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Wrestling giants once ruled world

He might have been 17 inches shorter than Giant Haystacks, but no one was bigger in the world of British wrestling than Mick McManus, who died last week aged 93. McManus, whose outfit and stiffly lacquered hair were the same stygian shade of black, was the sport's ultimate bad guy.

The Man You Love To Hate's battles with the ultimate good guy, Jackie 'Mr TV' Pallo, were the sport's great showdowns, drawing an incredible 20 million viewers one Saturday in 1962, a bigger audience, legend has it, than the Spurs v Burnley FA Cup final which followed it.

McManus was still gripping and grappling in the 1970s when youngsters of my generation happened across the weird and wonderful world of TV wrestling. In fact, his 26-year career was the longest of any wrestler, which may have had something to do with his day job as a booker for Dale Martin Promotions, where he arranged the weekend's pairings and, more importantly, the results.

knowing that the wrestling matches were choreographed rather than contested didn't really spoil your viewing. Because the world that McManus, Pallo, Kendo Nagasaki, Adrian Street, Giant Haystacks and Big Daddy inhabited was less the world of sport than that of variety and light entertainment. Their peers were not Kevin Keegan, Gareth Edwards and Clive Lloyd but Eric Morecambe, Tommy Cooper and Les Dawson, entertainers of genius who'd transcended low-rent beginnings to become the darlings of millions.

Mick McManus, after all, was himself a fictional character, having been born William Matthews in south-east London. His villainous persona was expertly created, tirelessly skirting the possibility of disqualification, ever ready with sneer and scowl, giving off a remarkable air of menace for a man who stood just five foot six inches and weighed 12-and-a-half stone at his peak, outraging the brolly-waving old dears at ringside, knowing that nothing says toughness and villainy like a good old Irish name.

He was one of the icons of World of Sport, ITV's Saturday afternoon show which thrived on a diet of sports at one remove from the mainstream. It was the domain of Evel Knievel, of the speedway stars Ole Olsen and Ivan Mauger, of hot dog skiers, stock car racers and surfers.

I miss the light-hearted, almost camp, spirit of World of Sport these days when TV sport is monotonously serious and portentous with a martial comparison ever ready on the lips of presenter and pundit. But given that variety has made a big comeback with the likes of Britain's Got Talent and Celebrity Come Dancing, perhaps a wrestling renaissance on terrestrial TV isn't beyond the bounds of possibility.

And I hope that as Mick McManus reached the pearly gates, an irate old woman who'd waited years for the opportunity rushed out and beat him furiously with an umbrella as punishment for his serial offences against sportsmanship. It's what he would have wanted.

Irish Independent