By Peter Genower
For 20 years, wrestling has held an unrivalled place on television. With a hallowed 50 minute slot at the climax of Saturday's World Of Sport, and often a late night slot during the week, it has been one of ITV's hardy perennials, as durable and popular as Coronation Street. But the grapplers' grip on the big audience has slackened lately. Statistics show that, on average, 8,500,000 people watched the Saturday afternoon wrestling in November 1970, but only 7,500,000 tuned in last November. What happened to the missing million? This viewing figure is still high and healthy, but there is no doubt, especially as figures for the rest of World Of Sport have been steadily rising, that wrestling has lost a considerable number of TV fans. And, although most non-televised wrestling events are well attended, the public are getting choosy about the live wrestling bouts they go to see. At Waltham Town Hall in East London, for instance, the popular once-a-fortnight wrestling bill has now been dropped to make way for occasional big-name specials to sharpen the public's appetite for the sport. Figures like these are bound to be pounced upon by the critics who have always been eager to force wrestling into submission. Max Crabtree, managing director of Joint Promotions, who put on TV wrestling, says: "We've always been the whipping boy; people love to knock us. All I can say is that houses have been excellent at seaside promotions during the summer and we're confident the winter is going to be as good. Wrestling has grass roots support from working people - and it's going to survive, like bingo." Bearing out what Crabtree says, wrestling in the halls around the country is far from going under. There are between 60 and 80 promotions during the week, from the North of Scotland to the South Coast, each with a minimum of four matches, and costing fans from £1 for a ringside seat to 50p standing. At some of the most popular venues, especially in the Midlands and North, there is still standing room only.
But nobody will contest that this number of promotions is down on the boom days of the Sixties, although it's still enough to keep the wrestlers busy. Of the 50 professional grapplers in the business, many wrestled three or four times a week.
People who only watch wrestling on television may be surprised to learn that there are so many contests every week, because many of the televised bouts look as is there is only a handful of spectators packed around the ring. Joint Promotions' reply to this is that they put on special evenings for the TV companies which aren't always convenient nights for fans.
On screen, these meetings come across with a lack of guts; there is a distinct feeling, not that a crows has gathered to watch two men fight, but that two men have gathered for the benefit of TV.
Another reason for the dropping viewing figures, however, could be that with a greater choice of leisure activity available, large numbers of spectators are now taking part in sport themselves instead of watching. A detailed look at the wrestling viewing figures backs this up. Over the past five years, the proportion of men in an audience watching wrestling has from 47 to 42 per cent, with the figures for women and children rising slightly.
But the most likely reason for the general fall in viewers lies with the wrestling game itself. With the same squad of big names cropping up week after week, wrestling may have become too repetitious and predictable, lacking in that all-important element of surprise. Names like McManus, Pallo, Logan, Kellett and Kwango, great wrestlers who have provided hours of thrills, amy have been around just a little too long.
McManus and Co. were unknown in the early Fifties, except to the small audiences who followed professional wrestling then. But when television moved in with a promotion at West Ham Baths in November, 1955 - with a young and sprightly Bert Royal on the bill - a massive viewing audience latched on to the developing stars.
But wrestlers, unlike any others involved in a physical contact sport, have a long lifespan in the ring. They can wrestle, like Mick McManus, for more than 25 years, even if their style becomes less obviously energetic as the years go by.
The trouble is, they've all grown old together, and, unless some star names begin to emerge shortly, wrestling is going to be desperately short of the very commodity which keeps the sport alive - the men in the ring who deliver the goods, combining their fighting skills with colour and character.
"It takes a long time for a wrestler to develop," points out Mick McManus. "In boxing, you can knock a bloke out and you're in the headlines. Wrestlers have to win bouts and win the public consistently. There are a number of very capable blokes coming along now, but we'll have to be patient, let them develop properly."
McManus, like most of the elder statesmen of wrestling, won't say just how old he is, but the record books say that he, like Pallo, is getting on for 50, and Logan, Kwango, Kellett and Royal aren't far behind. McManus, with whom the wrestling public has had a fierce love-hate relationship for a quarter of a century, admits that his days are numbered.
"Inevitably, I've got to pack up sometime," he says. "It could be next year or the year after, but as long as I'm feeling fit and giving a good account of myself, I'll keep wrestling."
Apart from finding new stars to replace McManus and Co., how else can wrestling help itself. Kent Walton, a name synonymous with the sport, who has commentated at ringside ever since the first transmission in 1955, thinks the wrestling public have become tired of the endless gimmicks.
"In a sense it's TV's fault," says Walton. We used to screen two good freestyle bouts with a bit of gimmickry. Now it's the other way round: one freestyle bout and two full of comedy and tricks. Whenever the fans talk to me about they enjoyed, they always remember a pure wrestling bout, one full of skill, not laughs. I think they've had enough of masked men and wrestlers wearing crowns."
