Since the news was released recently that I would be making another trip to the United Kingdom in October, I've realized just how many "firsts" are left for me to accomplish in England. On my previous tour, in 2014, I knocked quite a few things off my bucket list, specifically performing for the first time outside North America, which was a first for my thirty-plus year career because of my well-known aversion to flying. Why am I coming back for more, risking life, limb and a nervous breakdown by closing myself up with complete strangers in a metal tube going 500 miles per hour five miles in the air? Well, I'd be lying if I said the financial arrangements didn't play a part, but as I told the representatives of What Culture, they're paying me to make the trip, and I'm doing the work for free while I'm there.
Because THIS time, I get to cross several important things off that bucket list. I get to go on stage in a major world city, London, England, and tell stories with one of my oldest friends, Jim Ross, on October 5th. On October 6th in Newcastle, the best announcing team I've ever been a part of is reunited for the first time in almost 20 years when I call the Refuse To Lose iPPV with JR. And, probably most importantly, on both the 6th and again on October 8th in Manchester, I get to be a part of a British Wrestling event, just a mere 43 years after I saw my first British wrestler!
On my first trip over a few years ago, I did live Jim Cornette Experiences, one man spoken word/Q&A events, as well as a wrestling school seminar and several appearances on television, but I wasn't a part of an actual wrestling event on British soil. So it was just too good to refuse doing that whilst being reunited with JR at the same time. Even though the British wrestling landscape has changed every bit as dramatically as the one in the States over the past 30 or 40 years, doing these events will help me rediscover my inner teenage wrestling fan--in fact it already has.
This series of events will feature not only some of the top names on the American scene--Kurt Angle, Cody Rhodes, and Jay Lethal, to name a few--but also current superstars that headline the UK cards. I look forward to seeing many of them in person for the first time, or getting to see folks I'm familiar with, like the great Doug Williams, again. But in my heart of hearts, I think of names like Billy Robinson, Mark Rocco, or my very first favorite English wrestler, Johnny Eagles.
It was all the way back in 1973 that I first developed an affinity for the British style of grappling, and it was due to Johnny Eagles. A top man, yes, but probably not the biggest star on the British scene for much of the 1960's, Johnny Eagles decided to follow in the footsteps of Robinson and other top British grapplers and tour the United States for a lengthy period. He had good, solid runs in places like Leroy McGuirk's Oklahoma/Louisiana territory and the Pacific Northwest in the 1970's. But he became an instant star, and landed directly in main event programs, in the Tennessee territory of Nick Gulas and Roy Welch in Spring 1973. This was where I first saw him on TV, and discovered a whole new style of wrestling.
Eagles' gimmick was that of a "Man of A Thousand Holds", and it was pushed heavily that not only did he know every wrestling hold that existed, he also knew how to escape each one of them. There weren't a lot of scientific wrestling technicians working the territory at the time, when it was heavily tag team oriented and featured the old Southern style of heat, brawling, blood and stipulations. Johnny, just exhibiting his World Of Sport style moves and counters, looked like a wrestling machine. Robinson was doing the same thing in the AWA for Verne Gagne, but in those pre-cable days Minnesota might as well have been the moon from my TV set in Kentucky. These were the coolest rasslin' moves an 11 year old kid had ever seen, and the fact that the opponents had no idea what Eagles was doing til he did it was the kicker. I was hooked on this fancy wrestling style.
Of course, in a case of timing being everything, while Eagles' British wrestling approach is what got him over with me, and most of the other kids, the adults--especially the women--loved him because of a bizarre coincidence. Facially AND physically, he so resembled local top babyface Eddie Marlin that on his first appearances, the fans began insisting among themselves that Johnny Eagles was really Eddie's "cousin from England". He actually looked a lot more like Marlin than Eddie's REAL brother, Thomas, who refereed and sometimes wrestled in the area. After a few weeks of being billed as Johnny "Eagles" Marlin in deference to the fans' insistence, he was just Johnny Marlin for the rest of his run. Featured in many main events and grudge 6 man tags defending the Marlin family honor, after a strong eight month run he was gone by early 1974. For whatever reason, he never returned to visit his Tennessee "cousins", and never appeared in the territory again. But he helped establish, along with newstand wrestling magazine articles on the likes of Robinson, Les Thornton and more, that British wrestlers were known to be the best at technical wrestling.
This perception was bolstered the first time I saw the "Welsh Wizard", Tony Charles. Charles came to the US in 1973 and worked pretty much every territory from Tennessee to Florida to Texas over the next decade. He had several runs in midcard to top positions for Gulas & Welch and later Jerry Jarrett, and his bouts were always fast paced and exciting. A squat fireplug of a man at barely 5'7" and over 200 well muscled pounds, Tony had incredible cardio conditioning and a nose that had been smeared all over his face--you could tell he was a salty bastard by looking at him. In addition to his dropkicks and flying, he made mat wrestling look real, like a struggle, in an almost effortless way.
Another top man in the US was Les Thornton. He spent quite a bit of time holding the NWA World Junior Heavyweight Championship in the last years that title was still respected and taken seriously, and like Charles, he worked every Southern territory at one time or another. Seeing either of them on a card was a treat, but it all came together when I first saw Billy Robinson. That's when I was able to really grasp what the British style was, and how good it could be when executed by a master.
Bear in mind that toward the end of 1979, the VCR and home taping had just become a thing, really just becoming available to many consumers that summer. I had read about Billy Robinson being considered the greatest technical wrestler in the world in the AWA, and his long rivalry with Verne Gagne, but I had never even seen a film clip until he came to work for Jerry Jarrett in Fall 1979. To be honest, at first Billy Robinson fit the Memphis territory like a screen door on a submarine.
