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Obituary: Giant Haystacks

"I LIKE to drive wherever I can," Giant Haystacks once said. "The car is my thinking place - I work it all out there, away from the wife and children. I'm a total loner. I travel alone, I wrestle alone. I look after myself, I don't need friends. I could fly but I'm not comfortable on a plane. I always book the seats at the back of an aircraft, I ask them to keep one spare beside me. But I always end up next to one little old lady, smoking away, and then you get aggravation - `Aren't you this Giant fellow?' "

Weighing in at around 49 stones in his pomp, Martin Ruane could not deny he was that fellow, but it was a larger-than-life image he never found easy to deal with in the real world. It was not as easy as being Giant Haystacks in the make-believe world of all-in wrestling, where he would throw all-comers to the canvas before finishing them off with a hideous bellyflop as spectators and millions of television viewers gasped their disapproval.

In this pantomime act, Giant Haystacks was the one everyone loved to hate but, according to those who claimed to know him, Ruane was a kind, intelligent, deeply religious man devoted to his wife, Rita, whom he met as a teenager and with whom he brought up their three sons.

Ruane himself was born in London to Irish parents but grew up in Salford, near Manchester. After leaving St Thomas's School at the age of 14 - not long before reaching his full height of 6ft 11in - he worked in a timber factory and a tyre firm, drove heavy goods vehicles and, almost inevitably, was a nightclub bouncer before he drifted into the ring in his early twenties.

In Simon Garfield's recent book The Wrestling, Brian Dixon, a promoter, recalls:

We needed a giant. I gave him the name Haystack Colhoun - I'd seen the name in an American magazine. Then we came up with Haystacks. It seemed fitting at the time. People get sick of him but they still come and see him. He's such a huge man - people are mesmerised by him.

Garfield himself claimed that, of all the wrestlers he had interviewed, Giant Haystacks was the only one he ever felt scared of.

Big Daddy, who died a year ago, was the people's favourite in the Seventies and early Eighties when as many as 16 million viewers would tune in to wrestling on ITV's World of Sport on a Saturday afternoon. But no bout was ever quite the same if Giant Haystacks was not on the bill.

Even the Queen was apparently a great fan, as Richard Crossman recorded in his Diaries of a Cabinet Minister. In describing a Giant Haystacks match she had seen, Crossman said the Queen was "writhing herself, twisting and turning, completely relaxed. It was quite an eye-opener to see how she enjoyed it." Ruane himself was fond of talking about his friendship with Paul McCartney after the former Beatle had given Ruane a part in one of his films.

"He would sit with me on and off the set," Ruane said. "He used to watch the wrestling regularly. He came to see me many times when I wrestled in Sussex. He used to bring his son and when we were in London he would take my lad Martin into town playing the pinball machines."

Another of his favourite stories concerned Frank Sinatra. "I went to see him sing at the Albert Hall," Ruane explained. "Because I wrestled there many times I knew the way out under the stage. I passed him in the corridor, with his two bodyguards, and he said to me, `Mr Haystacks, I watched you on television this afternoon. I believe that British wrestlers are the best entertainers in the whole world.' We exchanged pleasantries and he gave me his autograph." Perhaps it should have been the other way round.

To those who know little of wrestling this might seem far-fetched, but in an arena where the disc jockey Jimmy Savile, the show-jumper Harvey Smith and the film star Burt Lancaster all found themselves at one time or another, nothing is quite as it seems. Even Sinatra once managed an American wrestler by the name of Sky High Lee.

When wrestling was finally axed from the ITV schedules 10 years ago, it effectively brought the curtain down on the careers of Giant Haystacks, Mick McManus, Big Daddy and the masked man, Kendo Nagasaki, whom Giant Haystacks once famously fought. "Nagasaki was my most formidable opponent," he later said. "A very good wrestler, an opponent to be in awe of."

Ruane never amassed a fortune. "At my peak, with all the huge expenses, I never cleared much more than pounds 600 a week," he said in an interview shortly before his death. He tried his hand as a debt collector back in Manchester and sold cars, but after an operation to help his knees carry the load he re-emerged in wrestling two years ago, as the Loch Ness Monster, on the other side of the Atlantic. Shortly afterwards, he contracted lymphoma.

Giant Haystacks won his fight with Kendo Nagasaki but was disqualified for tearing off Nagasaki's sacred mask, and while it is hard to paint an accurate picture of an essentially private man who, as Giant Haystacks, bestrode such a mysterious world, the impression remains that Ruane himself would have liked the chance to tear his own mask off from time to time. As it is, and to a whole generation, he was and always will be the one and only Giant Haystacks.

Martin Ruane ("Giant Hay-stacks"), wrestler: born London 10 October 1946; married 1965 Rita Boylan (three sons); died Prestwich, Greater Manchester 29 November 1998.