I have to start by saying – thank god for the revival of British Strong Style wrestling!
Not just because such a style is beautiful to watch, but because it opens a door on the history of British wrestling and gives the many talented grapplers of the old school a chance for fresh eyes to give them the recognition they truly deserve.
For British wrestling of the World of Sport-era (ITV aired wrestling on TV in Britain from 1955-1988) was not just about Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks bouncing bellies in increasingly tedious spectacles. At one time British wrestling boasted some of the greatest technicians in the world, equal to their counterparts in America and Japan.
Now, with the likes of veteran Johnny Saint appearing on WWE NXT UK and providing that link, the revival of British Strong Style and the profusion of matches now on YouTube for reassessment, the hope is that a whole new generation fans will recognize and celebrate the wealth of talent British wrestling had to offer in its original televised heyday.
So here are my selections for the ten best British wrestlers of the old school, World of Sport-era. My only criteria for this, outside of talent obviously, was that they had to at least be actively wrestling before the birth of Hammerlock Wrestling in 1993, a training school and promotion that led to the building of British wrestling’s next stage with the likes of the FWA laying the groundwork for what we have now (but that’s another story for another time!)
So, without further ado, here is my list of the Best of the British Old School!
The main man, and pound for pound my favourite British wrestler of all time. Marty Jones is, quite simply, the real deal. Looking for somewhere to channel his teenage aggression, he started to train with a certain Billy Robinson in amateur wrestling – so you know he was someone you messed with at your peril!
Having traveled all over the world and wrestled in places such as Mexico, Japan and Germany, Marty learnt a versatility of style that gave him of the advantage of being able to adapt and put on a great match with everyone from heavyweight to lightweight athletes.
But he is perhaps known best for a tough, hard hitting Catch wrestling style that, to put it in perspective, saw him be appreciated enough in Japan to be offered a place in the UW, the shoot-style spin off from New Japan started by the original Tiger Mask, Satoru Sayama (who had also wrestled in Britain as ‘Sammy Lee’). As we know, you don’t get accepted into the shoot communities of Japan unless you’ve really got something about you. Jones was the real deal.
He was also surprisingly athletic. I can’t imagine there were many other wrestlers in Britain in 1980 that were hitting opponents with top rope sentons. The man was as much ahead of his time as the Dynamite Kid was.
Speaking of Dynamite, Marty is possibly one of only a handful if British wrestlers who has wrestled Dynamite, Bret Hart and Owen Hart as well. In fact, his match with Owen has been said by many to be one of the greatest British matches to have been aired on TV. Although I’d argue his classic with Dynamite gives it a hell of a run for its money.
Marty will probably best be remembered though for his feud with the sardonic Mark “Rollerball” Rocco, wrestling each other a total of 11 times on TV, something not uncommon now but was an extraordinary thing then. Their feud is perhaps comparable to the fantastic run of matches Eddy Guerrero and Dean Malenko had in 1995, and is thought of just as fondly by fans of British wrestling.
Accept no imitations. Marty Jones is the real deal.
Dave ‘Fit’ Finlay
Perhaps much better known now for his time in WCW and WWE, this is only really part of the story for a man who debuted in 1974.
Mr. Finlay was a stalwart of the British and European scenes in the 80’s and the first half of the 90’s and is recognized as being of the greatest Mid-Heavyweights of all time. Accompanied by his then-wife Princess Paula (note: not a real princess), he was a sneaky heel who dismissively insulted his opponents and wasn’t afraid of bending the odd rule or several. It was either that or face the fearsome wrath of Paula, who would chastise him from ringside.
Not that Finlay needed all the extracurricular activity. In the ring the ‘Belfast Bruiser’ more than lived up to his ring name. Executing a stiff, striking style combined with excellent technical ability, he ensured that no opponent would get an easy rid from him.
He is best known for classic feuds with Marty Jones (him again!) over the World Mid-Heavyweight title and a bloody and vicious feud in the CWA and the Welsh ‘Reslo’ promotion with Tony St. Clair, seeing the two squared off in hard-hitting cage and chain matches.
In 1996, Finlay joined WCW and engaged in a crazy ‘Parking Lot Brawl’ and one of the stiffest matches WCW put on outside of anything involving Vader. Both matches were against fellow Brit Steven (William) Regal and the latter, an ultra-hard encounter at the Uncensored ’96 pay-per-view, saw Finlay hit Regal so hard that he broke Regal’s nose, fractured his cheek and cut his eyelid – all with one punch!
He later went on to some great matches with Chris Benoit and Booker T too, using his talent to bring out the best in both men and, in Booker’s case, helping to elevate a future star of the business.
