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Giant Haystacks is dead. Long live wrestling

When Dave "Iron Duke" Lynch attended the funeral of Giant Haystacks earlier this month, many at the Salford graveside thought they had come to bury British wrestling. Haystacks, a brute of a figure standing nearly seven feet tall and weighing in at almost 50 stone, had been the bad man of the ring. During the sport's heyday in the Seventies, stars such as himself could pull in more viewers than Coronation Street and even, on one occasion, the FA Cup Final. Just a year before, the old-timers had bid a similar farewell to Big Daddy, Haystacks' great rival, the good guy in this pantomime. He was the wrestler whom the kids and the grannies loved to watch as he bounced opponents off his vast stomach.

The contrast at the funeral between past and present could not have been clearer. "We loved Giant Haystacks," recalls Lynch, "but here was this big, ugly fella being lowered down in this huge coffin by three of his sons. They were normal, good-looking lads about six foot tall. They could have been male models. Although no-one said it, everyone felt this was the end of an era."

The mourners were probably right. The death of traditional British wrestling, which many always suspected to be a thinly disguised joke, has been lingering for a decade, ever since it was dropped from its Saturday afternoon slot on ITV, just before the football results. The days when Kent Walton's screaming commentary created near hysteria in the nation's living rooms are long over - today, the only star left is Pat Roche, who as "Bomber", the wrestler in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, was fortunate in enjoying a television persona denied to his contemporaries starved of screen exposure.

Nevertheless, out of the current demise is springing an extraordinary revival. British wrestling looks set to be the latest craze. Partly the opportunity is there because the appetite for wrestling remains a relatively young one. Ask anyone between the ages of 20 and 45 about wrestling and, more than likely, their eyes will light up with nostalgia for a sport which fascinated many children of all classes, and then just seemed to disappear.

Typically, the names of Mick MacManus (a great grunter) and Kendo Nagasaki (the rather frightening man in the mask) still trip off the tongue. Then come happy thoughts of moves such as the Boston Crab and Half Nelson, which were practised repeatedly on younger siblings and which occupy the same memory space as Dr Who and Blue Peter. It is a space that remains unfilled in middle age, the sanitised Gladiators being a poor substitute.

If wrestling takes off again in 1999, it will also be because of new, ambitious talent, which can barely hide its contempt for the old-timers. Men such as Steve Knight, whose style and youthful good looks make him widely tipped for stardom as the David Beckham of the new era. He is just 23, 14 stone and 5ft10 tall. His cropped blond hair, blue eyes, muscular physique and a tan fresh from Tenerife combine to make him look very different from the great hulking wrestlers of the Seventies. More like Haystacks' sons than the giant himself. And, in the ring, you don't find this flying fighter embroiled in those boring battles of the Titans, in which two huge old blokes slugged it out, sitting on top of one another, grunting.

Oh no. Dressed in red and yellow leotard and boots, plus tasselled arms and legs, Knight is boyish and athletic, but with a ruthless streak. "I specialise in what I call the `Knight driver'," he says. "I pick a bloke up and put him on to my shoulders. Then I throw him off, face first, on to the floor in what is called a `power bomb'. The match always ends when that comes off."

Knight also knows how to talk about the sport and inspire an audience. There is, he says, much more skill and danger involved in the new style of wrestling. "To get yourself in with the crowd, it's no longer good enough just to bounce someone off your stomach. You have to go up on to the rope, jump from the top and backflip on to the concrete outside the ring, hopefully landing on your opponent.

Hopefully," he says. This is dangerous work. "Injuries? I've had plenty. I've broken ankles, arms, my nose three times and six of my fingers. But this is the type of thing you have to do if you are going to grab attention today." If the sport moves in the direction he favours, it will create heroes of men like him, admired by young male bodybuilders and salivated over by young women. The change may even be welcomed by wrestling's grannies, who in the old days could be spotted screaming at the ringside like the tricoteuses of the French Revolution, who sat knitting as the guillotine claimed another victim.

Steve Knight has been studying Japanese professional wrestling (different from sumo), which is the most successful in the world and much admired for its skill. But he has also watched as the televised American sport, with its razzmatazz and theatre, has made British wrestling look as dated as if Accrington Stanley were fielded to play Alex Ferguson's Manchester United.