Not only did no heels in the area at the time wrestle anything resembling Robinson's style, which meant all his matchups were style clashes, but Billy was not a fire and brimstone promo as most of the top talent--face OR heel--were at the time. The fans were educated that the main event, money matches were done in Jerry Lawler's style, a cross between a movie fight scene done in one take before a live audience and a street brawl. But Billy's run in the territory picked up and produced two highlights because of, once again, timing and coincidence.
Jarrett was trying to establish a World Championship called the CWA Title as a belt for Lawler, since he had challenged unsuccessfully for the NWA and AWA Titles for so long. He brought in Superstar Billy Graham to lose that belt to Lawler. When Lawler suffered a broken leg in a football game, Jarrett needed someone with a national name and reputation who could compare with the other league's titleholders--and Billy Robinson was the man.
Having matches against both faces and heels in defense of the World Title, and being able to use a bit of his natural arrogance on his promos as a "fighting champion" brought out the best in Robinson, and he got an opponent who could carry his end of the contest when he wrestled a series against top babyface Bill "Superstar" Dundee.
Robinson may have drawn a lot more money in the early 70's with Verne Gagne, but the best matches I ever saw him wrestle were against Bill Dundee in 1980. Dundee, having spent his first decade in wrestling either working for or being influenced by Jim Barnett's World Championship Wrestling in Australia, then the following five years in Memphis, wasn't normally a practitioner of the British style. But with all that experience, Dundee HAD wrestled a number of the top stars, as well as someone of nearly every style. Dundee could have a movie fight with Lawler and sell out the Coliseum, work a classic American style match with Nelson Royal for the World Junior Heavyweight Tiotle, or tear down the house with Robinson using World of Sport tactics. The two guys just meshed.
Of course it may not have felt like it to Dundee at the time. I remember several of their matches going to just under 40 minutes of hard wrestling at a brisk pace. As well as the pretty rollups and counters, they battered each other with stiff forearms, Dundee's high-flying and big bumps, and Robinson's aggressive offense. Robinson uncorked more than one of his trademark, deadly-looking over the knee backbreakers, which no one has matched since. After one such match in Louisville, Dundee, around 35 at the time, and known for ridiculous cardio, looked blown up for maybe the only time ever. Robinson, 42 at the time and with about 30 pounds more bodyweight, was breathing normally and waving his belt at the fans. To show how all things are relative, an old man of about 60 who had been going to wrestling in Louisville for decades screamed at Robinson, "You ain't shit! Lou Thesz woulda kicked your ass!"
Before Robinson left the area, by happenstance Tony Charles returned. The CWA Title experiment had already folded up, but Robinson and Charles worked a midcard program that they had done in other territories like Florida. They met in a purely scientific, babyface match and went to a ten minute draw. They returned the next week with a fifteen minute stalemate, with Robinson getting frustrated. Finally, a 20 minute time limit match would follow, where Robinson would finally lose his temper and screw Charles, or perhaps Charles would gain a quick rollup after a heel tactic failed, depending on the place and time.
These matches were not only pure British style featuring two salty, middle aged shooters grappling at a high level and going after each other with gusto, but the holds, counters, rollthroughs and reversals they used are pretty much the blueprint for the matwrestling that is taught in American schools today. They established certain moves and concepts as being the pinnacle of technical wrestling to the point that all of the modern generations' ground game is either an adaptation, an homage, or an outright steal of what Robinson and Charles were doing. However, seldom has the two men's ability to make these moves look like a contest and not an exhibition been duplicated. I always enjoyed watching these guys work, and I finally was able to see for myself what real British wrestling looked like.
Of course, the matwrestling of Robinson and Charles, pretty much a World of Sport match performed at a high level, stood out more in the States than it would have in Britain, but a couple more talents from the UK would help sell me once and for all on all European style wrestling--they'd just do it in Japan.
By 1981 I was able to get any wrestling I wanted on video tape, so I was able to see New Japan Pro Wrestling for the rise of Tiger Mask. Obviously, Tiger Mask's greatest rival was Tommy Billington, the Dynamite Kid. Tiger--at that point Satoru Sayama--had toured England before adopting the gimmick, and was a once-in-a-lifetime athlete. So, for that matter, was Dynamite. They incorporated all the styles of pro wrestling in the world into the best in-ring matches on the planet, and in doing so made some World of Sport moves iconic. I was a huge mark for Dynamite in his New Japan days, not so much later in his WWF run when he had to bulk up more and wrestle less to fit in. Tiger Mask and Dynamite accomplished in their matches what so few, like Flair and Steamboat, do when they push the envelope on "doing too much" but are able to execute it without losing semblence of a real contest.
But I always thought that Tiger Mask's next-best rival, and a very underrated one, was Black Tiger, "secretly" Mark "Rollerball" Rocco. Rocco's unorthodox style--you could tell by his bumps and offense why they called him "Rollerball"--was fascinating and different, but he also worked so hard, at such a pace, and had such exciting matches, I always looked forward to the next one. I knew I'd see something I had never seen before--in a good way.
By 1982 I had become a manager, and one of my first charges was none other than the "Exotic" Adrian Street, a British legend. Riding in the car with he and Miss Linda for the next four months was a great tutorial on the British wrestling scene, just listening to Adrian tell stories. Guys I have come to know like Steve Regal, Fit Finlay and Dave Taylor have kept the British style alive in the US and around the world. Like all wrestling, it's not as pure, as uniquely British, as it used to be, but the wrestling scene in the entire UK seems to be growing at a rate faster than in the States. I'm excited to finally get to see it in it's native habitat in October, and see all the fans and friends I met there last time again.
I just hope I'm not the disgruntled old man that walks up to Doug Williams and yells, "Hey, Doug! You ain't shit! Johnny Eagles woulda kicked your ass!"