And the fact that Finlay is praised by many of the WWE women as being one of the only men to actually train them to wrestle and not just to be so-called ‘divas’ speaks volumes about the man.
I was fortunate enough as kid to see Brookside wrestle a couple of times at the Victoria Hall, Hanley, tagging with the late, great Doc Dean. This would have been somewhere between 1992 and 1994, and I even remember one of the programs having the two men on the front cover. For years after, my memory tricked me and I thought Brookside was Dean and vice versa. The folly of youth.
Even as a kid, with no understanding of how concepts like ‘being over’ or ‘having heat’ worked, I knew the team of Brookside and Dean were insanely popular – the crowd always went wild for them. And while sadly I didn’t really keep up with Dean’s career after this (something I will put right soon!), as a mature fan I was able to look back and to my amazement see how the great wrestler from my vague childhood memories actually really was as good, if not even better, than I remember.
A great athlete with golden locks back in the day that reminded me of a young Shawn Michaels, Brookside is thought of well enough in the business that he was able to become a head coach at the WWE Performance Center. Considering the talent that Center has developed over the years, I think that says a lot about the ability of the man.
Brookside was a versatile competitor, being of a slender athletic build and yet still able to hit power moves and even hitting some hard strikes on occasion. It was this versatility of style and his love of his vocation that led to him wrestling all over the world in places such as Germany, Mexico and Japan, winning an array of titles as he did so.
He even managed a six-month spell in WCW, wrestling the likes of Jerry Lynn and Dean Malenko, and a few guest appearances in WWE. Most famously he took part in New Japan’s Best of Super Junior tournament in 1997, wrestling the cream of the international lightweight crop in a career highlight.
He probably wants to forget about being hypnotised by Kendo Nagasaki, mind.
A.K.A. the artist formerly known as Lord Steven. I remember being equally attracted to and repelled by the good Lord as a kid, watching him screw his face up on WCW Worldwide into as many different expressions of disdain as he could.
I couldn’t completely dislike him as he was British, which meant a lot as a British kid, but he was also a complete swine, looking down his nose at everyone and everything as if they were beneath him. This made me tune in and want to see him get his face smashed every week. Getting heat, just like a proper heel is meant to do. Mission accomplished.
Regal is a pure wrestling machine, as much a bruiser as Fit Finlay (as their scrap at Uncensored proved). But he understood something very important about wrestling: it’s as much about the entertainment as it is the grappling and boy was Regal a great entertainer! Regal professes in his autobiography to be influenced as much by his comedy heroes, like Tommy Cooper and Morecambe and Wise, as he does the likes of other wrestlers, and with his facial expressions and hilarious promos, he will go down as one of the most entertaining men to ever enter a wrestling ring.
But, importantly, he could back it up. Check out his matches with Ric Flair in WCW under Marquis of Queensbury rules. A thing of beauty. Look again at his New Japan matches with the likes of Shinya Hashimoto. Hell, go back just a few years and watch him push Daniel Bryan to the limit. Give him a pair of boots and I reckon he could still go now. I wouldn’t fancy my chances.
Tony St. Clair
The first time I ever laid my eyes on any pro wrestling, whether live or on TV or whatever, was in a small theater in the seaside town of Rhyl, North Wales on a family holiday in either late ’90 or early ’91. I can’t remember much about the show at all except for two wrestlers I saw that night. One was Giant Haystacks, who was terrifying and fascinating in equal measure to the five-year-old me. The other was a gentleman by the name of Tony St. Clair. And I’ve been a fan ever since.
Part of the charm of watching Tony St. Clair is that he looked sort of ordinary, an everyman, a bloke you’d meet down the pub after he’d finished for the day in a garage (except by the nineties he had grown muscles bigger than my head but I digress). That feeling went deep, into his aura, into the connection he had with the fans. As far as I’m aware, Tony St. Clair never turned heel. I don’t think we’d have let him if he tried.
A former World Heavyweight and British Heavyweight champion, he held the latter for a second reign of 10 years! That’s not just a sign of the man’s talent, but also a sign in the promoter’s faith in his ability to draw. Even Hulk Hogan only wore the title for four years uninterrupted during his longest reign during the Hulkamania era!
Having wrestled in Japan and South Africa, it was Germany that captured his heart, winning both the CWA Heavyweight and tag titles and battering Fit Finlay in a series of vicious street fights which are very fondly remembered by fans and by Tony himself. Germany treated him so well, in fact, that he moved there!
One of the great British baby faces, Tony will always be remembered fondly by fans all over the world.
