Greetings, Grapple Fans: Big Daddy
As pub quiz devotees will know, the real name of the one and only Big Daddy was Shirley Crabtree, leading to a common story that bullying at school toughened him up. What many don’t realise is that until the mid-19th century, Shirley was a male name in the UK. In 1849, Charlotte Bronte wrote a novel of that title, in which a man who hoped for a son was so disappointed to have a daughter that he called her Shirley anyway. The book’s popularity meant that the name became more common amongst girls.
Ironically, Crabtree’s grandmother was so fond of the book that she set her heart upon using the name, sticking to it when she had a son. Shirley Crabtree Sr, whether proud of the name or simply wanting to share the embarrassment, chose to pass it on to his son, who was born in Halifax on November 14, 1930.
Crabtree Jr. left school at 14 - not unusual at the time for those from a non-academic background - and began working at a mill, where his job was to change bobbins of cotton. A keen swimmer and weightlifter, he followed his father by playing rugby league for Bradford Northern, though he never made a first-team appearance. The folklore has it that this was because his poor discipline meant there was too much risk of him being sent off. Fortunately, the same can’t be said of his nephew Eorl, now an England international.
Shirley began attending a local gym with his brother Max, at which time he took up wrestling - a sport in which his father had also been a pro. Crabtree Jr. was trained by Edwin “Sandy” Orford, who later had three bouts against perennial NWA World champion Lou Thesz. Crabtree debuted on June 14, 1952 at Newcastle’s St James’ Hall, losing to Orford by two falls to one.
Among Crabtree’s initial gimmicks was “The Battling Guardsman”, taken from his legitimate experience doing national service for the Coldstream Guards, best known today as part the Buckingham Palace changing of the guard ceremony. Crabtree also used names such as “The Blonde Adonis” and “Mr Universe”, but while both may seem hard to believe for fans who saw his later work, at the time Crabtree was a muscular figure who kept up his fitness working as a lifeguard on Blackpool beach.
At first, he worked for various groups in the Joint Promotions alliance that dominated the business at the time, and would soon tighten its stranglehold by gaining coverage on ITV. By the end of the 1950s, though, he began wrestling for brother Max’s rival, Twentieth Century Promotions.
The new decade brought the only titles of his career: one British and two European heavyweight reigns. Neither of these championships were the “official” Mountevans titles that had been set up by a Parliamentary committee and generally controlled by Joint Promotions; instead, they were recognised by the British Wrestling Federation - in effect a fictional entity created by independent promoters to allow the notorious Bert Assirati to continue claiming the crown after his brutal style and refusal to lose saw him leave Joint rings. Similar problems on the independent scene saw the BWF title vacated (with promoters claiming an injury to Assirati), and the title wound up around Crabtree’s waist.
What happened next has been grossly misreported, particularly in Crabtree’s obituaries. The story goes that Assirati chased Crabtree out of the business, and that he was then unemployed for anywhere between seven and 15 years before brother Max brought him back as Big Daddy. While it certainly appears true that a disgruntled Assirati stepped out of the crowd and challenged Daddy during at least one show - something he’d previously attempted to do to Thesz at the Royal Albert Hall - whether this turned into a sustained campaign of harassment is more questionable and may well be the type of exaggeration common in wrestling folklore.
What is certain is that Crabtree’s absence from the business was nowhere near as significant as claimed. He returned to Joint Promotions in 1962 (after Max began working in co-operation with the group) and wrestled regularly until at least 1968. Then aged 38, he wound down his schedule, but made occasional appearances in Blackpool, where the family reportedly promoted wrestling in discos and nightclubs, with the shows often opened by musical acts such as Donovan.
Crabtree returned to the national stage in 1972, though it was under his own name, and for Norman Morrell of Joint Promotions. He debuted on television in September, and was booked on a win streak, defeating most opponents by knockout within a couple of rounds. The push concluded in a battle with fellow leading villain Kendo Nagasaki in January 1973, with the masked man winning by knockout.
1975 saw Max Crabtree asked to take over the work of Joint’s northern promoters as they eased into retirement. Around this time, Shirley began using the Big Daddy moniker on television, taking it from the play Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. The character initially debuted on TV as the partner of Giant Haystacks, and was officially a ring villain for the next couple of years.
