Wrestling Observer Newsletter HOF Candidates – Europe
Hello, this is a slightly different topic to normal and one I’ve been meaning to touch on for some time. Being a European the European voting section of the Wrestling Observer HOF has always been a subject of interest for me. Here’s who’s eligible this year and why they’re worthy of your vote:
If you lived in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s you knew who Big Daddy was. That’s how culturally significant he was. He was literally a household name. Daddy, real name Shirley Crabtree, was the top star of the ITV wrestling TV show World of Sport. While other WOS stars are famed for their technical expertise Big Daddy was the Hulk Hogan of his time. He was watched by royalty, world leaders and penetrated British pop culture like no wrestler had done in the UK before or since. He’s easily the best contender for the Hall of Fame from the European region. No one else is close. He was a massive draw and could have been an even bigger star had he the ambition to crossover into television.
The only reason he’s not already in that particular Hall of Fame is down to two reasons; 1. People outside of the UK not realising the sheer fame that Big Daddy commanded during his time on top and 2. He was the drizzling shits in the ring. Literally one of the worst professional wrestlers I’ve ever seen. Where someone like Hogan knew his shortcomings and allowed superior workers to mould matches around his strengths Big Daddy was just shit. More often than not he’d work tag matches and just stand on the apron for 95% of the match, waiting for the inevitable hot tag. That doesn’t diminish his fame though. He’s one of the most famous professional wrestlers to ever lace up boots in the UK. Until All-American wrestling came to these sunny shores in the mid-late 80s Big Daddy was professional wrestling.
Hoffman, as he names suggests, worked mostly in Germany but also had runs in the AWA and All Japan Pro Wrestling. The only footage I’ve seen of Hoffman has been historical. He was a star before I was born, being the big cheese in Europe back in the 1960s and remained a star until the late 70s. He was a large man, boasting a realistic style. Unfortunately most of the footage of Hoffman was from the tail end of his career, when he’d finally made it big enough to compete overseas.
Germany has always been a big place for tournament wrestling and Hoffman was a tournament god. He had the stamina and skill to stay on top of the territory. There are issues about whether Hoffman had sufficient legacy to claim a Hall of Fame spot. He hasn’t got a lot of name recognition and wasn’t an exciting or influential performer. There are bound to be Germans who will argue for his place, thanks to him being a top dog in Germany for some 15 years but it was 15 years and out. He retired and left wrestling behind.
Joyce was one of Britain’s best regarded shooters for good reason. He’s one of the men that made the Snake Pit such a valuable commodity for training realistic British wrestlers. Original Snake Pit boss Billy Riley trained Joyce in the art of pro wrestling. Most of the world-famous wrestlers who came out of the Snake Pit were moulded by Riley and Joyce. This includes Karl Gotch and Billy Robinson. Joyce may not have travelled the globe as much as his proteges did but his mark was left on the world of wrestling through those he trained in the shoot style.
Riley was an old man by the time I was born and wrestling began being televised and he passed away in 1977. Despite the lack of footage his reputation remains untarnished. The majority of those from the Snake Pit’s best successful era refer to Joyce as being one of the best pro-wrestlers the gym ever produced. Joyce had a reputation for being tough and found opponents sometimes unwilling to face him and Joyce himself shied away from greater fame in the United States. This lack of thirst for fame, replaced by a love of wrestling, has made him less of a familiar name among wrestling fans.
In European wrestling the work is usually more important than the gimmick. Which is why a lot of British wrestlers simply employ an ‘I am British and technically good at wrestling’ as a focal point for their gimmick. The exception to that rule, especially during the World of Sport days, was Kendo Nagasaki. The masked Kendo was billed as Japanese with mysterious powers of mind control through hypnosis. He would often take over the minds of his opponents and turn them on each other. It was quite the spectacle.
Nagasaki was not Japanese. He was an English gentleman by the name of Peter Thornley. At the peak of his powers Nagasaki was mesmerising, causing the most ardent of bastards to team up with their most hated enemy to try and stop Kendo. Most of his major success was during the mid 70s where he became a household name. He didn’t hold that position for as long as Big Daddy but he was a famous man. His mid 70s run, which ended when he voluntarily unmasked on television is the stuff of legend. There’s an argument to be made for his name value and the creative legacy it left in the UK, although his run was relatively short. He had brief spurts as a top guy and a lot of time spent as a curio and sideshow attraction. He’s one of the most famous British wrestlers of all time but Big Daddy has him beaten for popularity.
