Once again professional wrestling led the way, whole-heartedly embracing entry to a Common Market all grapple fans supported equally enthusiastically, since it had been championed by a Prime Minister with the same name as a much respected and hard-hitting heavy-middleweight tagster of the time.
Careful timing on Day Two of British involvement saw a well-billed tournament, with the visitors very surprisingly taking a 3-0 victory over the British grapplers. We say British, but Belfast’s Tug Wilson was not actually from Great Britain; then, as now, the clumsily named host country confounded MC and commentator alike and it is little wonder that Continentals, then as now, chose to refer to all the islands of North West Europe as England, since the natives seemed, and seem, incapable of any precision and certainly conciseness in describing themselves.
John Naylor v Jacky Rickard
Unsmiling John Naylor was the opening opponent for Parisian Jacky Ricard. This sturdy workmanlike heavy-middleweight in the Peter Preston mould displayed perfectly adequate skills but was opposed by shooter Naylor, the Golden Ace from the very home of shooting, Wigan, with a whopping ten years of training at the world famous Snakepit gymnasium behind him. We saw later in the decade what he could and would do to poor Rip Rawlinson at the Royal Albert Hall, and here we witnessed a not dissimilar spectacle. He didn’t sell much of the Frenchman’s few offensives and literally ran rings around him. There were no handshakes, just protests from Naylor to the referee at occasional and very mild instances of French frustration.
When Naylor was knocked out in the fifth it was a clumsy, unconvincing and at best surprising outcome; he had made fully 95% of the offence in the preceding 20 minutes. Oh yes, go down to the continental all in the line of Entente Cordiale, just as the promoter says, but don’t ask how you are going to behave on the way to the k.o. defeat. Watch this bout as one of the clearest examples of a wrestler unwillingly losing when he could clearly have won. In some ways, this was a real shoot, with one wrestler clearly trying to prove a point. The only imponderable is that it is hard to tell whether Naylor was especially peeved here, since he was so dour in most of his bouts.
Having vanquished Naylor, a partisan referee and commentator alike, it was hard not to feel some relief as Ricard shrugged Gallickly but clearly relished his moment of victory on his first day in Perfidious Albion.
Frank Dhondt v Paul Mitchell
When the wrestler in the red corner is wearing red and his opponent blue, it’s always a sure sign of careful planning and commitment, and such was happily the case in the centre bout.
Frank Dhondt was making his first ever tv appearance and it was left to our good friend and fellow Salfordian, Paul Mitchell, to offer sufficient handshakes in his bout to cover his team-mates’ total lack of equivalent hospitality. Kent was delighted to have “a good-looking boy” for the ladies, but this fan was more entranced by a nasty looking scab on the bridge of the formerly Lancashire wrestler’s nose. We wondered what would happen were this to open up, surely it would spout like a fountain. Would the Belgian actually go for it?
January 1973 marked not only entry to Europe but also the redistribution of county boundaries, leaving hitherto unequivocal geographical abodes of many of our favourites in vulnerable and ultimately terminal predicaments, and the counting out of some counties altogether. Thus Salford, Lancs, was now Salford Greater Manchester. Numerous other locations fell victim to such unglamourous and unpronouncable dumbing down and once again wrestling’s administrators wisely led the way in completely rejecting such atrocities.)
Mitchell now showed how to lead the way graciously in the face of a slightly and understandably nervous opponent. On several occasions he wanted the Belgian to come forward, to go with a throw, to co-operate. But Dhondt didn’t. Mitchell sold enthusiastically all his opponents efforts and looked seriously dazed by a nasty looking bump to his neck at the time of the deciding fall. It was a neat pin, just as Paul’s had been in equalising. The husky tones of Chopper Conroy showed clear professional appreciation for Mitchell having held the bout together.
Tug Wilson v Tino Salvadore
Geographical and linguistic confusion continued during that middle bout. First Kent couldn’t resist his usual overtrumping of the official, but this time overstepped the mark in erroneously labelling third man Emil Poilve “Anglo Italian”. And just in case any Continentals were tuning in, he bamboozled them even further by announcing that natives of the town of the transmission couldn’t decide amongst themselves on how to pronounce it.
Tug Wilson was always tremendous value and this bare-footed matman was on his usual wild behaviour. For a moment he could have had a premonition of facing his leopard-skin clad namesake Tarzan Johnny, but the leotard actually belonged to a Sicilian wrestling out of Belgium and billed in the UK as Tino Salvadore. Tino was well up to the task and the pair produced a most exciting bout.
Linguistic issues piped up once again, in respect to Kent’s second “good-looking boy” of the afternoon. He assured us, as he invariably did with any true foreigner just off the plane, that Tino didn’t speak a word of English. Just a few moments later he was listing precise biographical details and his two speciality manoeuvres; the flying head scissors and the back drop kick. He must have been a dab-hand with the sign language!
We witnessed the back drop-kick and it was spectacular, dangerous and unusual. The first two falls were unconvincing blots on an otherwise exciting spectacle. This bout, after two reasonably clean affairs, suddenly gave the audience a chance to warm up. In few sports does the crowd play such a crucial role…. Not since Hughie Green’s clapometer had we seen such involvement. One cigarette-smoking ringside gentleman had learnt from Naylor’s unsatisfactory knockout exit and, when Salvadore went out at the same point, he was up in hands-free mode, with a lit point coming excruciatingly close to the Sicilian's leotard, bundling him back into the action zone without delay. Never have you seen a wrestler return so smartly to the ring.
Then, after conceding the deciding fall, Tug’s temper got the better of him and he continued on the attack. A rotund woman from the other side of the ring, with a shape that would hold its own in twenty-first century Britain, armed with handbag and shoes and with another cigarette-smoking acolyte egging her on, had a real go at tugging Tug’s apparel. But look beyond these rather obvious interventions and you can detect amongst the ringside-seaters far side of camera much ongoing mirth and interaction throughout the bout, on topics not picked up by the mike or the commentator. This serves to remind us all of the camaraderie amongst the audience, and also recalls occasions at our halls when the interaction was such that the wrestlers and the wrestling assumed a rear seat to the banter taking place.
The two voices we heard revealed, perhaps, further true feelings as we apply the benefit of hindsight. Tug would not receive a wage packet for his evil-doing. Translated, this meant “well done son, you have really got the audience furious, great work!” And the commentator gave the Italian only one round, in which he had acquitted himself perfectly well, before announcing “I don’t think he’d get far against the rippling muscles of a Viedor or Rocky Wall.” Yet another sign to reassure us that, although the home team would be losing 0-3, all that was British was best. He of course failed to consider that the continentals in question were, even at home, undercarders, brought in only to enliven bills through their exoticness. Let’s face it, they were probably cheap!
Neither Dhondt nor Ricard were able to Frank the form later the same month, going down to McManus and Kwango in solo televised bouts. It just makes you wonder whether the initial victorious displays were planned long-term precisely to give the visitors a certain element of respect as they toured the Isles, as well as to enhance their aged home-grown foes even further when they were subsequently vanquished by the veteran Londoners. Tino went on to defeat the India Rubber Man, and at the time of writing some doubt remains as to his later career under differing names ….