Despite this status, Crabtree continued feuding with Nagasaki, including a December 1975 TV bout in which he tore off his opponent's mask mid-match, though his celebration left him prey to his last televised pinfall loss. Somewhat amazingly given that Daddy was being billed at an increasingly flabby 336 pounds (24 stone), the pair even engaged in a series of ladder matches around the country.
MAN OF THE PEOPLE
In 1977, Max took control of Dale Martin Promotions, the southern arm of Joint Promotions, making him the most powerful man in the UK business. Perhaps not coincidentally, this was the year the Daddy character as we know it was born. At venues around the country, he gradually switched from fighting heroes to battling villains, with the Haystacks split becoming official at the end of the year, when the pair were scheduled to meet in a tournament final, but Haystacks walked out for the count-out loss.
Daddy then took on a full-fledged hero image. Though there’s an oft-cited story that his initial leotard was made by wife Eunice from a chintz sofa cover, he soon switched to a red, white and blue combo, along with a glitter-covered top hat. It’s no coincidence that this resembled John Bull, a fictional character dating back to 18th century illustrations, and was designed to be the personification of all things British. Daddy also became among the first British wrestlers to have his own ring music, using the American folk song We Shall Not Be Moved.
“There’s a magic to it - it’s very, very basic,” said Daddy of the hero character back in 1988. “It goes back to even the youngest childhood of Cowboys and Indians, and in our lives we never grow out of that. As long as there’s a good baddie and a good goodie, there’ll always be business.”
Despite his portrayal as a friend to children everywhere, there are many accounts of Crabtree being less beloved backstage. A typical comment comes in Tommy “Dynamite Kid” Billington’s autobiography, where he recalls: “You’d walk in the dressing room, he’d shake your hand and smile and say ‘Eeee, Dynamite, it’s good to see you.’ And then, as soon as you’d walk out, he’d turn round to the other wrestlers and say ‘Nothin’ but a bastard.’ I know, because I saw him say the same to everybody.”
BUILDING TO A BIG ONE
On television, however, Daddy remained a firm favourite, feuding first with Haystacks and then with Canadian “Mighty” John Quinn, who had marked an early TV appearance by grabbing the microphone and accusing the British of cowardice during the Second World War. Promos were rare enough in British TV wrestling, but the content established Quinn as the leading villain, leading to a sell-out crowd at Wembley Arena in 1979, with prices double that charged at the regular Royal Albert Hall shows.
Such an event was a rarity, with promoters historically having concentrated on running regular events at smaller halls around the country, with virtually every town of any size getting a visit at least once a month, and dozens of venues getting weekly shows. The idea of building to a single major event had seemed as unlikely as building the business around one performer - two unwritten rules that were now being broken.
It’s lucky that the show had a strong supporting bill, with matches including Steve Grey versus Jim Breaks and Marty Jones versus Pete Roberts, because the main event certainly wasn’t value for money; contested under Last Man Standing rules, it consisted of nothing but bodychecks, forearms and bodyslams, before Daddy took the win in a mere 100 seconds with a back-body drop.
Despite his destruction, Quinn had a renewed push in 1980, taking the “World heavyweight title” from Wayne Bridges via blood stoppage on the traditional FA Cup Final day show. Daddy crashed the celebration to set up a tag match at Wembley Arena, where he and Bridges faced Quinn and Masa Fuji. Despite the villains losing in straight falls, it appears the plan was for Quinn and Daddy to have a re-match at the same venue on the August bank holiday, but this was scuppered when Quinn jumped to rival promotion All Star Wrestling, complete with the title. In 1981, it was Haystacks’ turn to challenge Daddy in what would be the last of the Wembley Arena bouts. Again a knockout-to-win affair, the action was equally unimpressive, as Daddy got the KO at the 2:50 mark.
By this stage, Daddy, now turning 50, was almost exclusively a tag team wrestler, with his partner doing most of the work. This athletically-demanding role was performed by dozens of young grapplers, including Davey Boy Smith, The Dynamite Kid, Bret Hart, Sammy Lee (later Tiger Mask) and Kwik Kick Lee (Akira Maeda). It’s hard to overstate just how pitiful Daddy’s in-ring contributions became as the '80s rolled on, eventually reaching the stage where he would barely move during his brief spells in the ring, with opponents literally running towards him and bouncing off his belly.
