Wrestling fans of today’s younger generation are likely to be swept up in the glitz and glamour of the American WWE franchise. They will cheer on the good guys, boo the baddies and follow the outrageous story-lines each week on Sky TV, if not in person.
However, back in the 1970s the United Kingdom had its own thriving wrestling scene. It wasn’t quite as dashing as Roman Reigns in his black leather combat pants, or as terrifying as The Undertaker in his imposing full-length duster coat and Witch Finder General Hat, but it was great entertainment, nonetheless.
We cheered on the likes of Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks, two very large, lycra-clad grapplers, who delighted viewers on ITV’s World of Sport every Saturday afternoon with their antics.
There were accusations the bouts were staged – of course, no one ever publicly admitted it! People of all ages enjoyed the spectacle and show business razzmatazz of the wrestling. The plots were often more like pantomimes, but the wrestling was real.
In particular, plenty of senior ladies liked watching wrestling. When the wrestlers left the ring to chase each other around the auditorium, which was a pretty regular occurrence, many a female fan had been known to hit them with their handbag!
Born Martin Ruane in 1946, in Camberwell, London, Giant Haystacks grew to 6ft 11ins tall and was a labourer and nightclub bouncer until a friend decided he’d make a great professional wrestler due to his physical stature. In 1967, he began wrestling at the age of 18, calling himself Luke McMasters.
By the 1970s, he was employed by Wrestling Enterprises of Birkenhead, where he became known as Haystacks Calhoun, after his namesake, the American wrestling star William Calhoun. Over time, he gradually became Giant Haystacks, as he grew into the man mountain he became in later life.
After moving to Joint Promotions in 1975, he was teamed up with fellow pro-wrestler Big Daddy, alias 45-year-old Shirley Crabtree, who was a former rugby league player from Halifax, West Yorkshire – his rugby career faltered because he was sent off too often due to losing his temper.
Shirley entered the world of wrestling in 1952, at the age of 22, when he was known as the “Blond Adonis”. He was named Big Daddy in 1974, after a larger-than-life character in the Paul Newman film, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Like Giant Haystacks, Big Daddy’s name fitted both his strapping physique and also his big personality.
Famous tag team
The duo became a tag team in the 1970s and were one of the most popular and famous pro-wrestling teams in the world. They were known as super-heavyweights, who crushed their opponents into submission.
After their tag team disbanded in the late 1970s, their association continued, but this time as opponents. There were high ratings on ITV every time they fought each other and Bid Daddy became known as the “baddie” whom the crowds loved to hate.
It was made even more panto-like by the boos that rang out around the stadium when the bad guy made his way to the ring in a flurry of flashing lights and cheesy music.
Haystacks worked abroad during the 1980s, particularly in Canada, where he joined Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling troupe in Calgary, Alberta. Here, he was billed as the Loch Ness Monster, which was somewhat surprising, since he was born in London and lived in Lancashire for much of his adult life, so had no links to Scotland whatsoever!
He was managed by Wigan promoter John “JR” Foley, a veteran of the famous Wigan Snakepit school of wrestling. Haystacks also wrestled in Germany and Austria, where he won several professional trophy tournaments.
While the scripted wrestling on World of Sport on TV was indeed often like a panto, many viewers forgot that entertainers like 699lb Haystacks and 375lb Big Daddy were professional sportsmen first and foremost.
The warnings on WWE today that the wrestlers are professional athletes, so viewers should “never try this at home”, were true in the 1970s and ’80s too.
Whenever Haystacks was back in the UK, his TV feud with Big Daddy continued, right up until the latter’s retirement at the age of 63 in 1993.
Haystacks moved to the United States to take part in the World Championship Wrestling after his arch-rival retired. Sadly, he died at the tragically young age of 52, in November 1998, after being diagnosed with lymphoma.
The wonderful footage of Haystacks battling Big Daddy in their heyday will live forever and has attracted almost one million YouTube views.
The iconic sight of Haystacks strutting to the ring in his faux fur cape, looking like a Stone Age gladiator, belied the fact that there was a hugely talented, professional sportsman under the showbiz exterior.
If you’re out in the beautiful Cornish countryside, you might see a few giant haystacks yourself – but of the organic kind, rather than the man mountain. When you need clothes for a summer stroll, MA Grigg’s country store stocks a range of high-quality clothing and footwear.