Welcome to the second-ever instalment of The Fighting Springbok, a column dedicated to the world of South African professional wrestling. In my very first article, readers learned about one of the true hidden diamonds in international wrestling, the South African promotion World Wrestling Professionals (WWP). WWP has produced two stars who became the first (and thus far, only) in South Africa's history to be contracted with World Wrestling Entertainment, Justin Gabriel and Leo Kruger. As you may be aware, Gabriel and Kruger were part of a regular tag team a decade ago by the name of "Pure Juice" and also clashed heads several times in some of the best matches seen in South Africa during the late 1990s/early 2000s period. Their final match against each other took place at WWP's much-hyped Carnival City 2006 event, a year after Gabriel had returned from England. Both Gabriel and Kruger have one more thing in common, in that they were trained by Gabriel's father Paul Lloyd, Sr., quite possibly the most respected South African promoter in the 1990s and who wrestled under the alias of "Pink Panther". Here I will discuss in detail the history and story behind Justin Gabriel's rise to fame and his family's connection to the current WWP World Heavyweight Champion Tornado.
THE GENESIS OF ASW
In the late 1980s, South African wrestling started to experience its first overall decline in attendance since the 1960s due to a number of factors, one of which included the retirement of the legendary Jan Wilkens who had almost single-handedly carried wrestling in the country since the 1970s. Jan Wilkens was the Antonio Inoki or Hulk Hogan of SA wrestling, from a popularity perspective. The proverbial torch was passed to Danie Voges and Danie Brits, who would lead the charge in the 1990s. Voges, at 6'5", was as large and arguably as powerful as his predecessor, while the smaller Brits was a charismatic technical genius, donning a cowboy hat to the ring in acknowledgement of his farmboy roots. They would later be part of what would become the top promotion in South Africa for over a decade, All Stars Wrestling (ASW), headed by Justin Gabriel's father, Paul Lloyd, Sr.
Lloyd had learned from the best in promoting, Willie Kohne and Bull Hefer. During the 1970s and 1980s it was a requirement that young wrestlers be sent overseas to learn the art, and Lloyd spent a large part of his youth wrestling in Europe. When he returned he was given the reins to start his own promotion. Since he now had ties to Europe, he continued the tradition of bringing over foreign wrestlers, something that contributed to greater show attendances and improved quality. ASW would host wrestlers such as British Bulldog, Lance Von Erich, Giant Warrior, Gary Albright, Dave Morgan, Gama Singh, Yokozuna, Joe Legend, and Stonecold Steve Austin; some regulars, others making rare special appearances. Even though ASW served somewhat as a successor to Bull Hefer's long-running All-In Wrestling due to the headquarters being based in Johannesburg and the solid relationship between Hefer and Lloyd, ASW was through and through its own entity. Lloyd succeeded in maintaining a busy schedule and making sure there were fans in every seat. Due to the connections with Hefer (who had retired at this point) and the still-substantial demand for wrestling, Lloyd's ASW continued on from All-In Wrestling in supplying one-hour broadcasts for one of the three national television stations (at the time the channels were given generic names of "TV1", "TV2" and "TV3", and programming was interchangeable). When apartheid ended in 1994 and a new government took office, the majority of the public television programs were cancelled, including ASW's show. Despite that curb in the road for ASW resulting in decreased attendance and lack of publicity, it continued holding at least two events a week and bringing over foreign regulars even after 94. It was arguably one of the busiest independent promotions in the world during its prime.
Steve Debbes started his career in 1986, training under the tutelage of Don Charles and Wild Bill Murphy during one of their tours in South Africa. He was sent to Europe to gain experience and worked together many times with Lloyd, Sr. while there. They formed a brotherly bond and were said to have worked against each other over fifty times all over the world in their careers. Debbes also travelled to Mexico, Russia and Japan for a while, whereafter he adopted a high-flying, impactful style. Danie Brits, who had been going by the ring names "Tornado" and "The Masked Tornado" in the 1980s to hide the fact that he was doing pro wrestling and amateur wrestling at the same time (which was forbidden then), started wrestling under his real name and passed the gimmick onto Debbes. Steve Debbes became known as "Tornado II" upon the dawn of the 1990s.
