Page last updated at 10:54 GMT, Saturday, 21 January 2006

A ringside seat down memory lane

By Mona McAlinden
BBC Scotland news website

"Kendo Nagasaki has not spoken in public for the past 40 years and I can't see that changing now," was the curt reply from the wrestler's agent to an interview request.

Poster advertising wrestling
Wrestling bouts attracted huge numbers of fans during its peak

Despite hanging up his famous mask in 2001, Nagasaki, whose real name is Peter Thornley, apparently still strives to keep his identity intact.

This was his trademark during his heyday as one of the frontrunners of British wrestling's "golden age", an era synonymous with the success of ITV's sports programme, World of Sport.

At its peak during the 1970s and 1980s, World of Sport attracted more than 10 million viewers.

The show, often described as the first sports programme to gain cult status, ran for five hours every Saturday for nearly 30 years.

Dickie Davies, famed for his 'badger' white-streaked hair and suave style, fronted the show from 1968 until it was taken off the air in 1985, reportedly for being too downmarket.

While the programme also featured mainstream sports like horse racing and boxing, according to Davies, the hour-long wrestling slot was by far the biggest audience catcher.

I didn't really look at it as a sport but I realised that when I introduced it, I was doing so to millions of fans
Dickie Davies

"At 4pm, we would always have a big switch on after the half-time football reports and we'd get audiences of between 6m and 10m people," he recalled.

Wrestling fans would tune in to a pantomime-style world where larger than life figures such as Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks played out a battle between good and evil in ordinary provincial halls.

Davies said he could not put his finger on why the slot was so popular, but cited its wide appeal as a possible factor.

"It was particularly popular with the ladies," he said. "I still have masses of people come up to me to say they used to watch the wrestling with their grandmother or their mum when they were kids.

"There were always ladies in the front row ringside seats and if they didn't like someone they'd give them a smack with their bag. That was the way it was in those days."

Kendo Nagasaki - copyright Kendo Nagasaki website
Kendo Nagasaki usually wielded a samurai sword

Davies said he was often so preoccupied with presenting the show that he hardly got a chance to watch the famous bouts.

"When the wrestling was on, all the results and match reports were coming in so I was always doing my homework between commercial breaks and introductions," he explained.

In any case, it seems that the anchorman wasn't exactly a big fan of what he called "sporting entertainment".

"I wasn't enormously keen on the wrestling because I didn't really see it as a sport. But I realised that when I introduced it, I was doing so to millions of fans. Far from me to decry it, it was a significant part of our programme," he said.

"There were huge characters involved and that was part of the attraction. Many of them have passed away now but I do still see Mick McManus on the golf course, still with his famous mop of black hair."

Davies said the end of the programme was intertwined with the demise of wrestling in the UK.

Big Daddy's real name was Shirley Crabtree
Giant Haystacks measured 6ft 11ins and weighed more than 45 stones
Mick McManus is now a keen collector of antiques
Kendo Nagasaki first removed his mask in 1977 before covering up again
The Queen and Margaret Thatcher were said to be grapple fans

"There was no longer any outlet for it, it couldn't be sustained when it was taken off the air," he said.

"I still don't really know the full story about why it came to an end. I think the bosses wanted more live sport.

"The thing that annoyed me when we did eventually go was that they replaced it with black and white films.

"That was hard to take because it was such a contrast. But it didn't cost as much to show old films as it did to put on a World of Sport programme."

While Davies acknowledged that the so-called golden age was "a special era", he does not have high hopes for a return.

"There's now no wrestling on terrestrial TV, although it is shown on satellite. I don't suppose that will create a resurgence in wrestling around the halls in this country given that it seems to be dominated by the American style, with lots of shouting.

"One or two places still have pockets of wrestling but it'll never be anywhere like what it used to be."

Wrestlers grapple for limelight
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