This didn’t stop him becoming a genuine cultural icon thanks to his TV exposure. He was the subject of a weekly strip in the Buster comic, got a natural gig endorsing Daddies Ketchup and brown sauce, and was a regular on Saturday morning show TISWAS.
He was even lined up for his own spin-off, The Big Daddy Saturday Morning Show, with co-host Isla St Clair, scheduled to start in October 1982. Why the programme never aired depends which story you believe: either Daddy withdrew through ill-health, his schedule made committing to a regular time-slot impossible, or he proved too nervous in front the camera when shooting the pilot. When it went on air, the show was simply renamed The Saturday Show.
While Haystacks is remembered as Daddy’s most frequent opponent, that honour actually belongs to Tony Walsh, who remembered in his autobiography that, “I was more than prepared to allow Big Daddy and his 24 stones of blubber to flop on me five
nights a week. I’d let him do things to me in the ring that were not so much dangerous as bloody lethal. I know for a fact that no other wrestler would or could have done what I did. I made that man look like a million dollars.”
Walsh performed this miracle at least 637 times in singles and tag matches, according to extensive record collecting by the British Wrestling Archive website. And whereas Haystacks eked out the occasional disqualification win, Walsh tasted 637 defeats. However, he was to gain revenge in a very real sense in 1985.
After the death of his younger sister in a road accident, Walsh was enraged to receive no messages of support from the Crabtree family, with the only communication being a phone call from Max enquiring as to when he would return to the Daddy roadshow. It was the last straw for Walsh, who took part in a tell-all series with The Sun, revealing that his matches with Daddy were a sham. Crabtree convinced few with his retort that “this man’s allegations are total nonsense. None of my fights are fixed.” Walsh recalls Daddy even issued a public challenge to fight him for real at Crystal Palace, though Crabtree later quietly withdrew from the bout.
Another death two years later saw Daddy’s public image take a hit. During a match in Great Yarmouth, Daddy hit his trademark splash to pin Malcolm “King Kong” Kirk, but this time Kirk didn’t get up from the fall. He was carried unconscious from the ring, and declared dead from a heart attack in hospital.
The incident attracted worldwide attention, with the British Medical Association suggesting there might be a need for an upper age limit for wrestlers (Kirk was 51). Daddy not only stuck to the line that wrestling was a legitimate contest, leading to police enquiries (no further action was taken), but he wrestled the next night claiming that it was what Kirk would have wanted. That view was challenged by Kirk’s widow, who told newspapers of her husband’s pitiful pay-offs.
“Big Daddy has only one thing in mind: himself. He’s using my husband’s death for publicity stunts. I don’t blame him for Malcolm’s death, but what he did was all publicity.”
Crabtree’s own obituaries claimed he was so distraught at the death that he retired from the ring. In fact, he continued wrestling for another six years, long after wrestling was taken off ITV. His career wound down after suffering stroke-like symptoms, and his last recorded match came on December 29, 1993 in Margate teaming with Tony Stewart against the masked Undertakers. After years of ill-health, he died on December 2, 1997, after suffering a stroke.
LEGACY OR LIABILITY?
Daddy’s legacy in British wrestling is controversial. Supporters point to his indisputable fame, and the fact that he regularly attracted the highest crowds in his era. Critics note that his ring work attracted a fickle children’s audience, and drove away long-term fans, particularly in his final years on TV.
With the benefit of decades of hindsight, however, the biggest problem with Big Daddy is that he was a one-man superstar in a business never designed to work that way. While he worked a gruelling schedule of legitimately 250 or more dates a year during his peak (he worked more than 100 bouts in the year that he turned 63), he could only ever appear on one show at a time.
Meanwhile, the repetitive act meant he rarely appeared at a venue more than a handful of times a year, working as a special attraction rather than a regular performer in long-term storylines. With other shows stuck with babyfaces who lacked his star billing, and heels who’d already been embarrassed by him, the number of events - and thus the number of wrestlers who could make a living - plunged during the Big Daddy era. By the time his run was over, wrestling had become a novelty attraction, and the culture of regular shows in every town had died out.
While wrestler Chic Cullen’s description of Daddy’s effect on the business as “a bit like Chernobyl” seems a little over the top, and while Daddy undoubtedly helped revive mainstream interest in wrestling after it went into decline in the mid-1970s, there’s no mistaking the fact that he left the British wrestling industry in a far worse state than he found it.