The ring has seen nothing to match our enigmatic Kendo

September 28, 1985, was a black day for British television: The day when we said goodbye to a programme children like me had been weaned on.

World of Sport ran on ITV for 20 years in competition with BBC’s Grandstand.

Fronted by the legend that is Dickie Davies, it was a glorious hot-potch of sports coverage – often showing things which weren’t popular with the British viewing public such as hockey, water-skiing, stock car racing and equestrian events – back in the days when there weren’t a trillion TV channels.

Kids like me watched it for several reasons: Firstly, to avoid the black and white western film on BBC2; Secondly, for its football preview show On The Ball; Thirdly, for the half time and full time footie scores; And finally, for the guilty pleasure that was wrestling.

This evening modern-day gladiators with names like Skull Murphy, Robbie Dynamite and Rampage Brown will battle it out at the Victoria Hall in Hanley – evoking memories of the halcyon days of wrestling in the UK.

The Vicki Hall has hosted the sport since the 1950s and been witness to some truly epic contests.

It was one of the venues World of Sport would switch to at 4pm on a Saturday afternoon.

The stars of wrestling in those days truly became household names – people like Mick McManus and Klondyke Kate.

Then there was the unparalleled rivalry between the 40-stone Giant Haystacks and crowd favourite Big Daddy.

Some of the wrestlers were so good as both sportsmen (and women) as well as actors that you had to remind yourself that they were faking much of the action.

Although clearly many of the people ringside – including old ladies brandishing brollies and handbags – either didn’t realise or didn’t care as they made their feelings about the villains plain.

Indeed, it is hard to believe the atmosphere, the noise and passion generated by spectators watching something which was akin to pantomime.

Arguably the greatest British wrestler of them all from those days, and the one who was a Kendo Nagasaki – alias Peter Thornley who was born here in Stoke-on-Trent in October 1946.

Like many stars of the ring, he had a back-story. But Kendo’s character was more complex and fascinating than the rest which led to him becoming one of the most popular performers of all time.

The masked warrior claimed to be a Samurai with a mysterious past and the power of hypnosis.

He first rose to fame in March 1966 when he defeated and unmasked the legend that was Count Bartelli (AKA Geoff Condliffe, originally from Crewe) after a bruising bout up at the Victoria Hall.

For years he refused to remove his mask and reveal his true identity and would often maintain a stoic silence in public. However, five days before Christmas in 1977 he took part in a ceremonial ‘unmasking’ in Wolverhampton which caused a sensation in the wrestling world and only served to add to his reputation.

During this period, the Potteries wrestler was managed by the flamboyant and immaculately-attired ‘Gorgeous’ George Gillette.

Kendo was famed for his strength and in one televised match once lifted the 26 stone Shirley Crabtree (later known as Big Daddy) above his head before finishing him off with a trademark ‘Kamikaze Crash’.

He went on to become the WWA World Heavyweight Champion and throughout his career performed in front of royalty – including the likes of Prince Philip at the Royal Albert Hall.

Kendo claims never to have been defeated – although he was disqualified on many occasions.

He finally retired from wrestling in December 2001 – exactly thirty years after making his debut on the canvas.

However much fun the crowd has up Hanley tonight and however good the current crop of wrestlers may believe they are, I dare say none could have stood toe-to-toe with our Kendo – the most enigmatic and talented of his generation.

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia

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