It is rather apt that on the week I decide to start my project that such huge news would have been announced relating to “World of Sport”. Amongst a wave of nostalgia that includes reboots of The Crystal Maze and Robot Wars amongst others, Wrestling on terrestrial TV is back.
Not much is known about the returning show- other than the fact it is being taped on the 1st of November at ITV studios. One thing for sure though, is that it is the current state of the Wrestling industry in this country that has forced a major rethink from the bigwigs at ITV.
For it was only 25+ years ago that Wrestling was deemed “low-brow” working class entertainment that had to be axed in order for ITV’s image to appeal to upper class audiences.
So, to truly understand how far the industry has come, we must go back to September 28, 1985- the day World of Sport was cancelled…
The popular programme had been a mainstay of ITV’s sporting schedule since 1965. Presented by the enigmatic Dickie Davies, the show featured a plethora of sports including Football, Horse Racing, Darts, Snooker and of course Wrestling. In fact, Wrestling had its own timeslot- 4pm to 4.45pm, straight after the half-time football results. The decision to grant Wrestling its own timeslot was of major benefit to both parties. Television allowed the Wrestlers to become household names, which as a consequence allowed the promoters to run more live shows. In turn, Wrestling brought huge TV audiences to ITV, once actually beating the FA Cup Final, with the wrestling audience at 16m viewers compared to 12m for the football.
By the mid 1980s however, Wrestling was on its knees. Joint Promotions- which held the elusive World of Sport timeslot- had based their entire company on the shoulders of one man. Big Daddy. Daddy, the alter ego of Shirley Crabtree, was an overweight man in his 40s who had grown in popularity in the late 70s to become the biggest and arguably most controversial figure in British Wrestling history. His brother, Max Crabtree, was the booker of the promotion and had no problem pushing Daddy as the biggest star in the company. It worked to great success initially, with Daddy attracting huge audiences everywhere he went, with his most famous match coming against Giant Haystacks in 1981 at Wembley Arena.
Eventually though, like every great wrestler, his stardom began to wane. His matches had become all too predictable, with younger fitter wrestlers tasked to partake in the majority of his tag-team bouts, before Daddy was tagged in, and then hit his iconic splash for the pinfall. Many of these ‘younger, fitter wrestlers’ become disenfranchised with Max Crabtree and Joint Promotions- opting to jump ship to gain more exposure. A number of them moved to rival promotion All Star Wrestling- run by Merseyside promoter Brian Dixon. These included title holders such as Tony St Clair, Mark ‘Rollerball’ Rocco and Johnny Saint amongst established stars such as Kendo Nagasaki, Fit Finlay and Steven Regal. Some, such as Dynamite Kid, Chris Adams and Davey Boy Smith moved abroad to far-flung places such as Texas and Canada to gain a foothold in the industry.
So when the news came that World of Sport was to be taken off the air, it sounded the beginning of the end for Max Crabtree and his already fledging promotion. World of Sport was to be replaced by a standalone Wrestling show, however the timeslot was not guaranteed, regularly changing from week to week, and slowly but surely driving away the traditional viewing audience. Then just a year later, disaster struck for Crabtree again, as his deal with ITV ended and Joint Promotions was forced to share their TV rights as part of a rotation system with Brian Dixon’s All Star Promotions and America’s WWF. This exposure to the flashy, big budget, faster paced style of the WWF was pinpointed as the final death knell for British Wrestling. Certainly it didn’t help that both All Star and Joint were limited with harsh restrictions placed on them by the broadcasting regulators.
Things got even worse for Max Crabtree when his biggest star, Big Daddy, was blamed for the death of fellow wrestler Mal ‘King Kong’ Kirk in 24 August 1987. Kirk lay unconscious in the ring as a result of a splash from Daddy and latter died from a heart attack after being taken to a local hospital. The press jumped on this story and tore apart the kind child loving image of Daddy, that had been carefully crafted in the years previously. It wasn’t the first time the press had it in for Daddy- just a few years previously he was exposed by his former tag-team partner Tony ‘Banger’ Walsh in a tell-all interview with The Sun.
Later that year, Brian Dixon’s All Star Wrestling- which had taken over Joint’s mantle as the number 1 promotion in the UK- ran into their own set of difficulties. In order to appeal to a younger audience and stay relevant, they had attempted to imitate the style of the ultra flashy, popular WWF. Their attempts, however, were utterly laughable and disastrous in the long run. In their infinite wisdom, they had conceived the idea of a “Gold Disco ladder match” that took place December 1987. Held in a London nightclub, the aim of the match was to unhook and collect a gold disc which was suspended above the ring. Both competitors, Kendo Nagasaki and Clive Myers, wrestled for roughly seven minutes, climbing ladders wrapped in tinsel whilst cheesy disco music played in the background accompanied by equally cheesy disco lights. As you can see for yourself, this match was an absurd mess and crystallizes the real difficulties promotions in the UK had in competing with their American cousins.
And so it happened, the final nail in British Wrestling’s coffin came to pass in 1988, as the sport was axed from terrestrial TV by Greg Dyke. The decision was made for a number of reasons. Firstly, ITV were going through an image change at the time. They wanted to appeal to the upper classes in order to attract bigger advertisement deals. Wrestling’s audience was traditionally working class- so even though the TV ratings were still in the millions, the money it got from advertisements was paltry to say the least. Both Snooker and Darts faced the same issues, though it was these sports that were saved whilst Wrestling went to the scrap-heap. Of course, the industry didn’t help itself. The failure to create new stars and innovate in the face of the threat from the American WWF contributed to Dyke’s decision. But one only needs to look at the state of Darts in the late 80s, and its subsequent turnaround to see that British Wrestling perhaps could have been saved.
The next edition of the history series will look at the ‘American Invasion’- detailing how WWF grew to become the number 1 promotion in the country, it’s influence on the UK wrestling style and how it impacted both Joint Promotions and All Star.