Sunday, 7 February 2016
334 World of Sport
First viewed : 4 February 1978
I doubt whether the above date is the first time I was in a room when World of Sport was on the telly but it is the first time I watched it with any real attention. Before we go on I should mention that I am indebted to John Lister and the team at www.itvwrestling.co.uk for supplying me with that date and much other information used in this post.
World of Sport was the perennial poor relation of BBC's Grandstand against which it was scheduled. The Beeb had all the tennis, cricket and athletics rights sewn up leaving ITV scratching around for enough footage of minority sports to fill up its time slot. Contrary to popular belief I don't think they ever did cover a tiddlywinks event but some of the stuff came close . The host was the cheery Dickie Davies with his gap-toothed grin and strange white lock ( caused by poliosis ) , seemingly unconcerned at being perceived as the poor man's Des Lynam. Perhaps that's because he knew he held an ace card , broadcast each week at 4pm , three bouts of professional wrestling.
I first caught it on the date above at my friend Patrick's house although a student teacher we had covering physical fitness had mentioned wrestling a week or so earlier referencing a mysterious character called Big Daddy. He wasn't on the bill that afternoon. The one that caught my eye was a youngster in the lightweight category who went by the name of The Dynamite Kid. He was fighting the premier, in fact pretty much the only, villain in the light or welter weight brackets, where the bouts tended to feature displays of speed and gymnastic ability rather than good vs evil contests. Breaks however could only be a villain , a small man with a pudding basin haircut and the sort of face you wanted to slap. Besides throwing rabbit punches on the blind side of the referee, Breaks also antagonised the crowd with his high-pitched complaining and foot-stamping tantrums when things weren't going his way. He seemed to have only one legitimate tactic, trying to lift his opponent in the air while bending his elbow back to force a submission, what was known as the "Breaks Special". Dynamite Kid won the bout with a fall and a submission. Also on the bill that day was the most famous villain of all, the splendidly seedy Mick McManus with his fierce battle cry of "Not me ears !" . He was fighting the much lighter Johnny Saint, a lithe clean cut guy who lived up to his surname in the ring but not surprisingly lost to McManus. The other bout was a middleweight contest between the likable middle-aged Alan Dennison who looked like Richard Fairbrass's dad and a villain, Peter "Tally-ho" Kaye whose gimmick was entering the ring dressed as a huntsman.
It helped that the wrestling neatly filled the gap between the Half Time Scores and Final Results but I quickly became hooked on it for its own sake. I heard rumours that it was fixed early on but didn't believe them and certainly didn't want to. The regular triumph of the good guys over their adversaries was very comforting in an increasingly scary world of international terrorism and arms races. I think I started having doubts with those tag team contests which featured the real life brothers Bert Royal and Vic Faulkner which were splendidly entertaining and well choreographed but they did get away with the same tricks every time. Surely even opponents as stupid-looking as Cyanide Sid Cooper would know what was coming ? It's now pretty much universally acknowledged that at least the outcomes were fixed but there was as much skill and bravery as in any other sport. Even if you trusted that he was going to take the weight on his hands and knees it still took guts to lie on the canvas and let the 40 stone Giant Haystacks do his "splash" move on you ! Ditto the ugly bruiser Mal "King Kong" Kirk with his guillotine chop across the neck. If he got that wrong you'd be in deep trouble if not actually decapitated.
Generally the good guys were the better looking, younger fighters and the villains were the older , uglier ones though there were odd exceptions. Mark "Rollerball" Rocco was a super villain but looked like Olympic swimmer Mark Spitz while the main rival in his weight, the usually fair Marty Jones was cross-eyed. As a consequence Rocco was allowed to win more bouts than was usual for a "heel". Sometimes they got it wrong and had to change tack. The Irish fighter Fit Finley started out as a fair competitor but audiences weren't warming to him and he made a much bigger impression as a villain with bunny-boiler wife Princess Paula, who dressed up as an Indian squaw , in tow. Political correctness wasn't exactly high on the agenda as Alan Bardouville whose ring ID was, ahem, "Kid Chocolate" would no doubt agree.
I didn't see Big Daddy until 25 March 1978 when he beat the aforementioned Kirk. His real name was Shirley Crabtree . His father who shared the same Christian name was a wrestler himself and his brothers Max and Brian were also involved in the sport as a top promoter and MC respectively. The Crabtrees actually lived just a short bus ride away from me in Millbank village near Ripponden. Shirley had been a wrestler since the fifties , in other guises, but hadn't reached the top of the game and was pretty washed-up by the early seventies. Max and Shirley's wife Bert ( I'm kidding there ; she was actually Eunice ) masterminded his re-branding as Big Daddy, making a virtue of the fact he'd gone to seed physically with a massive beer belly and man-boobs. Big Daddy started out as a villain in a tag team partnership with the terrifying Haystacks but after he was cheered for unmasking Kendo Nagasaki ( something the latter conveniently forgot when he staged his famous unmasking ceremony a few years later ) he was converted into a fantasy hero.
