Orig Williams: Wrestler known as 'El Bandito'

When the death of the wrestler Orig Williams was announced on Radio Cymru's mid-day news programme Taro'r Post on 12 November the phone-lines were kept busy for nearly an hour by listeners wanting to share their memories of a much-loved character.

Known as El Bandito, he had entertained wrestling fans for 40 years with his burly physique, Zapata-style moustache and flamboyant showmanship in the ring. He would hurl himself at his opponents with such devastating effect they fell like ninepins and, up close, delivered punishing blows with what seemed to be real relish.

He was tough, mighty tough, and not averse to pitting his physical prowess against opponents with all the tricks in his repertoire. It was said he liked hurting them, his foot-stomps compared with being hit by a concrete block. Billed as one of "the best villains in the business", he had a mean streak that often served him in good stead against men with more experience but less stamina and inventiveness.

He was also a footballer who had played for Dyffryn Nantlle, Oldham Athletic and Shrewsbury Town, where he held the record for the number of red cards in a season. On one famous occasion the Prestatyn goalkeeper walked off the field in protest against Williams's rough tactics. Whenever one of his side's players took a tumble he would say of the perpetrator, "Leave him to me!", and within minutes there would be cries of "Foul!" He had to retire from the game after an injury received during one such bruising encounter.

For all his reputation as a wild man in the ring and "dirty" player on the football field, Orig Williams was a gentle man whose greatest pleasure was in reading poetry and putting the world to rights in a quiet pub, especially in Ireland. He had great admiration for the Irish and named his daughter, a talented singer and actor, Tara Bethan; she was a contender for the part of Nancy in the programme I'd do Anything. Among the poets he often quoted was Cynan, who wrote some of the finest lyrics in the Welsh language, which was always close to his heart. His private persona was calm, reflective, and fundamentally serious, especially about the claims of Wales to be a nation with its own unique culture and right to govern itself.

Wherever he went, and he wrestled in about 30 countries, he wore the Welsh colours and sported the Red Dragon flag; when he came to publish his autobiography in 1985 he gave it the title Cario'r Ddraig (Carrying the Dragon). He was given the sobriquet El Bandito while wrestling in America, where he was first taken to be a Mexican on account of his trademark moustache. The highlight of his career was when he wrestled the legendary Bholu Brothers in Pakistan, men who were treated like gods but who accepted him as their equal. He spent several years in their country and was at his happiest there.

Orig Williams was firmly rooted in the Welsh-speaking society into which he had been born in 1931. He always returned from his trips abroad to the small village of Ysbyty Ifan, near Betws-y-coed, where he had been born, but after his marriage in 1983 he settled in Llanfair Talhaearn, to be nearer his promotions business in Rhyl. At Llanrwst Grammar School he excelled at sport and kept fit by running six miles a day. He learned to box when, at the age of 10, the journalist Terry Lloyd, who was serving in the RAF, brought home the first pair of gloves to be seen in Ysbyty Ifan and let the village boys try them on.

Orig's first opponents were Liverpool evacuees, who were even tougher than he was. "They couldn't speak Welsh," he recalled, "and we couldn't speak English, so fighting came naturally to us." His first appearances in the ring were at Ffair y Borth, the fair held in Porthaethwy/Menai Bridge, where he soon learned how to take care of himself and win monetary prizes. He continued to box after being called up for military service with the RAF in 1949.

It was the rough-and-tumble of the Fair which he brought to the series Reslo; when screened on S4C in the 1980s, the show boosted the channel's ratings and made El Bandito a household name, a folk hero even, in Wales. He went on to promote cage matches, pole matches and even women wrestlers such as Tina Starr, Rusty Blair, Carla Sanchez and Bella Ogunlana. Among the male wrestlers who worked for him were Adrian Street, Mighty John Quinn, Tommy St Clair, Mark Rosco and Johnny Saint.

Some viewers were appalled by the apparent violence that took place in the ring, and the debate raged as to whether the wrestlers were really using physical force to poleaxe and pin down their opponents or whether it was all just a show which would have been balletic if it hadn't been so physical. He repaid his debt to Welsh audiences by organising charity wrestling matches for the youth organisation Urdd Gobaith Cymru and the Welsh Schools movement. El Bandito was the Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks of Wales.

Outspoken in his non-PC political views, which ranged broadly to take in foreign affairs and the world of sport from hurley to the Olympic Games, he wrote a much-read column in the Daily Post, "Siarad Plaen" ("Plain speaking") in which he displayed journalistic skills of a high order. He was anxious to take Wales and the Welsh to the wider world and, although keenly committed to the principle of self-government, urged his compatriots to broaden their horizons in order to see their country in a clearer light. He often expressed frustration that they didn't share his sunny confidence in the ability of the Welsh people. His own heroes were the patriots of the Welsh pantheon such as Owain Glyndwr and Gwynfor Evans.

A big-hearted man, hospitable and generous to all who asked for his help, he was also an astute businessman who understood what the crowd wanted and had no hesitation in providing it: entertainment, with a villain to boo and a hero to cheer, slogging it out on a canvas square. Yet he was, too, a family man, literate and cultured, and with a social conscience, a rare combination for which he will long be remembered.

Meic Stephens

Orig Williams, wrestler known as El Bandito: born Ysbyty Ifan, Denbighshire 20 March 1931; married 1983 Wendy Young (one daughter); died St Asaph, Clwyd 12 November 2009.