I was honoured this past week to have been asked by Mirror.co.uk to pen a tribute to Shirley Crabtree, unquestionably the most recognisable face in British wrestling’s history, to be published fifteen years after his death. Commemorating this anniversary, the piece explores Crabtree’s legacy and his impact on wrestling here in the UK. Read the full Mirror.co.uk article below.
Fifteen years ago today, professional wrestling – and the British entertainment scene as a whole – lost one of its best loved faces.
Shirley Crabtree – better known to millions of fans simply as Big Daddy – passed away at the age of 67 in Halifax General Hospital, following a massive stroke two months previously.
Throughout his near 40-year career, the popular grappler, who weighed in at a colossal 25 stone and was famous for his 64-inch chest, was a genuine force to be reckoned with inside the ring – but on the outside of it, the beloved star was considered a ‘gentle giant’, donating countless hours to children’s charity appearances.
A former rugby league player, Crabtree worked as a coal miner, a lifeguard, and briefly with the British Army’s Coldstream Guards before finding his true calling and following his father Shirley Sr. into the wrestling business in 1952.
Known by a variety of personas during the 1950s and 60s (including ‘Blond Adonis’ Shirley Crabtree, Mr Universe and The Battling Guardsman), the larger-than-life Northern wrestler ran the ropes as both a babyface and heel under these names.
But it was in 1974 that Crabtree’s most-recognised gimmick, that of Big Daddy, was brought to life on ITV’s Saturday afternoon programme World of Sport.
Under the new, memorable name, attention quickly turned towards Big Daddy as he formed a heel tag team with fellow big man Giant Haystacks – with whom he would have many a legendary clash throughout the 1980s.
Big Daddy as a Big Bad Guy didn’t last long however, as it was during his famous feud with Kendo Nagaski in 1975 that he became a fully-fledged fan favourite.
One particularly notable televised encounter in Solihull that December saw Crabtree unmask his mysterious foe to a rapturous reception from the live crowd and a huge TV audience.
As the sport’s biggest star in Great Britain, Crabtree became particularly popular among young fans by coming to the ring bedecked in either a sequined cape or his Union Flag jacket and top hat to the theme tune of ‘We Shall Not Be Moved’ by The Seekers.
While by no means the most athletic of competitors inside the squared circle, Big Daddy’s overwhelming popularity covered up for this shortcoming to a large extent, leading the crowds with chants of “Easy, Easy” before finishing off competitors with his trademark Big Splash.
Big Daddy’s staggeringly successful career spanned the best part of four decades and, towards the end, would see him share the ring with the likes of future WWE stars ‘Tom ‘Dynamite Kid’ Billington, Dave ‘Fit’ Finlay and William Regal – but it is perhaps the mainstream attention that he brought to the sport that was his greatest achievement.
Thanks to his tremendous charisma, Crabtree transcended the sport that made him a star and brought a wealth of new UK fans to professional wrestling.
Going beyond the squared circle, at his most popular period Crabtree appeared on Surprise, Surprise, was featured on This Is Your Life, was interviewed by Terry Wogan, advertised ketchup and, rather remarkably, had famous fans in both then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and The Queen.
I became a wrestling fan in the early 1990s, with my first introduction to the sport being the World Wrestling Federation’s monumentally successful SummerSlam 1992 show from Wembley Stadium.
At the time, I had little comprehension that wrestling – which I perceived as an American product – had such a rich history here in the UK. At the time that I became a fan, British wrestling’s telly zenith had already passed after ITV binned coverage in 1988.
Yet despite American professional wrestling’s huge worldwide popularity over the past twenty years – giving rise to household names such as Hulk Hogan and Stone Cold Steve Austin, as well as producing a true Hollywood A-lister in Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson – whenever I meet someone new and mention to them that I enjoy watching wrestling, the first name that is always quoted back to me, without fail, is Big Daddy.
Decades on, his legendary clashes with the likes of Giant Haystacks and Mick McManus are still remembered fondly by several generations.
For those fans of the sport, there were few bigger stars in this country – quite literally – than Crabtree during the 1970s and 80s.
There continues to be a huge appetite for wrestling in this country – as evidenced by both the number of homegrown promotions in existence currently and the fiercely passionate crowds at both WWE and TNA’s UK shows this year.
It remains to be seen, however, whether professional wrestling will ever again reach the level of popularity domestically that it achieved with Big Daddy at the top.
And that is a legacy not soon forgotten.