the fan favourite Jackie Pallo with interest. The only issue was, for her, McManus was the face. “Always cheer for the Irish” she’d say. She wasn’t around to see me get into wrestling, but I’ve followed her tradition of being more interested in the heels! It’s in the blood, you see.

“I never break the rules – just bend them.”
Mick McManus

Born in 1921 (the Wikipedia date is wrong, as his 90th birthday was celebrated in style last summer), McManus was to become the litmus test for European heels ever since, defeating a variety of loved fan favourites with his dreaded variation of the Boston Crab. He’d smile to the audience as he inflicted submission upon submission on hapless opponents. Enjoyed the antics of William Regal? Finlay? Bulldog? Wade Barrett? They’re all copying McManus’s style. Regal even pays homage to it today with his ability to do out of character daft moments – like rapping with R-Truth – as in one memorable occasion McManus sang in the ring to out psyche Catweazle. His demands to the referee to “Ask him, ref!” when he had a babyface in a particularly painful submission have been borrowed by countless others. He had a national weekly newspaper column at his height, in which, like everything he does, kept kayfabe solidly.

Despite being a heel, he counted among his admirers the Beatles, and was a big TV mainstream star, appearing on shows like The Generation Game and being interviewed by Eamon Andrews. (American translation: the highest ratings winning game show in the entire country at the time regularly gaining audiences of 15 million, and a prestige akin to being interviewed by Johnny Carson.) His talk show performances were as legendary as in his in-ring prowess, being able to jump from wrestling promotion to talking about his love of antiques, paintings and golf!

“The 1960s was the age of Mick McManus. He has become a top sports personality in his own right.”
George W. Mitchell.

This of course leads to the can of worms which is the difference in perspective of wrestling over here. Even in the 1960s, the big secret (“it’s choreographed!”) was essentially an open one. Wrestlers were viewed like stage entertainers, who would tour the country to try and give the people a show. It was widely accepted as entertainment, with many of the wrestlers having real life jobs they went back to out of the spotlight. This incidentally, is why Big Daddy was able to get over with the weakest selling and offense since the war of 1812. It was spectacle with a very knowing wink, and the audience were in on it, suspending their disbelief as they would going to see a James Bond film. Which makes the common complaint since Vince took over the world, “It’s all fake”, make even less sense over here. We knew it was. We didn’t care.

Said Simon Garfield, on McManus’s popularity and hinting at the downfall of British wrestling: “When I visited Mick at home he showed me some photos of him with various celebrities - Tommy Cooper, Rod Hull & Emu, the Rolling Stones, Magnus Pyke, Raquel Welch - and it was apparent that those stars were genuinely thrilled to meet Mick. It became clear to me that the book should be about the process that transformed the wrestlers from popular personalities to people who were suddenly almost unemployable. Greg Dyke was to blame, for when he was head of ITV Sport he decided that the wrestling was a little too downmarket for his advertiser’s tastes, and so he pulled it from the schedules.”

Many of the men were respected for being legit athletes in their own right too. McManus for example was a gifted amateur wrestler in his time, as well as playing charity football and cricket matches well into his old age.

McManus had a long five year feud which brought in money the UK over against the much loved Jackie Pallo. It started with a challenge for the princely sum back then of £100, and The results in the ring were more one sided than Tommy Dreamer/Raven, as every single time McManus cheated and snuck his way to undeserved victory, which only made the fans more desperate to see him get his comeuppance. His victories were “lucky and controversial”, Wrestling Heritage claims. He was the Houdini villain. He’d always just escape to live another day. He was also renowned for his pioneering in British wrestling of “bending the rules”: ie, keeping an illegal hold on for as long as possible without getting disqualified, eye rakes when the ref was distracted, that kind of thing. The enmity in the ring between McManus and Pallo was intensified by the fact no one was ever sure if the two actually liked each other in real life or not. Pallo is gone now, and even in his 80s, McManus is a strong believer in kayfabe, and the two refused to socialise outwith the ring, so it’s an added bit of mystique to the fued, the truth of which may wind up buried in the grave. (For the record, Pallo finally got his solitary win over McManus in 1972!)

The only suggestion McManus had any grudging respect for his opponent in real life was when he showed up to pay tribute to him on an episode of This is Your Life!

During his career, the worst punishment Jackie has taken was administered by Mick McManus. That’s why we can never think of McManus as just another opponent.”
Mrs Pallo.

It was the quintessential meeting of opposites though. Pallo was the ultimate showman, self proclaimed Mr TV, and ladies man. McManus was the silent, serious, killer in the ring. The merging of these two worlds has always been a success in pro-wrestling, and here it was no different. Another key to the fued was that in thirteen years, the two men only faced off in singles competition six times. Despite the intensity of the feud, McManus/Pallo matches were rare events, and so hot tickets. (Conversely, after 1967, when the feud had died down for the most part, they subsequently wrestled 17 times in 2 years!)