Walton recalls the days, a few years ago, when shops, particularly in the North, used to complain that at 10 to four on Saturdays, everybody would desert the city centres and go home to watch the wrestling. Those were the days of great wrestlers for whom the occasional wearing of a leotard was the nearest they'd get to a gimmick. Wrestlers like Jumping Jim Hussey, Roy "Bull" Davis, George Kidd, Tony Mancelli and Billy Robinson.
"Today," says Walton, "I believe some of the real wrestling fans are getting bored by all these gimmicks and are saying, well, let's go shopping, or let's go for a walk, A return to the true, fast, skilled wrestling would bring those fringe people back."
There are gimmicks and gimmicks, of course, and some new ideas have been of benefit to the sport. Ricki Starr, the ballet dancing wrestler, was a brilliant wrestler whose dainty act was a complement to his skill. And tag wrestling, an idea imported from America, gave the game another dimension when it was first screened in September, 1963, with a match between the famous Royal Brothers and Ivan Penzecoff partnering Alan Colbeck. Ironically, tag wrestling may have been the thin end of the gimmick wedge, because, in the past few years, the sport has become top heavy with "characters" and rather light on true fighters.
What wrestling needs is young, skilful men whose ability in the ring - like Muhammed Ali in boxing - is itself entertainment. These wrestlers are around.
NEXT WEEK we'll be looking at some of the names who could drag wrestling, grunting and groaning, into the Eighties.
STORY BY PETER GENOWER
Professional wrestling has its problems. In last week's look at the fight game, it became clear that wrestling, while still healthy, isn't as strong as it used to be. It's going down fighting - but it's still going down. There is a bright side, however: men are emerging who could get wrestling off the canvas, give it the boost it needs and have you coming back for more.
When McManus, Pallo, Logan and the stars of TV wrestling hang up their striped trunks and leotards for good, who will the public have to hit with their handbags, throw popcorn at, and cheer and applaud? Could it be Harvey Smith, the showjumper?
At the Joint Promotions gymnasium in Leeds, Smith has been busily preparing for his first television bout - which should be screened shortly before Christmas.
He began wrestling two years ago to get fit for showjumping and as a therapy to work off his aggressions. He caught the bug, and last autumn made his professional debut, beating Cocky Kay by two falls to one in a bout at Newark, Nottinghamshire. And now, after another season in the saddle, Harvey Smith is back in training, keener than ever to make a mark in the grappling game, But his appearance in the wrestling ring, incongruous as it seems, is no gimmick. Smith, 36, and weighing 13st. 4lb., is an immensely strong man, both in body and temperament.
"His hands are unbelievable," says promoter Max Crabtree. "I've seen him break six-inch nails in half, one after another. And he has nerves of steel, he won't back down from anybody." Smith, for his part, says he's in wrestling for the same reason he's in showjumping - to win. "It's my way of life to want to win," he says. "I can't stand being a second-rater."
The promoters are hoping that Smith, with a big V-sign on the back of his dressing gown and horse-shoe emblems on his boots, will help bring back the missing viewers to ITV wrestling. So far, the publichave warmed to his style in the halls - a mixture of showmanship (he rides his opponents as if he were at the Horse of the Year Show), and undoubted strength and wrestling ability.
And, as commentator Kent Walton pointed out last week, this is exactly the quality needed to keep professional wrestling popular, so long as the men in the ring get their proiorities right - skill first and gimmicks second. It's a rule acknowledged by all the really great wrestlers, like Les Kellett, whose gift for comedy was only one side of a man Walton describes as "the hardest man I have ever seen in the ring."
This balance between fun and force has often been difficult to achieve - there has always been an uneasy amalgam of sport and showbiz. When they considered applying for union membership five years ago, they thought about joining Equity, the actors' union, before applying to join the General and Municipal Workers Union, only to be turned down because they were self-employed. In the end, they gave up the idea of belonging to any union.
The signs are there than the younger men coming into wrestling are relatively gimmick-free - a promising bunch who look like putting the accent on sport in the future.
Promoters have always been on the look-out for new talent, but never more so than in the last couple of years when both Joint Promotions in Leeds and their Southern partners, Dale Martin Promotions in London, have introduced many fresh names to the wrestling public.
It is difficult to predict who will be the stars of the ring in 10 or 15 years' time: wrestlers mature slowly, and probably don't hit their peak until they are in their mid-30s when, as Steve Logan says, "they've learned the trade properly, and have put more meat on their bodies."
