Jackie Pallo died almost two years ago. Even in the British press, his passing went almost unreported. Very few people across the Atlantic had ever heard of him at all; he never wrestled in Canada or the USA. But for fans of the UK grappling scene in the 1950s and 60s, it was as if a Muhammad Ali, or a Babe Ruth, had gone.
We had lost a titan.
A titan in the figurative sense, not the physical. Today’s wrestling fans, used to watching steroid-bloated giants whose necks are wider than their heads, would have assumed Pallo was a midget, part of the pre-fight ballyhoo. He stood five and a half feet tall and weighed around 170 pounds. His size didn’t matter. When you watch the gangster films, are Jimmy Cagney or Edward G Robinson less menacing because they’re little men?
Pallo always topped the bill. The heavyweights, the big men, knew they were just the warm-up act. The crowd was waiting for Jackie to step into the ring. He was the archetypal bad guy – swaggering, breaking the rules and getting away with it, gloating over his stricken opponent. You knew he’d win (unless he was fighting Mick McManus – more about him later) but you wanted him to lose, wanted it so badly that you still bought your ticket or turned on the TV …
His gimmicks? Here again, the modern fan is liable to get confused. Pallo wore his hair in a ponytail, he wore striped trunks (flamboyant in the Britain of 40 years ago) and his boots were sprayed with gold paint. That was all. He had no fanfare as he made his way to the ring, no flashing lights or thunderflashes, no bevy of silicon blondes to take his dressing gown. He just got into the ring and he wrestled. For five or six rounds, each lasting five minutes. And he made sure you hated him for every second of every round.
The next time you watch the grappling superstars of the 21st century, add up how long they actually spend in action, discounting the lengthy pre-fight dialogue when they talk about how they’re going to kill the guy in the other corner, and how they’ve already seduced his wife, bankrupted his business, poured weedkiller over his flowers, etc. Even for the very brief period of the fight itself, they probably can’t keep the crowd’s attention without resorting to chairs across heads, backs through tables, weapons from under the ring. I’ll say it again: 20 or 30 minutes of entertainment with no props. That’s what Pallo and his peers gave us, time after time.
I suppose, though, the fights themselves are not so important now. Today’s wrestlers are soap opera actors who happen to grapple now and again. The continuing storylines are more convoluted than the plots of Dynasty or Dallas. Back then, it wasn’t so. You knew there were rivalries, and there’d be a few threats before the match, a few sneers after it. That was as far as it went. There was too much wrestling to leave room for anything else.
Nowadays, pro grappling presents itself as spectacle (“sports entertainment”.) You watch a modern bout as you’d watch James Bond tackling Oddjob or Jaws: it’s fun but you know it ain’t for real. In Pallo's day, though, it was an absolute article of faith that, say, Pallo vs Mick McManus (his arch-enemy and nemesis: black trunks and boots, Dracula style black hair) was as genuine a contest as Ali vs Frazier or Fischer against Spassky. And they made you believe it, round after round. That was their art.
Pallo and TV were made for each other. His was the first generation of British wrestlers whose fights were on the screen. He played to the camera: not during any pre-bout rigmarole but during the rounds themselves. Applying a wristlock or driving home a forearm smash, he’d snarl into the lens. “Give in, you fool!” he’d yell at opponents who resisted a submission hold.
“Sure, I’ve lost fights,” he’d say, “but not on telly.” He did, though, to the aforesaid McManus. It must have hurt him, prearranged though it was; he was an artist, and he had his pride. Years after his retirement, he admitted that most wrestling was fixed (blasphemy to the ears of the faithful).
“What about championship fights?” he was asked. “They can’t be rigged.”
Patiently, in his London twang, Pallo explained. “There ain’t no such animal as a real champion in pro wrestling. You can call yourself champion of the world, Britain, Alaska, the Gobi desert…”
“You’re only saying that because you never were a champion. You never won a title.”
By then an elderly man, Pallo sat straighter. “That’s where you’re wrong. I had the only title I wanted. I was Mister TV.”
He lived long enough to see the game change utterly. Modern fans would never tolerate a man like George Kidd, a contemporary of Pallo’s. Kidd had been a gifted amateur wrestler. In the pro ring, his moves were precision-choreographed, and it was for the purists; forearm smashes and dropkicks were too vulgar for the man.
“All you will get from me,” Kidd would say, “is wrestling, pure wrestling.” Alas, it’s no longer enough. Size and weight replaced skill and acrobatics. And the crowd preferred it as they preferred fast food to home cooking.
Rest in peace, Jackie. But if you can see what they’ve done to your game, I suppose you must be spinning in your grave, as once you gyrated so entertainingly in the ring.