Once he became a good guy Big Daddy's popularity went through the roof and he became a more popular figure for children than Mickey Mouse. He spent more time making personal appearances at children's wards and parties than he did in the ring. With his snowy hair, top hat, naturally carrot-shaped nose and white leotard he looked like a snow man come to life.
You didn't actually get that much ring action from Daddy ; in his late forties by 1978 and quite obviously less than fully fit, he only had a limited repertoire of moves and stamina. You had to accept that his blubbery belly was brick hard and could be deployed as an offensive weapon. He didn't fight many singles bouts he was usually to be found in tag team matches which always followed the same script. He was paired up with a much lighter good guy against two cheating bruisers . His partner would start in the ring and after a brief bit of wrestling would get dragged over to the opponents' corner where both would kick the shit out of him and take the lead with a fall or submission. In the next round they'd carry on where they left off then, with the last ebb of his strength , he'd make a fingertip contact with Daddy who'd storm in and wipe the floor with them often both at the same time. It was terribly corny but it worked every time and I loved him as much as any other child. He was an idol for bullied children everywhere; who wouldn't want to believe in a super "Dad" who could come into the playground and mete out instant justice to your persecutors. He reversed the routine for an appearance on Jim'll Fix It where a little boy was his tag team partner. The fall guys were the long-haired Banger Tony Walsh and a barely mobile 40 stone tub of lard called Fatty Thomas who were each laid low by Daddy before the little lad came on to lie on their shoulders and claim the fall. I do hope Daddy didn't get too friendly with his fellow Yorkshireman ( and a former werestler himself ) , the host; it would just kill me if his name got dragged into the mire.
At the beginning of 1979 a Canadian heavyweight named the Mighty John Quinn came over to the UK . He really did look the part and after demolishing the hapless Beau Jack Rowlands with his strength and villainy he started calling out the British wrestlers on the MC's microphone. World of Sport followed his progress as he bested Barry Douglas, Len Hurst and Lee Bronson making himself more and more unpopular on the way to a final showdown with Big Daddy in the summer. Of course Daddy polished him off in less than two minutes at Wembley Arena. The Quinn/Daddy feud storyline was repeated again a couple of years later with Daddy's former tag partner Haystacks taking Quinn's role. The big match ended in the first round. with Haystacks falling out of the ring , demolishing a table as he fell and not being able to climb back inside in time.
Other wrestlers I remember from the late seventies included Catweazle who bore a slight resemblance to the TV character , fought in a Victorian bathing costume and used "girlie" tactics like pulling hair and nipping. I hated him but liked Kung Fu , a blonde Irish guy who fought barefoot. Another blonde was Ray Steele , a Charlton Heston lookalike heavyweight and consequently a good guy. Steve Grey was a lightweight who looked like Gareth Thomas from Blake's 7 and fought two very technical battles in the best possible spirit with world lightweight champion Johnny Saint but failed to take his belt. Johnny Kwango was a black guy whose specialty was fake headbutts but outside the ring had been a ballet dancer, actor and jazz musician. John Naylor was a generally fair lightweight who is remembered for crushing the hapless Keith Rawlinson who entered the ring through Esther Rantzen's The Big Time ( not in a bout screened by World of Sport of course ). There was also the bearded Pat Roach before he found fame on Auf Wiedersehn Pet who seemed to plough his own furrow in the heavyweight bracket , neither hero nor villain.
Some of the guys brought martial arts expertise into the ring. Besides the aforementioned Kung Fu there was Iron Fist Clive Myers a good-looking black dude who wore a headband and pin up boy Judo Chris Adams. I remember watching one programme at my grans and her incredulous surprise at seeing people her age in the audience. Needless to say when Adams fought his bout she was as swept along with it as those baying on screen.
One interesting story arc began with the entrance of a 16 year old Dave Boy Smith ( Dynamite Kid's cousin ) in the autumn of 1978 who was managed by Alan Dennison. After his prodigy's punishing encounter with Breaks for the welterweight title, Dennison , a middleweight , announced that he'd be losing the required pounds to get down to Breaks's weight and teach him a lesson. He was as good as his word but only just managed it. Interestingly, as Dennison shed the pounds Smith bulked up and eventually landed in the heavyweight bracket.
Another memorable contest, again involving Breaks , was broadcast on 14 February 1981. He was fighting an unremarkable goodie called Jon Cortez. In the final round, out of the referee's sight but in full view of the commentary table, he illegally pulled at Cortez's trunks which allowed him to gain the decisive fall. As soon as referee Max Wall counted Cortez out , World of Sport's genial commentator Kent Walton jumped up and told Wall what he'd done saying as an aside "Oh I'm going to get into trouble for this ". Breaks of course grabbed the microphone and protested his innocence but Wall eventually decided to believe Walton and disqualified Breaks prompting the usual tantrum. Dickie Davies jokingly announced that the following week's action would feature a bout between Breaks and Walton.