But a handful of newcomers stand out as big prospects. Fans will already know the ability of Bobby Ryan, who shocked himself and TV viewers in September by taking the European Lightweight Championship from Jim Breaks. On eof the top bouts in coming weeks should be his return with Breaks - almost certainly on television just before Christmas.
In the same weight division, Londond-based Steve Grey is regarded as one of the cleverest and nimblest wrestlers for years, while John Naylor, a former amateur champion and the 1975 TV Trophy winner, is a big hope at welterweight. Among the big men who could threaten Gwyn Davies' heavyweight title, two names stand out: 15st., 6ft. 2in. Lee Bronson, another amateur champion, and Basil "Romany" Riley, the gipsy wrestler whose personality is proving as big as his skill.
And, for the larger-than-life men who put the real beef into wrestling, look out for a massive mauler called Giant Haystacks. Real name Luke McMasters, he is 6ft. 11in., weights 31st., and needs the rign strengthened in four places before he can fight.
There men, all still in their 20s, could be leading wrestling into the Eighties, but there are many other young contenders worth a mention. Like middleweights Marty Jones and Kung Fu, welterweights Clive Myers, The Little Prince, and Colin "Fireman" Bennett, and heavyweights Caswell Martin and Dave Bond.
Wrestling has always been a game where families carry on the fighting tradition through the generations - following in father's footlocks - and this is still true today. Five young wrestlers now making their way in the ring have impressive pedigrees.
Manchester-based Jackie Robinson, a highly-rated lightweight, is the cousin of Billy Robinson, one of the all-time wrestling greats, and son of boxing champion Alf Roberts. The young, hell-raising lightweight Mark Rocco is the son of the old TV favourite "Jumping" Jim Hussey. Tony St. Clair, a young light-heavyweight, learned all his skills from his father, Francis St. Clair Gregory, a Cornish wrestling champion who in his prime fought bears.
There there are the Taylor Brothers, Steve and Dave, light-heavyweight sons of the former heavy-middleweight champion Eric Taylor and grandsons of Joe Taylor who wrestled for Britian in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics.
With men like these around, wrestling has no worries about the future, and there is certainly no shortage of youngsters who want to earn money in the ring. Famous referee Joe D'Orazio, who looks out for the new boys at Dale Martin Promotions' headquarters in South London, says there is a constant stream of teenagers knocking on the door with the simple request: "How can I become a wrestler?" D'Orazio takes a look at some of the more experienced applicants, but tells the majority: "Go and join a good amateur club. Learn the game. And if you still love wrestling, come back and see us again."
But of those who do graduate to a career in wrestling, Max Crabtree at Joint Promotions doesn't hide the fact that some of them need time to develop their ring personalities. "Some lack crowd appeal," he says, "and that's important, especially on TV. Television can be a good thing, creating national interset and turning wrestlers into stars, but it can't do much for the classical wrestler who hasn't got a bit of magic. I tell our boys to try to develop an individual style so that people can respond to them. I tell them: If you don't get a boo or a cheer when the M.C. calls out your name, you should do something about it. The public wants to react, to take sides, to have a good shout and let its hair down."
For the wrestlers themselves, the job means some pain, a little glory, hard work and a limited home life. An established wrestler fights three or four times a week in different parts of the country, and someone like Steve Logan might fly to Scotland, take the train to Wolverhampton, and drive to Woking to fulfil three engagements in one week. "They're among the last of the travelling entertainers," says Max Crabtree. "They give sweat, guts, and blood, and generally speaking they're a very shy lot. After a bout, they'll slide out of a side door and drive, perhaps, 100 miles to get home to the wife and kids that night."
It is a tough life, and injuries - like those knee troubles sustained by Johnny Kwango and Catweazle lately, can cost the dearly, because if they don't fight, they don't earn money. A wrestler's money isn't spectacular, either. A good, solid fighter in regular work - paid after each bout - can earn about £3000 a year, which he could easily earn working a lathe in a factory. For the big names, that figure can more than double, but it's TV exposure which brings in the money, raising a wrestler's bout fee to around £60.
"There are no great rewards," says Max Crabtree. "Wrestlers are the salt of the earth: they don't ride about in white Rolls-Royces or insist on luxury changing rooms. Give them a bucket of water and a coat hook and they'll get on with it. The fans are in the same bracket: they don't come to watch in dickie bows and dinner jackets. They're ordinary working folk who want to enjoy a night out and get value for money. That's why wrestling will always be around - it has the common touch.
Mick McManus goes along with that too. "We may never see the boom days again, but we'll always be in business. I've seen these new boys coming along, and they're as good as the big names from the past. If we give the public what I believe they want - a little white meat, a little red, a blend of gimmicks and pure wrestling, but always entertainment - I still see a big future for the game. We'll never lose our audience."
(Back to the main page)