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'."

Arts and Entertainment
Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham
Downton review

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
arts + entsFor a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
booksNew book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Arts and Entertainment

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
    Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

    How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

    'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

    Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

    Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
    Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

    Terry Venables column

    Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
    The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

    Michael Calvin's Inside Word

    Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past