Obituary: Big Daddy
Wednesday 03 December 1997
With wrestling now banished to the satellite ghetto of Sky and Eurosport, it's hard to remember a time when the sport was very much a part of the terrestrial schedules. Yet in the late Seventies and early Eighties, the wrestler Big Daddy became a star on ITV's World of Sport. Before ram-raiding and computer games, many a British child spent a not so wholesome Saturday afternoon egging on the leotard-clad Big Daddy as he ditched his glittering cape and top hat before taking on such rivals as Giant Haystacks and Mick McManus.
"Big Daddy" was born Shirley Crabtree in Halifax. According to some accounts, his grandmother picked "Shirley" from the eponymous novel by Charlotte Bronte for his father, who was also a professional wrestler, and seemed to have thought the name character-building.
In any event, the young Crabtree soon had to contend with schoolmates calling him Shirley Temple. He fought them off, built his impressive physique, became a miner, and took up rugby like his father. Shirley junior played for Bradford Northern but his temper was already getting the better of him and he never made the first team.
With his brothers Brian and Max, he became a lifeguard at Blackpool. By the mid-Fifties the Crabtree brothers were all following in their father's footsteps and had taken up wrestling. At first, Shirley used his real name but he would also sometimes be billed as "The Blond Adonis", "Mr Universe" or "The Battling Guardsman" (he had briefly served in the Coldstream Guards).
The Big Daddy persona only came to him in 1976 after he saw Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the Richard Brooks film of the Tennessee Williams play. Seduced by the way Elizabeth Taylor referred to the Burl Ives character as Big Daddy, Shirley took up the stage name (in the mid-Eighties, an American novelty band also adopted the Big Daddy monicker).
His second wife Eunice added an unexpected touch by fashioning her husband a shiny leotard made out of their chintz sofa. A big "D" and a few stars completed the brand new Big Daddy look. The crowds loved it from the word go. Wrestling had become more of a spectacle than a sport with fights no more than cunning stunts carefully choreographed beforehand. Youngsters and grannies alike bought into the show-biz myth, and soon Big Daddy and his various partners and opponents were attracting huge television audiences.
Weighing in at 26 stone and with the biggest chest in Britain (it was listed in The Guinness Book of Records as 64 inches), Big Daddy came on stage to a big fanfare. Playing the good guy or "blue eye", he soon demolished opponents with "The Splash", a move which required him to use his huge tummy to flatten his opponent. This momentous climax to a tag proved extremely popular and guaranteed his notoriety. Crowds would take up his chant of "Easy!"
He advertised tomato ketchup on television, appeared on Surprise, Surprise, featured on This is Your Life, was interviewed by Terry Wogan, had his own fan club and did a lot of charity work especially with children. The Queen and Margaret Thatcher declared themselves fans.
The second half of the Eighties were, however, less kind to Big Daddy. On his doctor's advice he turned down a children's television series which would have made him a household name and opened new horizons (the late Brian Glover, also a former wrestler, had made a successful transition into acting with an appearance in the film Kes).
In 1985, Tony "Banger" Walsh blew the whistle on wrestling, giving away some of the sport's secrets in a tabloid newspaper. However, on 23 August 1987, a bout between Big Daddy and Mal "King Kong" Kirk went dreadfully wrong at the Hippodrome, Great Yarmouth. Following Big Daddy's infamous Splash, his rival groaned and turned purple. He was pronounced dead on arrival at the town's hospital.
The ensuing coroner's inquest cleared Big Daddy and stressed that Kirk had a serious heart condition which could have proved fatal at any time, especially given his profession.
Still, Big Daddy blamed himself for the mock-asphyxiation's going wrong and retired from wrestling. The following year, British wrestling, judged too downmarket by the television scheduler Greg Dyke, vanished from the screens. Big Daddy concentrated on running his own gym. He would often walk along the Blackpool coast and muse on what might have been.
Sir Jimmy Savile, the DJ and television presenter who is himself a former wrestler, paid a fond tribute to Big Daddy. "He was a big, beautiful fellow, and though I never actually fought him - because he was super heavyweight and I was catchweight - in the Sixties, I was often on the same bill . . . it was always a joy because the crowd would be in super-good humour but more importantly the atmosphere in the dressing room was magic with him around.
"As two Yorkshire lads, we used to terrorise everyone. It was a laugh a minute. He had this great booming laugh and all the rest of us could do in the ring was hope and pray."
- Pierre Perrone
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