The History of British Wrestling: Part One
Before I begin, I'd just like to explain that I decided to break this down into chapters because it's just too long for a single article. If you're wondering, why the history of British wrestling?
Simply because it was requested in the comments to my recent slide show:
British Wrestlers Before They were Famous
So sit back, relax, and discover the history of modern British Wrestling.
Catch as Catch Can
If you are going to write a true history of wrestling in any country, where do you begin?
Should you follow the examples of the wealthy Victorians and trace its roots to the supposedly noble days of the Greeks and the Romans? Or should you be more honest?
While the wealthy aristocrats of Europe in the later nineteenth-century may well have been inspired by Philhellenism ("the love of Greek culture") to promote the revival of the Ancient Greek Wrestling style that we now more widely refer to as Greco-Roman wrestling, the truth of the matter is that just about every region of the world had it's own style of folk wrestling.
For the purposes of this article, perhaps the most significant was Lancashire wrestling.
Lancashire wrestling was a historic wrestling style from the count of Lancashire in England, a style that many consider to be the true foundation of catch wrestling and professional wrestling.
The style included groundwork, and it had the reputation of being an extremely fierce and violent sport. To give you a taste, here is a quote from the Badminton Library:
"A Lancashire wrestling match is an ugly sight: the fierce animal passions of the men which mark the struggles of maddened bulls, or wild beasts, the savage yelling of their partisans, the wrangling, and finally the clog business which settles all disputes and knotty points, are simply appalling."
The rules were few and far between, but there were some. For example, there was a ban on deliberately breaking an opponent's bones.
The Lancashire phrase "catch as catch can," from where the phrase catch wrestling comes, is generally understood to translate to "catch (a hold) anywhere you can."
As this implies, the rules of catch wrestling were more open than its Greco-Roman counterpart, which did not allow holds below the waist.
Catch wrestlers could win a match by either submission or pin, and most matches were contested as the best two of three falls.
Before the Bell
By the turn of the 20th Century, catch wrestling was being introduced to the public of the world via the carnivals of North America and in Britain as part of a variety act to spice up the limited action involved in the popular bodybuilder strongman attractions.
Early stars, such as Cornish ex-miner Jack Carkeek, would challenge audience members to last ten minutes with him in the ring without being pinned or tapping out.
The growing popularity of wrestling shows in Britain began to attract competitors from further afield, including the legitimate Estonian Greco-Roman grappler Georg Hackenschmidt, who quickly aligned himself with promoter and entrepreneur Charles B. Cochran.
Cochran took Hackenschmidt under his wing and booked him into a match in which Hackenschmidt defeated another top British wrestler, Tom Cannon, for the European Greco-Roman Heavyweight Championship.
This win gave Hackenschmidt a credible claim to the world title, which he cemented in 1905 with a win over American Heavyweight Champion Tom Jenkins in the United States. This made Hackenschmidt the first recognized World Heavyweight Wrestling Champion.
Hackenschmidt had become the first wrestler to secure the prestigious title of World Champion, but he was finding it somewhat harder to win over the crowds. That is until Cochran persuaded him to learn showmanship from Cannon and wrestle many of his matches for entertainment rather than sport.
With this, many of the future elements of "sports entertainment" were born.
Numerous big-name stars, both beloved babyfaces (fan favorites) and hated heels (villains), came and went during the early inception of wrestling within the UK. Many, like Hackenschmidt, ended up leaving for the US, which was fortunate for the American audiences as it brought many of the British innovations to their shores.
That was bad for British Wrestling, which went into decline before the outbreak of World War I in 1914 halted it completely.
Between the Wars
Amateur wrestling continued as a legitimate sport, but professional wrestling, as a promotional business, did not catch on again until the late 1920s when the success of the more worked aspects of professional wrestling, like gimmicks and submission holds, were re-introduced to British wrestling.
At this stage of its history, the future was uncertain. But then Sir Atholl Oakley, an amateur wrestler, and Henry Irslinger, a traditional catch all wrestler, got together to launch a new promotion to showcase the new style of wrestling which was called "All-In" wrestling.
Under the British Wrestling Association banner, Oakley's promotion took off with wrestlers such as Tommy Mann, Black Butcher Johnson, Jack Pye, Norman the Butcher, College Boy, and Jack Sherry on the roster. Oakley, himself, would win a series of matches to be crowned the first British Heavyweight Champion.
At that time wrestling was still treading as a legitimate sport, and indeed the programs were often mixed. Only parts of the show were worked, while other parts still contained at least some legitimate wrestling. The audience believed that everything it saw was genuine.
Suddenly, the sport exploded again, and almost immediately there were bookings at venues all around the country, with at least forty regular wrestling venues in London alone.
Demand began to outnumber supply, which meant there were not enough skilled wrestlers to go around. So many promoters switched to more violent styles, introducing weapons and chair shots for the first time as part of the proceedings.
It was during this era, having seen a man put through a table in an old movie, that the first table match was introduced.
The authorities reacted badly to these violent leanings and by the late 1930s, as the world moved towards war, the London County Council and other authorities, banned professional wrestling, leaving the industry in bad shape.
The story starts to get interesting after the war, in my opinion. While in America the sport was making its first TV breakthrough and entering it's first "golden age," back in Britain it was primarily an underground, unruly, and rowdy sport.
But all that was about to change in a major way.
The first post-war attempts to relaunch the business, in 1947, failed dramatically, mainly because a number of journalists had condemned the shows and accused them of being fake.
Today we might roll our eyes at such a statement, but at the time it was a major scandal, not least because the new darling of the wrestling crowd was none other than Primo Carnera, a former world heavyweight boxing champion with a career record that included 72 wins by knockout.
The accusations by the media caused such an outcry that it prompted Admiral Lord Mountevans, a fan of the sport, to get together with Commander Campbell, member of Parliament Maurice Webb, and Olympic wrestler Norman Morell to create a committee to produce official rules for wrestling.
The most notable action of the committee was to list seven formal weight divisions, calling for champions to be crowned at each weight.
These weight divisions were lightweight (154 pound limit), welterweight (165), middleweight (176), heavy middleweight (187), light heavyweight (198), mid-heavyweight (209), and heavyweight.
And here we are today arguing over bringing back cruiserweight to the mix in America.
These weight divisions revolutionized the sport, opening the way for a considerable increase in competitors and facilitating a wide range of styles, from chain wrestling and power wrestling to early experiments with aerial maneuvers and fast paced technical matches.
These were revolutionary times. But it was the promoters who really revolutionized the business during this time by using America's National Wrestling Alliance territory system (under the guise of an alliance of promoters attempting to regulate the sport and uphold the committee's ideas) to, in fact, create a promotional cartel designed to carve up control of the business between a handful of promoters—which it did in 1952 under the name of Joint Promotions.
In the next part of this history I'll tell their story and talk about how the rise of wrestling in Britain peaked with audiences that modern promotions like World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) could only dream of!
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