Although Lloyd and Tornado were best of friends, the relationship was all business when it came to wrestling. Brits and Voges featured prominently in main events as Tornado worked his way up the card. In South African wrestling youth was regarded as an automatic lower card placement, no matter how good the wrestler may have been. Tornado received as much fan support as the two Danies due to his great aerial talent, which was considered innovative for the period. Many youngsters idolised Tornado, including Justin Gabriel and Leo Kruger as they watched from ringside in their teens. On rare occasions, Lloyd and Tornado would tear up the main event together. Even though Lloyd's "Pink Panther" gimmick was primarily a comedy role, he was known as a very proficient wrestler and was even better than Tornado in technical wrestling. Lloyd's own father had been a professional boxer and olympic wrestler, which is where he received some of his mat skills initially. Tornado and Paul Lloyd learned from each other inside and outside the ring, and this is why their friendship was so close.
Justin Gabriel was already acquainted with the wrestling business from a very early age because of his father. He was allowed to watch the events at ringside and meet the wrestlers backstage. Gabriel instantly aspired to be just like the heroes he admired and knew this is what he wanted to do when he grew up. His father began training him in their very own backyard ring and by the age of 16, with a bit more formal training and mentoring from Tornado, Giant Warrior and others who were involved with ASW at the time, Gabriel debuted for start-up promotion International Wrestling Federation (IWF) as "PJ Black", a name he'd use until 2009. IWF was formed by Paul Lloyd, Sr. in 1997 with the purpose of giving young wrestlers and trainees a stage to showcase their developing skills. It served very much as a feeder system to ASW and ownership shares were given to several people, including the young Gabriel who was partially responsible for booking.
In IWF, Justin Gabriel and Leo Kruger (then Presley Jackson) created the tag team "Pure Juice", "the coolest cats in the land". They wrestled across the country with Tornado during a period in South African wrestling history when promotions were rife. In Cape Town they wrestled for Shaun Koen's Africa Wrestling Federation and Abdul Kader's Interworld Wrestling Promotions (Of note, Gabriel has said that his personal favourite match ever in South Africa was against Leo Kruger in 2000 for AWF, just prior to when he would depart for England. His second favourite was in 2008 against Ananzi), in Pretoria for SAWING, in Durban for Gama Singh's Universal Wrestling, and other independents. Tornado, going under one of his former aliases as El Scorpio, engaged in a classic rivalry with Justin Gabriel that lasted two years and it became notable for delivering some of the best matches South Africa had seen in the late 1990s. The series provided Gabriel a world of experience and Tornado served as a mentor during this period. Tornado recognised Gabriel's natural talent and it was rare at the time in SA wrestling for a veteran to face a much younger wrestler, especially in a feud. The level of trust between Tornado and Paul Lloyd, Sr. was such that Lloyd knew Tornado would take care of his son in their many countrywide tours
TENSION AND TRAGEDY
With wrestling, naturally, comes politics. Paul Lloyd, Sr., being the promoter of ASW and competing with every other promotion in the country, was not allowed in certain circles and advised Gabriel not to participate on certain shows. Justin Gabriel defied his father's instructions, wanting only to wrestle as much as he could. As a result, there was tension between them leading into 1999. Gabriel has since expressed regret for making those decisions, but he has always been close to his father no matter what. That same year, Paul Lloyd, Sr. passed away after a tragic incident in which he was shot. It appeared all over the national news and marked the end of an era in South African wrestling. Following his death, wrestling in the country hit a downward spiral and schedules were suddenly reduced to one show a month, if that. This changed in 2004 when the remaining promotions started to increase their schedule once again, but it has never reached the pinnacle of the 1980s or 1990s. Large venues like Sun City, Good Hope Centre and Carnival City are seldomly run these days, whereas in the past it was a common occurence for promotions like All Stars Wrestling to run them on a regular basis. The last big venue that was run by a presently-existing promotion was Carnival City in 2008, a massively-hyped event held by WWP that received national television advertising.
Justin Gabriel started wearing pink-coloured outfits to the ring from then on as a tribute to his father and sometimes points to the air in remembrance before executing a 450 Splash. Gabriel received a breakthrough into the business via his father and was taught valuable ring lessons by him which he still applies, and because of that inspiration and his own hard work he is now competing for the largest, most well-known and widely established promotion in the world, WWE. Part 2 will cover more on Justin Gabriel's storybook career, spanning from 2000 to the present day.
Until next time,
The Fighting Springbok