wrestlemania The heroes of Ulster wrestling reveal their secrets in new book
In Falls, Brawls and Town Halls, by Nick Campbell, George 'Lone Wolf' Crothers refelcts on his scrapes with the like of Giant Haystacks
The kings of the wrestling ring are celebrating their glory days in a new book about the sport in Northern Ireland.
Fan, promoter and writer Nick Campbell has been ringside with some of the heroes of local wrestling for Falls, Brawls and Town Halls.
With glamorous names like Whirlwind Monroe, Diamond Shondell and Ricky Valentine, they entertained fans with energetic fights and bouts with legends like Giant Haystacks pulled in thousands of people.
The local wrestling scene also created TV sports stars like Eddie 'Kung Fu' Hamill and Dave 'Fit Finlay', who started out in Belfast as Young Apollo, trained by wrestler dad Dave Snr, and became a WCW and WWE legend.
And it may have been fake, but they fought hard to put on a show, says former star George 'Lone Wolf' Crothers.
He'll be at a reunion of wrestling icons in the Lansdowne Hotel in Belfast today, with former fighters ranging in age from their late sixties to early nineties.
They were part of the wave of popularity on ITV's World of Sport when pro wrestling bouts were a Saturday afternoon highlight.
In the ring they were sworn enemies fighting to win, but in reality they were pals who knew how to put on a good show. They trained hard, fought hard and learned when to pull their punches.
"Before my first fight I was taken aside and told it was all for show," says George.
"The promoter told you before a fight who was going to win, so if he said you were going through the ropes in the fifth round you worked out how to do it.
"I remember being in the ring with Darkie Arnott when we were in a hold and he whispered in my ear, 'go easy on me Geordie, I've just had a stent put in.'"
Noel Arnott is now Ireland's oldest living wrestler, at 92.
Their performances were often so good the volunteer paramedics thought they'd been badly injured, and the audience took it very seriously if they felt their favourite wrestler had been wronged.
"I went out of the ring in one fight and landed on concrete, which looked bad," says George, now 74.
"I was fine, but the St John's Ambulance crew wrapped me up like a mummy and took me to hospital. As soon as they unwrapped me, I told them I was OK and went home.
"I remember wrestling Diamond Shondell, and he mistimed a move with his knee and cut my eye.
"When we went into the hold, I told him to work the cut, so he did, and there was blood everywhere.
"When we were coming off my wife's friend took off her cork-heeled shoe and hit him round the head with it. He came off worse than me."
In the mid-seventies George, who worked closely with promoter Henry Shirlow, also built the ring in which many of the bouts took place, welded together from pieces of five-inch pipe. On match nights he'd often assemble the ring, put out the chairs, fight, and then pack everything up again.
He has fond memories of TV legend Giant Haystacks, whose real name was Martin Ruane with roots in Mayo, a huge TV star who packed out venues in Northern Ireland.
At seven feet tall and weighing nearly 50 stone at his heaviest, his bouts with Big Daddy, real name Shirley Crabtree, were TV gold.
"Giant Haystacks came over to fight and we took him to a party, and he was chinning the gin all night. He fell asleep and he was so big we couldn't move him. We had to leave him there," says George.
"He was a decent man. I was with him in Kilkeel one night and he was trying to get the lid off a bottle. He couldn't do it, so he handed it to me, and I took the cap off. I gave it back to him and he said, 'I'm just a big lump of lard.'"
The former electrician, who now uses a wheelchair following back surgery, says he got the ultimate prize from his fighting days. During a bout in Portrush he came out of the ring and landed in a young woman's lap. He bought her a drink afterwards to apologise and over 40 years later he and wife Isobel have a family of five.
Author Nick, who has organised wrestling shows across Northern Ireland, has traced the history of the sport locally going back to the 1930s.
He says the former stars of the ring had to be super-fit and wrestling drew the crowds for years.
"Wrestling now and then is so different and they had to be tough men.
"Thousands of people would turn up to fights because live entertainment was huge.
"Eventually it faded away as the wrestlers moved on and the promoters stopped promoting, and the American scene took over. There is still a wrestling scene here, but it will never be as big as it was back then."
He spent two years exhaustively researching the history of the sport in Northern Ireland, starting with Kung Fu and the Finlay family, and then tracking down other former stars of the ring.
They were keen to share their stories, including tales of Giant Haystacks.
"One night he was coming back from a wrestling event with some of the other wrestlers when the soldiers stopped them and asked him to get out of the car," says Nick.
"He told them 'if I get out of the car I can't get back in again.'
"The story was that he was so big the man who owned the car had to replace the seat because he destroyed it."
Nick (30) says he's too young to have seen any of the wrestlers fight but he's glad to share their stories.
"When I was growing up all my favourite wrestlers were American stars. Now my favourites wrestlers are guys I never got to see live.
"I'm happy they gave me their time, and to share this hidden heritage of Northern Ireland," he says.
Falls, Brawls and Town Halls by Nick Campbell is available on Amazon.
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