MARK ROLLERBALL ROCCO
Rocco has a strong case for getting into the Hall of Fame for one reason alone; he was one of the innovators of the high flying, exciting style that kicked off a wave off success in the cruiserweight divisions of Japan. He was the original Black Tiger and had huge success battling Tiger Mask (Sayama) in matches that drew big TV audiences in Japan. Rocco also helped the careers of Dynamite Kid and Jushin Liger. Who knows what the cruiserweight scene of the 80s and 90s would have looked like without the influence of Rocco.
Rocco was so good at what he did that he was even briefly in the WWF putting over George “The Cobra” Takano. His work in the UK was very strong and his influence on the modern style and the development of it is on a par with the likes of Dynamite Kid and Liger, who get the majority of the credit. Sayama, his NJPW rival, made it into the WON HOF back in 1996, along with Dynamite Kid. You could argue Dynamite had a more famous career in the WWF but Sayama’s highs were a lot shorter than Rocco’s. He was only lacking a look. He had the realistic yet exciting style and high profile matches against an array of the biggest names in his division.
WWE are currently giving Saint a boost regarding his status in the industry. He’s been acknowledged by them as an innovator and a tremendous wrestler, over a very long career. Saint debuted in the 1950s and came from that Wigan mentality of shoot-wrestling and serious business of making wrestling look real.
Saint’s critics will point toward a general lack of success as a wrestler and that he was never a major draw in any market, not even his native England. However he ticks the other two boxes that are requirements for entry. He was a consistently good wrestler for 40 years and has influenced several generations of professional wrestlers. Anyone who has been a fan of BritWres over the past half a century usually looks at Saint and Jim Breaks as the two most influential in-ring performers for sequences and style.
Breaks has been removed from the ballot, not for a failure to rack up enough support but rather because he murdered his ex in Spain this summer just gone. An 80 year Breaks was seen tussling with two large Spanish cops. Saint has not seen his reputation tarnished in any way and is considered by a lot of current WWE wrestlers as a source of inspiration. The likes of William Regal preach the Johnny Saint method of wrestling and Saint’s combination of consistent performances and influence make him a contender for the Hall of Fame.
Starr was ahead of his time. He was a ballet dancer and, years before the gymnasts like Will Ospreay got into the wrestling business, was using that as part of his wrestling style. Ricki was better known in the American scene than in Europe and could arguably not even belong in the European section. A dancing, almost effeminate grappler, Starr was only outdone by Antonino Rocca when it came to excitement of a cruiserweight nature in the 1950s.
Starr’s style is what sets him apart. He pranced around the ring but was beloved by the crowds for his elegance and poise. No doubt there were those who didn’t agree with his coquettish approach but they’ve been silenced by the sands of time. Now is the best time to appreciate how Starr helped to mould professional wrestling as a flamboyant, character driven pseudo sport. History has largely forgotten him but you shouldn’t.
Otto passed away this year. He’s probably better known as a wrestling promoter than as a wrestler, although during his time on top of his own promotion, the CWA, he was very famous in Europe. The Catch Wrestling Association spent years travelling around Europe. Christian Jakobi recently paid tribute to Wanz by saying Otto proved you could make money promoting wrestling in Germany. The big Austrian did so by backing himself. Among his achievements in wrestling was helping to sculpt the careers of several European stars and also Americans there on tour. In particular a young Vader going by the name Bull Power.
He’s also a famous strong man and helped to influence the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Catch went out of business in the late 90s, during a global wrestling boom. CWA was, for a long time, considered the largest promotion in Europe. Especially after the decline in BritWres that came about in the late 80s. Wanz was at the front of his own revolution, insisting on particular rules to set the promotion apart. His in-ring was never great but as a personality he’s one of the most famous European wrestlers of his era.
Those are the 2017 Hall of Fame contenders. My personal votes would be for Marc Rocco and Big Daddy. Rocco for in-ring excellence and the influence he had on wrestling globally, where his contemporaries have clearly been rewarded for doing the same. Big Daddy because he represented a time and place in wrestling history. He might have been a bad wrestler but he was certainly a huge draw in the UK. If you’re refusing to acknowledge the UK as a major business area then this section shouldn’t even exist. Just throw Big Daddy in with the Rest of the World.