Count Bartelli and Kendo Nagasaki continue to generate much discussion amongst Wrestling Heritage fans even at the time of publication of this new article. Wrestling Heritage takes a look back at the three key contests in the first half of 1966 involving these two great masked stars who remained inextricably locked in a tied position in the rundown of the greatest masked wrestlers of all time.
All three bouts took place on Saturday evenings at the Victoria Hall, Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent, left. In the first, on 5th February, Count Bartelli and Kendo Nagasaki teamed up as tag partners, as they had done on several previous occasions.
In the opposing corner was the unusual partnership of Henri Pierlot and Tibor Szakacs. Pierlot, also known as Les Thornton, was substituting for the indisposed Dennis Mitchell. Five times Royal Albert Hall Tournament Trophy winner Sazakcs was at the top of his game, and the Anglo-Hungarian pairing soon had the masked men in trouble. A feature of the contest was Nagasaki repeatedly refusing to tag in and help his partner. In the end the masked pair won by two falls to one, but Bartelli had done most of the wrestling. Angry words were exchanged after the bout and a challenge was made for the two masked wrestlers to face each other.
Bartelli may have entered the ring four weeks later with 3,000+ victories under his belt, but Nagasaki entered with the no mean record of no wrestler ever having scored a fall or submission over him, much less a knockout. There were £500-a-side stakes, the “Loser to Unmask” match made with No Rounds and No Time Limit.
Les Kellett had wrestled to a good natured draw in the evening’s opening contest against Tony Charles, and then Manchester’s Jumping Jim Hussey got himself disqualified against the former Mr Universe, John Lees. All the talk in the interval was of how the Loser to Unmask match would go, and whether fans would really see an unmasking as a result of a conclusive ending.
In the bout itself Bartelli tried persistently for submissions via a grapevine. See from the photo how there was no sign of the familiar Nagasaki pony tail protruding from beneath the mask, so he clearly still had his sixties crew cut at the time of this bout. The packed crowd, with with not a space to be had in the aisles and alcoves, roared their nigh on unanimous support for Count Bartelli.
See also, perhaps surprisingly, that Nagasaki hoisted Bartelli on his shoulders in the position for a kamikaze roll, a move most fans saw for the first time only after his return from Canada in 1972.
Heritage eyewitness Kathleen Hill tells us how the match came to its dramatic conclusion:
“Towards the end of twenty minutes Bartelli held a double leg nelson on Kendo but Kendo, being a longer legged and armed man, was able to continually chop and smash his hands on the masked face of Bartelli. Soon the blood ran profusely from Bartelli’s mask, splashing over the canvas onto Stan Ryland’s white shirt, until it ran like water off the hands of Kendo who by this time escaped the hold and held Bartelli in a side headlock, smashing away at his nose and face.
Bartelli posted him twice into the corner post before Nagasaki retaliated by throwing him out of the ring.
Eight – a Nine – a TEN.”
The Count was helped back into the ring where he was officially unmasked by Stan Rylands.
His face was now a mask of blood. But he was gracious in defeat and shook Nagasaki’s hand. He then took the microphone to address the crowd in the way we would become accustomed to over the next twenty years. He announced his real name as being Geoff Conliffe, and invited fans to address him as Geoff, whilst assuring everyone that he would wrestle on unmasked as Count Bartelli.
Meanwhile Nagasaki was awarded the winner’s cheque of £1,000 by Irene Jordan, wife of matchmaker Ron.
It might be hard for some 21st century fans to understand that in 1966, when Count Bartelli was finally unmasked by Kendo Nagasaki, the main angle of interest was in the older wrestler, a veteran of over 3,000 bouts, largely undefeated after facing all the greats of the fifties and sixties, including Billy Robinson, Alan Garfield, Bert Assirati and the original Zebra Kid, whom he had unmasked.
For many, the clearly youthful Kendo Nagasaki was a pale-skinned youngster with his ring career ahead of him, and, though the victor, and with admittedly impressive results notched up in his first year of professional action, it was the unmasking on Saturday 5th March of Count Bartelli that captured the headlines.
Before the evening’s concluding tag match between the Stewarts and the Cadmans was over, talk amongst the fans was rife about a rematch between Bartelli and Nagasaki.
John Lees would again share the bill 8 weeks later when, on Saturday 7th May, Nagasaki and the maskless Count Bartelli had their return match. Heritage Member Peter Bettany was there and recalls:
“The bout was scheduled for 8 rounds. Bartelli went ahead via his trademark arm snatch and arm lever submission. And I think Kendo equalized thanks to a kamikaze roll and pin fall. The match was level after 8 rounds and Bartelli asked for, and got, the extra 2 rounds. With no further score, the match ended in a draw.”
And John Lees went down by two submissions to a pin fall to Billy Robinson.
We’ll conclude where we started, with the ongoing debate as to the true relationship between Kendo Nagasaki and Count Bartelli. Wrestling fans generally agree that it was Bartelli who trained the younger man. But a further telling sign of their intimacy is perhaps revealed by the fact that Baretlli was a keen collector of gold coins, and that young Nagasaki published this challenge to all comers in 1965. One wonders where a 24 year old thought he might lay his hands on 100 gold sovereigns in the Potteries, but maybe he was encouraged by his mentor’s hoard.
Peter Bettany writes:
50 years ago to the day, Saturday 5th March 1966, I was at a packed Victoria Hall, Hanley to witness Kendo Nagasaki defeat and unmask my favourite wrestler, Count Bartelli.
The Count has sadly passed on but Kendo was back at the Victoria Hall in Hanley on Saturday, 5th March 2016 to commemorate that historic night with The Kendo Nagasaki/Count Bartelli "Most Promising Newcomer" 50th Anniversary Challenge. Proceeds from this event were donated to The Lee Rigby Foundation & the N Staffs Veterans Organisation.
It felt very strange to be back on the same date, at the same place 50 years on and to stand beside the man who defeated my hero!