Britain’s wrestling phenomena first came to prominence in the mid-60s and early 70s when the ITV Network began to show live wrestling on TV. It captured the imagination of everybody, old and young, and men and women even some grandmothers. There were many dedicated arenas and small stadiums that popped up all over the country where people could see their heroes from Saturday television live in the flesh. Legendary names such as Big Daddy, Giant Haystacks, Catweazle, Jackie Pallo, Kendo Hangasaki, and of course Mick McManus.
After the heyday of British wrestling during this period the sport went into decline and was eclipsed by the manic hysteria of American Pro Wrestling. But recently the UK has seen a resurgence in wrestling and new stars such as Will Ospreay, Zack Sabre, Pete Dunne and Marty Scurll have come to the fore. New programs and competitions have been formed, Revolution Pro UK, Progress and Insane Championship Wrestling have once again shown that British wrestling is once more a force to be reckoned with. In this blog we look at the foundations of British wrestling, were it originated from and how it became so popular.
In truth, wrestling as we know it came to Britain from America, it developed there in the 1800s during the highly popular carnival days. Of course, as an actual sport the Ancient Greeks used to wrestle, but for the purpose of this blog we are looking at modern-style wrestling. An American wrestler named Jack Carkeek came to England, and challenged all comers to last ten minutes in the ring with him. He was shocked when a Russian wrestler also looking to make his name challenged him, George Hackenschmidt.
At the turn of the century in 1902, the best wrestler in England was Tom Cannon and Hackenschmidt defeated him in a bout in Liverpool. Then three years later in America, Hackenschmidt defeated the best American wrestler Tom Jenkins, to be the truly first World Heavyweight Champion. By the time 1910 had arrived, pro wrestling was in recession, and amateur wrestling had become the most popular form of the sport.
1920’s American Wrestling
Professional wrestling in 1920s America began to adapt and change to regain popularity, and this transformation had a profound effect on British wrestling. This new type of wrestling incorporated many styles and the British promoters saw the opportunity and bought it across the pond. The British Wrestling Association was founded by Atholl Oakley and Henry Irslinger in the late 1930s and was the real start of the professional wrestling movement in the United Kingdom. This new style of wrestling was called All In, and it was a combination of Catch and Greco-Roman.
The very first British Heavyweight Champion was Oakley, and popular wrestlers at the time could command huge audiences. Some bouts had more than fourteen thousand fans packed into rudimentary venues. But after a few years interest again waned, and the numbers of fans dropped. Ideas of using weapons and letting ladies wrestle were tried but none prevailed and wrestling once again went into the sporting wilderness. In part two we see the second wave of British wrestling arrive after WWII and how the sport once again became popular.