He is not the only one with an eye on the future. A new breed of promoter promises to transform the way the sport is marketed. In October, the newly formed, British-based Ultimate Wrestling Alliance held its first event. Everyone in the business says that the show, held at a country club in Epping Forest, east of London, was a fresh departure from the sad events that pass for wrestling contests in Britain's windswept holiday camps.

There were pyrotechnics, lasers, and female models lavishly draped over the wrestlers. Thundering music announced their entry, contributing to a glamorous atmosphere which is commonplace for wrestling events in the States. It was a far cry from the days when a promoter put a few ads in the paper and waited for the crowds to turn up.

Most important, says Paul Martin, one of the partners in UWA, is that television cameras return to the British wrestling scene in February. TV is the oxygen of which the sport has been so deprived for a decade. The next show at London's Crystal Palace will be shown on the cable channel L!ve TV, and a deal for further promotions is under negotiation with Sky TV.

Paul Martin confesses that he knows little about wrestling. But given the sport's parlous state he, probably rightly, regards that particular lack of knowledge as a strength.

Martin comes from the world of concert promotion. He knows exactly what is needed to attract the new audience that wrestling needs - the young men and women who like to attend live gigs.

Additionally his business partner, Dan Berlinka, an American TV executive who spent four years working with the US World Wrestling Federation, is highly regarded and is also reckoned to know what turns an audience on to wrestling.

The deal is that the revival will use an American-style brash presentation. British wrestling will be distinctive because it will combine this razzmatazz with the type of skills normally seen only in Japan. So, forget Big Daddy and think of the likes of Naseem Hamed dominating the new wrestling world. Ross Hutchinson, of the wrestling fanzine, Sucker Punch, thinks a revival is just around the corner. "If people like Paul Martin keep their promises and stick with quality, then it's going to happen. This time, the audience has to feel that it is seeing the real thing. The trouble with the Giant Haystacks era was that if you market something as a joke then no-one will take it seriously."

Phil Powers is another of the would-be stars. Aged 24, with short dark hair, he is superbly fit and good-looking, billed as a favourite with young women and their mums. Like many of the upcoming stars he is based in the south-east, whereas old-style wrestlers like Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks were more often northerners. Powers is convinced that the new style of British wrestling, more athletic, more aggressive, with less of a Carry On image, needs the new, glitzy presentation if it is to take off. "If the greasy spoon was selling the finest caviar," he says, "it would not be appreciated in the same way as it is in a fine restaurant."

The trouble, of course, with engineering changes in fashion is that the future is guess work. For those awaiting a breakthrough, sticking with the current wrestling scene is an act of faith. At some events you can be lucky to clear pounds 50 or pounds 60 for a bout. There is, of course, the merchandising on top of that, pictures and T-shirts that people like Big Daddy hawked around long after they had ceased to compete. But the world of holiday camps, where a great deal of wrestling still takes place, is dismal. Especially when you realise that millions of people are watching American wrestling on satellite channels.

Earlier this month, more than 15,000 people were drawn to watch these American TV stars, live, on a rare visit to the London Docklands Arena. Even the hard man of British football, Vinnie Jones, was hired for one bout, playing an enforcer character. It was an event that made the likes of Paul Martin even more sure that a wrestling breakthrough is imminent.

Nevertheless, many people are going to be terribly disappointed if British wrestling throws away this last chance of a revival. Phil Powers works out every day, doing cross-country runs, gymnastics and swimming. But, newly married with two step-children and a baby of his own, he has had to take a job working in a warehouse for a parcel delivery company to get by.

In a couple of years, Phil Powers could be a household name, and rich - or he may still be a nobody. "I would have given up but for the UWA," he confesses. "Now I'm going to give wrestling two more years," he says hopefully. "After that, if it doesn't work out, I'm going back to school, on to university and I'm going to get a proper career. If a revival doesn't happen now, then maybe it's time wrestling went the way of Giant Haystacks and Big Daddy and was laid to rest."

"Iron Duke" Lynch is convinced that Phil Powers will get his big break. At 31, looking threatening with his blond mohican, shaven at the sides, he has kept the faith through the hard times. He even has to put up his own ring for some events. Unable to make a full-time living from boxing, he makes ends meet playing villains and thugs as a TV extra.

Despite all of this, a man who just said farewell to Giant Haystacks is full of hope. "You can look at Britain, and the lack of televised British matches, and say wrestling is dead here. And then you see how well the sport is doing in America, thanks to being on the box and you say to yourself, `That can work here, too'."