Sport

If you heard a barely discernible phut at around 1am on Wednesday 22nd May, 2013, it was very possibly the sound of an era coming to an end. The death of Mick McManus, baddest bad man of British wrestling, closed a chapter in British history that encompassed Morecambe and Wise, frozen orange juice, and the Boston crab.

In real life, Mick McManus was shorter than you’d expect – five-foot-six (1.68 metres) – and in his prime weighed 175 lbs (barely twelve-and-a-half stone, 79 kg). His trademark Dracula hairstyle remained to the end, black as a raven’s bible, though thinning. As wrestling promoter Max Crabtree said in the 1990s: “Believe me, when the wind blows there’s not much there.”

The media barely acknowledged Mick’s death. I found out via an email from the Wrestling Heritage website. The BBC News site, which the previous day had heralded the passing of former Bowie and Uriah Heap bass-player Trevor Bolder in its main headlines, relegated Mick’s demise to the Sports section. It was tucked away between reports on cycling – “Visconti takes second Giro stage win” – and women’s football: “Unitt to miss Euro 2013”. Whether this was lingering cross-channel rivalry (wresting was always an ITV thing), or because the teenagers in charge of the BBC website didn’t have a clue who Mick McManus was, we’ll probably never know.

Forty years ago, everyone in Britain knew about Mick McManus. He and his contemporaries, including Jackie Pallo, Giant Haystacks, Les Kellett, Big Daddy, Kendo Nagasaki and Catweazle, were national stars. For a while, he had a ghost-written column in The Sun newspaper, he was photographed with The Beatles, Stones and Royalty, and even had his own brand of “pep pills”.

Saturday afternoon wrestling had become a British institution. Millions of us eschewed “proper” sport like rugby league, horse racing and snooker on the BBC’s Grandstand, to watch World of Sport‘s hour of professional wrestling. At its peak in 1970, as many as 8.5 million people would tune in – at 4pm on a Saturday, don’t forget. “Grappling”, as slightly camp Canadian commentator Kent Walton insisted on calling it, was regularly high in the top 10 of the week’s most watched ITV progammes.

Everyone knew deep down that British wrestling was fixed, but not in a “bad way”. It was a similar arrangement to the one that ensured contemporary movies like The Magnificent Seven, Dirty Harry and The Guns of Naverone didn’t end with the bad guys coming out on top. Of course, in wrestling the “fix” meant that the bad guys sometimes did win. It was there to enhance the drama and tension. To make it more “showbiz’.

Even so, Mick was truculent on the subject. Quoted in Simon Garfield’s essential book, The Wrestling, he said:

People used to say it was fixed, but you should have seen the injuries. Sometimes it was impossible to get out of bed the next day, because you were battered so badly. I didn’t enjoy that and I didn’t enjoy waiting on railway platforms at Crewe, like at one o’clock in the morning, waiting to catch the train to King’s Cross or Euston. I used to get knocks and torn ligaments, shoulders and ankles. You’d have to take a week off but you knew you’d recover.
I broke my collar-bone and my wrist falling out of the ring. And the cauliflower ears were so painful, people don’t realize.

No one doubted that “proper” wrestlers like Mike Marino, Alan Dennison, and brothers Bert Royal and Vic Faulkner (it’s complicated) were genuinely skilful, and their matches served as an appetizer for the showbiz spectacles that were to follow. Mick was in the same class, despite his dirty tricks, phoney handhakes and frequent (but genuine) cries of “Not the ears! Not the ears!” Few of us knew that Mick was one of the bosses of wrestling and its chief matchmaker, but then there were a lot of things we didn’t know about Mick McManus.

mick_mcmanus_poster_01William George Matthews was born just off the Old Kent Road in south-east London, on Wednesday January 11th, 1920. His father was a Walworth docker and amateur boxer. Until the age of 16, young Bill attended Walworth Central School in Mina Road, where he showed an aptitude in art and drawing. He was apprenticed into the printing trade, but by night he trained at the John Ruskin Wrestling Club at the Elephant & Castle. Being a sporty youth, he combined this with rowing, weightlifting at Fred Unwin’s club in Peckham, and running with the South London Harriers.

When the Second World War arrived, Mick signed up to the Royal Air Force as a physical training instructor. He combined this with performing wrestling exhibitions around the UK with fellow airman, Wigan professional Jimmy Rudd. When he was posted to Australia in 1945, Mick appeared in his first pro wrestling bout in Sydney, against a young local called Tommy Steele (no relation).

Once the war was over and he’d returned to “civvy street”, Mick set up a dockland haulage business with a friend from the John Ruskin Club, Percy Pitman. Percy introduced McManus to former commercial artist Les Martin, who ran Dale Martin Promotions with the three “Dale” brothers whose surname was really Abbey (it’s complicated). Mick was given his chance and made his UK professional début against Chopper Howlett at Greenwich Baths in 1946.