Danny Boy Collins
It’s a story often told, how British wrestlers start much earlier than their American counterparts and often trainee whilst still in their teens, being battered from pillar to post in their early matches by bigger, older veterans as a rite of passage. Danny Boy Collins is a great example of this.
A wrestling fanatic since he was a child, he trained in both amateur and pro styles, giving him quite a wide baseline of techniques to perform from. He made his debut in 1983 at just 16 years old at the same venue he used to watch wrestling at as a child. Although young, he had the dedication and talent to push through and soon entered into a fantastic feud with Jim Breaks over the British Welterweight title. The European Welterweight title followed as did many trips abroad.
I do find it interesting how a lot of people on this list have wrestled in Japan but are never mentioned amongst the top gaijins. They sort of snuck under the radar. Hell, Danny Boy Collins wrestled for Michinoku Pro Wrestling in the mid-nineties, and you can’t be a slouch athletically to have been invited to wrestle there. But it never gets mentioned.
Indeed, having a background in amateur and pro wrestling really gave Collins an advantage and his mixture of speed and technical aptitude made him popular with the crowds. One of the most popular British matches of the period with those on the know is a match Collins had with Owen Hart (him again!) in the city of Bath in 1991. A blend of international styles working beautifully to complement each other, it is one of the greatest matches to have taken place on British soil.
And it wasn’t all down to the late, great Mr. Hart.
Mark ‘Rollerball’ Rocco
There are several wrestlers in the industry who were known for believing in wrestling so passionately, so intensely, that their intensity didn’t let up for a minute. They were always on, but especially so in the ring. The likes of Chris Benoit, Terry Funk, Bruiser Brody, Eddy Guerrero, Dynamite Kid, even Ric Flair in his prime. For my money, you can add Mark ‘Rollerball’ Rocco to that list.
Believing that a performer should give his best every time he stepped in the ring, he went at it fell pelt and with full aggression every time. Sometimes matches he had that were filmed for TV were not shown as the ITV bosses thought they were too violent and sometimes too bloody for the old grannie handbag brigade. Maybe if they’d shown those matches instead of Big Daddy’s then they wouldn’t have got cancelled. We can only speculate.
Aggression was Rocco’s natural style and he also saw the tide was turning with the American style becoming more prominent. Rocco was a big draw but some promoters didn’t necessarily appreciate the aggro he caused with the TV execs, which is perhaps why Japan became such a natural home for Rocco.
Having wrestled Satoru Samaya in some classically stiff encounters, it was only fitting Rocco became Samaya’s alter ego in New Japan, playing Black Tiger to Sayama’s Tiger Mask and setting the path for the likes of hard-hitting smaller wrestlers like Benoit, Guerrero, Dean Malenko, Chris Jericho and Zack Sabre Jr to find major success on one of the major global wrestling platforms. Hell, he even wrestled Jushin Liger in England, when Liger was going under the name of Fuji Yamada.
Best known for his encounters with Marty Jones, the two men contested some of the most forward-thinking, stiffest, athletic, hard-thought contests Britain has ever seen. The roots of Pete Dunne vs. Walter start here.
Everybody needs a little bit of Rollerball in their life.
And last but not least. What else is there to say about Tom Billington that hasn’t already been said? The man was a complete innovator and deserves to be in wrestling’s hall of fame.
For years, my only experience of Dynamite was in the WWF as one half of the fabulous British Bulldogs tag team with his cousin Davey Boy Smith. Even then I knew he was great but I wasn’t aware of how much of innovator he really was. It took his interviews in the legendary Power Slam magazine and access via YouTube to his solo matches with the likes of Bret Hart, Tiger Mask, Marty Jones and Rollerball Rocco to really let me see just what a great wrestler the Kid really was.
What strikes me watching him now is how crisply every move is executed, how sharp each blow landed. Those snap suplexes were named aptly – they seemed to snap in half anyone he nailed with them. Each movement was so fluid, so natural and yet so on point and real. Although I’m sure a lot of those strikes carried a genuine weight to them.
Let’s be clear – no Dynamite, no Benoit. No Dynamite and Tiger Mask, no Benoit and Guerrero or Guerrero and Malenko. Hell, when you watch a lot of the biggest stars of WWE and AEW now, for the most part a lot of them wouldn’t be in the positions they’re in without the Nitro class of ’96-’97 – Benoit, Malenko, Guerrero, Jericho, Rey Mysterio Jr. But you wouldn’t get these guys without Dynamite. The wrestling evolutionary chain starts here. The Dynamite Kid is that important.
What do you think? Are there any glaring omissions I’ve made? Anyone I’ve overrated? Let me know your Best of British in the comments below!