If you heard a barely discernible phut at around 1 am on Wednesday 22nd May 2013, it was very possibly the sound of an era ending. 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.
Mick McManus (1921-2013)
In real life, Mick McManus was shorter than you’d expect. Five-foot-six (1.68 metres). And in his prime, he 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 previous day, the BBC News site had heralded the passing of former Bowie and Uriah Heap bass-player Trevor Bolder in its main headlines. But they relegated Mick’s demise to the Sports section.
Departed Sports News
Tucked away between reports on cycling – “Visconti takes second Giro stage win” – and women’s football. Whether this was lingering cross-channel rivalry (wresting was always an ITV thing), or because the teenagers running 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. Mick had his photograph taken with The Beatles, The Rolling Stone, and Royalty. He 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. This was 4 pm on a Saturday, don’t forget. Canadian commentator Kent Walton insisted on calling it ‘Grappling’, even so, wrestling was up there in the top 10 of the week’s most-watched ITV programmes.
“It’s Fixed, Granny!”
Everyone knew, 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 Navarone didn’t end with the bad guys coming out on top. Of course, in wrestling, the “fix” meant that the bad guys often did win. It was there to enhance the drama and tension. To make it more “showbiz”.
Even so, Mick was truculent. 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.
“Proper” wrestlers like Mike Marino, Alan Dennison, and brothers Bert Royal and Vic Faulkner (it’s complicated) were genuinely skilful. 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 handshakes 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.
William 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. Mick went into the printing trade as an apprentice. 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.
Mick McManus, Airman
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. He appeared in his first pro wrestling bout in Sydney in 1945, matched 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 took McManus to meet 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 in. He made his UK professional début against Chopper Howlett at Greenwich Baths in 1946.
Whatever Happened to Chopper Howlett?
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. They produced wrestling programmes, posters and tickets.
In the ring, Mick McManus soon established himself as one of the most popular unpopular wrestlers in Britain. He wrestled exclusively on the Dale Martin circuit and from 1952, Joint Promotions. This incorporated Dale Martin’s south of England events with promoters further north. 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.
Wrestling on the Telly
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 in Shepherd’s Bush. 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 a 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. They didn’t actually fight very often but their feud became legendary. Their televised spat on the days of the 1963 and 1965 FA Cup Finals, was seen by more people (certainly more women) than the football. When Pallo retired, McManus continued feuding with his son, Jackie Junior.
Who killed William George Matthews?
In December 1965, William George Matthews changed his name by deed poll to Mick McManus.
Never being beaten on TV was part of the McManus legend. On January 14th, 1967, he turned up for a televised bout at Lime Grove Baths in west London. Word is, promoter Norman Morrell had a beef with McManus. Possibly it was 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 fighting 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 fitter, opponent. Eventually, Tony St Clair did beat McManus on TV a decade later. The crowd fully appreciated the drama of the event. Commentator Kent Walton remarked several times how quiet they were during the following bout between Tony Charles and Jamaican Ezzard Hart.
Peter Preston picked a peck of pickled problems…
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. Generally, his contemporaries didn’t much like McManus. But, despite the professional jealousy, other wrestlers had to agree that Mick didn’t let personal animosity get in the way of his wrestling.
McManus’s wrestling 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 Retires
Mick McManus finally retired from the ring on May 5th, 1982, at the age of 62. His final bout was at Bedworth Civic Hall against Catweazl, whose real name he shared with American film star, Gary Cooper. Televised three days later, it remains one of the most-watched wrestling matches on British 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. Mick had become an avid collector of porcelain, 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 an outer London 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.
Peter Blake draws a picture
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.”