I was a regular viewer by the turn of the decade and led by me, getting back home in time for the wrestling became a regular feature of the Saturday trips with my friends. In December 1979 posters went up in Rochdale advertising a professional wrestling event at the Champness Hall. After much umming and aahing I bought a ticket and this , two and a half years before my first match at Spotland , became my first paying attendance at a sporting event. Part of my hesitation was due to the fact that I only recognised one name on the bill , the humdrum Manchester welterweight Mike Flash Jordan* which suggested it might not be a top rank event. My fears were well founded. I have never felt so ripped off. The whole event was amateur-ish from start to finish. None of the bouts were as advertised. Jordan did show up but lost very tamely to a bloke called Abe Ginsberg, apparently a regular on Coronation Street i.e. one of those Equity-card holders drinking in the background in the Rovers , who was supposed to be taking part in a tag team contest. That never materialised and when the MC announced that Father Christmas would soon be arriving with some sweets for the children ( i.e. once he'd found an off licence or petrol station ) the spartan crowd started jeering. I'd seen enough and decided to catch an earlier bus home.
If you know my other blogs you'll have worked out what eventually broke the spell wrestling had over me. We didn't have a colour TV never mind a VCR when I first went to watch the Dale in May 1982 and thereafter the grapplers always took second place to the lads in blue. When I look at the names competing in the weeks immediately before that day, some of them ring no bells at all which indicates my interest was probably waning even before then. I do recall getting annoyed at how often the deaf and dumb fighter Alan Kilby was featuring , feeling that this was excessive emotional manipulation.
By the time World of Sport ended in September 1985 , mainly because racing had switched to Channel 4, and the wrestling moved to a standalone Saturday lunchtime spot after Saint and Greavsie , I don't think I was watching it much at all. I still felt a little saddened when Greg Dyke decided to pull the plug on it at the beginning of 1988 and outraged when the rationale emerged , that the audience didn't fit the advertisers' desired demographic. I don't know how he claimed to be a supporter of the Labour Party after that. I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in the American product.
Professional wrestling didn't die the day the cameras were turned off . I remember one of the accountants at Tameside MBC in the late eighties remarking that the only people who could make a show at the Theatre ( which the council propped up ) pay for itself were "Chubby ( i.e comic Roy Brown ) and "Big Daddy" . It did however slowly decline as the old stars died ( some of whom had already died in the saddle like Mal Kirk and Alan Dennison ) or retired. Some of the younger ones went to America and made a fortune; Smith and Dynamite Kid were a headline act as the tag team "British Bulldogs". Today it really is a minority sport.
I haven't got time to track down the subsequent fortunes of every one I've mentioned but I dare say you could do it. Big Daddy , who was present at the deaths of both Kirk and Dennison, finally retired following a stroke in 1993 and the Crabtrees pulled out of the business not long afterwards. Shirley died of another stroke four years later. Dynamite Kid , real name Tom Billington is only 57 but now wheelchair bound after steroid abuse, cocaine and staying in the game too long have taken their toll. His former partner Smith died of a heart attack which probably owed something to steroid abuse in 2002. Haystacks too had a brief career in the US under the name Loch Ness but succumbed to cancer in 1998. The dastardly Breaks was last heard of living in happy retirement in the Canary Islands.
There is of course one other wrestler whose name I haven't mentioned much, who has retained his mystique through the decline of the sport and all the subsequent exposes , and whose enduring appeal seems to transcend the sport itself. Though we now know he was a guy from the Midlands called Peter Thornley ( thanks to a sharp-eyed plumber ) , his ring name, Kendo Nagasaki, can still inspire hushed tones from the most cynical of cultural commentators. Nagasaki was arguably the most contrived act of all , a near-permanently masked man of unknown origin who never spoke, except through his cross-dressing manager "Gorgeous" George Gillette, and never lost ( except through disqualification ) but somehow he took hold hold of the imagination and kept it. Peter Blake has painted him and though long since retired, he still does interviews as Kendo through an interpreter.
Part of the reason is that he was never over-exposed. For a long time he was thought to be too sinister for an afternoon audience and kept off the screen so you had to pay at the door if you wanted to see him. He was also retired on medical advice between 1978 and 1982 ( leading to a spell in rock management with The Cuddly Toys ) which is why the only time I ever saw him fight was a mock brawl with Marty Jones on Granada's Upfront in 1990 ( who on earth booked Kendo Nagasaki for a talk show ? ). Incidentally, it wasn't mock enough for host Tony Wilson who wasn't quick enough in getting out of the way and was still receiving medical treatment for his injuries months later , or a make-up lady who sued both him and Granada with a judge eventually deciding the broadcaster was solely to blame. He finally retired for good due to a slight heart condition in 2001. I guess that , like surly rock climber Don Whillans, his is a cult that I'll never quite get.
The last word on World of Sport though should be about Davies. He remained with ITV for the rest of the decade hosting its boxing and snooker coverage then worked sporadically for Sky and Classic FM , interrupted by a stroke in the mid-nineties, while pursuing business interests such as a frozen foods company. Now aged 82 he admits he didn't really enjoy the wrestling.
* Many years later in 2004 when I was preparing to leave Manchester City Council I had to do some handover sessions with a bloke called Kevin Jordan. After a time it suddenly struck me that he looked a lot like the Flash and it turned out to be his brother.