When it became obvious that Mick’s future lay in wrestling, he and Pitman sold the trucks and opened a small printing works in Peckham, producing wrestling programmes, posters and tickets. In the ring, Mick McManus soon established himself as one of the most popular unpopular wrestlers in Britain, wrestling exclusively for the Dale Martin circuit and then – from 1952 – Joint Promotions. As well as Brixton-based Dale Martin, Joint Promotions incorporated Yorkshire’s Ted Beresford and Norman Morell, Arthur Wright in Manchester, Billy Best in Liverpool, and George de Relywyskow in Scotland.

That McManus was a skilful wrestler was never in doubt. In 1949 he defeated Eddie Capelli to win the vacant British Welterweight Championship. In 1967 he secured the British Middleweight Championship, and a year later the European Middleweight title, which he won and lost on several occasions before Mal Sanders relieved him of it for good in 1979. By then, don’t forget, McManus was 59 years-old.

British wrestling was first televised on November 9th, 1955 and McManus was quick to see the opportunity. He made his first appearance just ten weeks later, on January 17th, fighting Chic Povey at Lime Grove Baths. By 1961 he was appearing up to 18 times a year, on his way to becoming Britain’s most televised wrestler. By now, McManus was working for Dale Martin as matchmaker, a powerful role that did no harm to his career.

McManus was a skilled self-marketer. He formed a tag partnership will fellow south London “hard man” Steve Logan and engineered a grudge with wrestling’s “Mr TV”, Jackie Pallo that was to play out in high profile encounters for years. Although they didn’t actually fight very often, on both the 1963 and ’65 FA Cup Final days, their televised spat was rumoured to have been watched by more people (certainly more women) than saw the football. When Pallo retired, McManus continued the feud with his son, Jackie Junior.

In December 1965, William George Matthews changed his name by deed poll to Mick McManus.

McManus built up a reputation of never having been beaten on TV. On January 14th, 1967, he turned up for a televised bout at Lime Grove Baths in west London. It has been said that the promoter Norman Morrell had a beef with McManus – possibly to do with his purchase of the printing business the south Londoner had founded with Percy Pitman – and the Bradford-based promoter had sworn revenge.

McManus was billed to fight up-and-coming Yorkshireman Peter Preston. When Preston didn’t take his agreed dive, McManus deliberately got himself disqualified as the only way to prevent losing to his heavier, younger and – it has to be said – fitter, opponent. This was McManus’s only televised “defeat” until he was eventually beaten by Tony St Clair a decade later. The drama of the event was not lost on the crowd. Commentator Kent Walton remarked several times how quiet they were during the following bout between Tony Charles and Jamaican Ezzard Hart.

There’s an urban myth that says McManus made sure Preston never worked on TV again. Untrue. Records show that Preston appeared five times more in 1967 alone and a similar number of times in subsequent years. McManus wasn’t generally liked by his contemporaries but, despite the professional jealousy, other wrestlers had to agree that Mick wasn’t one to let personal animosity get in the way of his wrestling.

In the ring, the McManus style included complaining at every possible occasion and interfering with his opponent whenever the ref’s back was turned. To keep his trademark cropped jet-black hair in check, he’d constantly stop to smooth it down with the palm of his hand. On the way to and from the dressing room McManus became adept at dodging angry old ladies with furled umbrellas.

mick_mcmanus_oldMick McManus finally retired from the ring on May 5th, 1982, at the age of 62. His final bout  was at Bedworth Civic Hall against Catweazle – whose real name he shared with American film star, Gary Cooper. The bout was televised three days later and was one of the most watched wrestling matches on TV. In retirement, McManus kept himself busy. He was invariably to be found at the annual British Wrestlers’ Reunion, held at the Kent pub of fellow grappler Wayne Bridges. Mick played golf (off an 18 handicap) and was a sucker for a charitable cause. He was also employed part-time as a PR meeter and greeter for a company that distributed wiring and cables.

He and his wife, Barbara, lived for many years in a small flat near Denmark Hill station, south-east London. It was packed with the porcelain Mick had become an avid collector of, and which had taken him on to the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow as an expert. Sadly, Barbara died in January 2013. Mick was to follow within a few months, leaving a son, Tony, by now no spring chicken himself.

Mick spent his final weeks at a Kent retirement home that specialized in theatrical and celebrity types. To emphasise Mick’s showbiz credentials, one of the last visitors before he died was film director, Lord “Dickie” Attenborough.

The artist Peter Blake summed up what many of us felt:

I felt a kind of affinity with McManus, and after one fight, when everyone was screaming at him, as he walked back from the ring I said, “Nice fight, Mick!” and he said to me, “How you going, son?” as though he knew me. I remember it now, so I think I must have been quite touched.
I liked to support someone who was always a villain, never anyone else’s favourite. McManus had a lot of arrogance and there was something genuine about him, certainly a strong wrestler. You felt that if it genuinely turned into a fight, he’d win.”