How well did the feud draw? As Regal says: “in the 1960s, a couple of matches between Mick McManus and Jackie Pallo, which were put on before the FA Cup final, the biggest sporting event of the British year, drew more viewers than the football -- eleven or twelve million. That's more than one fifth of the population."

1/5th of the entire population of a country. I think I’d call that drawing.

(Incidentally, its worth pointing out the rarity of the matches was not of design – Pallo had an ego the size of Russia which kept promotion of him on TV from being what it might have been. Still, out of circumstances...)

Here is the Guardian – one of the most read broadsheet newspapers in the UK - on the McManus/Pallo fued: “The act began in 1962 when Pallo ran to the ringside and challenged McManus during a live televised match, a stunt Pallo later claimed to have carried out without the authorisation of promoters. The pair stoked the rivalry with a heated argument on Eamon Andrews' chatshow. While the in-ring hatred was pure hype, there was professional competition between the welterweight villains as they vied for the top of the bill. The feud peaked with matches broadcast before the FA cup finals of 1963 and 1965 and with a (non-televised) 1967 Royal Albert Hall encounter. The pair toured nationwide, continuing into the 1970s when Pallo often teamed with his son, Jackie Jr, against McManus and Steve Logan.”

The Guardian also explains why McManus kept the belts for so long whilst Pallo had to make do with a one month reign. “In those days titles usually went to genuinely-skilled grapplers rather than big name performers.”

A particularly amusing urban legend, sadly untrue, was that McManus wrote the Hawkwind hit Silver Machine. (Hawkwind being the band who sacked Lemmy, lead singer of Motorhead, for taking too many drugs. This is a bit like being thrown out the Republican party for being too rich.)

His Houdini run came to an end in the late 1970s when he was finally pinned in a TV match, losing his Middleweight title to Mal Sanders. (In itself another example of the different philosophy, the 56 year old McManus’s defeat seen as a defeat of a strong champion in any other sport would be!) By the 1970s though, McManus was so popular as a personality, fans would often cheer him in the ring, even when he was engaging in the most nefarious of activities in the ring! Even in British wrestling, there came a point when one became so big a legend, it was difficult to jeer them. A far cry from early days, when McManus had to face the most fearsome moment in the British fan arsenal: a whack on the back from an old ladys purse, and a death stare from the old dear which would melted an Armada. He had become an anti-hero, decades before Steve Austin made the idea popular in wrestling. He was the “Man You Loved to Hate”, and both the love and hate parts were becoming true.

Not just a skilled singles wrestler, for many years McManus was one half of a feared tag team with Steve Logan, who frequently dismantled teams much bigger.

“There were a lot of high points. The ones which stood out were when I wrestled in the presence of the Royal Family. They stand out as a bit special. I understand that the Royals were fans of ours, Prince Charles and the Duke of Edinburgh, and even the Queen used to have a bit of a sneaky look on Saturday afternoons.”
Mick McManus

Over the years the Rajah Hall of Fame has been running, many folk have rightly being trying to get proper greats in from all over the world. El Santo, Rikidozan and mostly recently Muta for example. British wrestling tends to get neglected, partly because it died a death in the 1990s, partly because of the enormous shadow Big Daddy has over it, dwarfing all many hundreds of styles into one pantomime looking performance from the outside. To classify all British wrestling as Big Daddy would be like classifying all puro as Tiger Jeet Singh. Here we are talking about the equivalent of Buddy Rogers, but a massively mainstream Buddy Rogers who random people still mention if you talk of pro-wrestling even to this day, over thirty years after his retirement. A man who drew considerably for twenty years, in a massive wrestling market. (It still is a massive wrestling market, there just isn’t a large homegrown federation, for many complicated reasons.)

“It is very nice to be thought of in those terms. I wouldn't say I was the greatest although I was one of the most famous wrestlers.”
Mick McManus

When a man can draw money, be talented in the ring, be a celebrity, carry a meaning about his name even in retirement, and be a trail blazer for many loved stars, its not a question of “Should they be in the Hall of Fame?” It’s more what kept them. His existence in the Legends of Wrestling series alongside Big Daddy and Kendo Nagasaki was a no brainer.

So I have no qualms in welcoming a man I consider one of the biggest stars in wrestling into this Hall of Fame. It’s all the stronger for having him in it.

“I follow the WWE, I don't watch it every time it's on but I follow it. I like to take an interest in what is going on. Some of them are quite good and some are not so good. The product is top class. Now, of course, in America it has all changed. You can't knock it as it makes millions of dollars and everybody seems to enjoy it, especially the youngsters. Who am I to say that they've got it wrong?
Wrestling does go on and it is a good standard. People enjoy it and let's hope it continues forever and ever. It is one of the oldest sports and it will never die. ”

Mick McManus