Thursday, 5 February 2009
The gloves come off - and the show goes on.
The problem of how to get those elusive bums on ringside seats is one that has exercised the minds of wrestling promoters from the early days of the sport. The result has been a long catalogue of gimmicks, some more successful and certainly some more tasteful than others. Terrible Turks, Masked Marvels, midgets, tag wrestling, mud wrestling, even real wrestling, it's all been tried at some time or another.
An old favourite is the appearance in the ring of celebrities from some other sport or even show-biz. This is not as difficult to pull off as you might imagine and any skillful working wrestler should be able to make a reasonably agile novice look tolerably competent on the mat.
In British rings two of the more bizarre examples of cross-over celeb grapplers are show-jumper Harvey Smith and perennial DJ Jimmy Savile. In the States there has been a long tradition of former American Football stars turning to the mat game on retirement from the gridiron, Bronko Nagurski, Wayen Munn and Gus Sonnenburg being just three of the many ex football heroes recruited to the pro wrestling ranks.
By far the best draw has been famous ex-boxers and I can think of at least four former World Heavyweight Champions who have performed in the wrestling ring with varying degrees of success. The great Jack Dempsey had a go and seems to have been genuinely interested in wrestling as a fighting art. Joe Louis, perhaps the greatest heavyweight of all time, had a less happy introduction to the mat game. Forced into trying anything to earn enough to pay his back taxes, Louis was advised by doctors to call it a day after only a handful of matches. This must have come as a relief not only to the Brown Bomber but also to his army of loyal fans. Other fighters of the Joe Louis era who had a go at the grunt and groan business included Two Ton Tony Gallento, Jack Doyal and former world champ Jersey Joe Walcott.
Boxing writers have tended to lament the supposed humiliation of formerly great fighters being forced by financial circumstance to clown around in the wrestling ring. It's a fair point but the loss of dignity is no greater than the annual panto appearance, if not as much fun. The main thing is that today's boxers are far more savvy financially than those of yesteryear and more likely to retire with a large amount of their ring earnings intact.
In 1951 when our own Randy Turpin outpointed the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson to win the World Middleweight title few sitting in Earls Court that night can have suspected that ten years and twenty nine fights later Randy would be wrestling for fifty quid a show. Turpin was a wonderful boxer but not what you would call astute when it came to financial matters.
The story of Primo Carnera is one that professional boxing has little to be proud of. At six eight and twenty stone the former circus strong-man looked threatening enough but was a cumbersome and one dimensional fighter. None the less the amiable Italian giant met with some success in European rings and was eventually persuaded to try his luck in the States. The Ambling Alp as he was known soon fell into the hands of The Mob who were to manipulate Carnera's career for the rest of his stay in America. Probably no one will ever know the truth about Carnera's boxing record and how many opponents took a dive on instructions from the Mafia bosses. One way or another he ended up as Heavyweight Champion of the World before being thrown to the lions and destroyed by the hard hitting Max Baer who knocked the hapless giant to the canvas eleven times in as many rounds. Finally he was to receive another beating at the hands of the up and coming Joe Louis. His humiliation complete and his usefulness at an end Primo Carnera was returned to Italy; broke. The mob had swindled him out of most of his earnings.
The story might have ended here but in 1946 Primo returned to America this time to take up a career in wrestling. He was an instant hit. The fans loved him and not only did he earn good money but he was actually allowed to keep it. The wrestling provided a stepping stone into lucrative film work and Carnera was to appear in a number of movies including a major role with Diana Dors and Joe Robinson in A Kid For To Farthings, Carol Reed's tale of life and wrestling in the 50s East End. Whatever we may think about the dubious world of professional wrestling we have to be pleased that it was around to give Primo Carnera that most unusual of life experiences; a second bite of the cherry.