When people think of British professional wrestling, one name is sure to come to mind: “Big Daddy” Shirley Crabtree.
The charismatic bleach-blond giant was never a stellar athlete, though what he lacked in athletic ability, he more than made up for with showmanship and charisma. He was the face of British Wrestling for a generation of fans, connecting with the everyday individual while playing a huge role in ITV World of Sport becoming a staple in households across Britain (even the Queen watched)!
From his grandest of highs to the tragic in-ring accident that led to the death of a wrestler, discover the tale of the rise and fall of “Big Daddy” Shirley Crabtree.
British Wrestling During Its Heyday
The history of British wrestling is a long and colorful one worth exploring.
Professional wrestling was booming in the 1930s with fine talents such as Tommy Mann, Jack Pye, Black Butcher Johnson, Bert Assirati, Jack Sherry, and Leonard Abbey, who wrestled as Jack Dale.
Soon though, with a peak in demand, the sport found itself with a lack of skilled amateurs.
Promoters were left with men who began using more gimmicky and violent methods like weapons and sometimes even wrestled in mud-filled rings, leaving the London County Council little choice but to ban wrestling before WWII.
With the sport in disgrace, and many leaving wrestling during wartime, it was an opportunity to break from the past.
A former amateur and professional wrestler named Norman Morrell was one of the more forward-thinking men involved and helped usher in a new era of British wrestling.
Along with Lord Mountevans, a former Artic explorer, they penned the new rules, aiming for a cleaner, more honest form of the sport that became the basis for the wrestling we know today.
The new committee also established seven formal weight divisions and controlled their champions.
As a promoter, he became a Joint Promotions member– the UK’s version of the NWA wrestling conglomerate that carved up the country into defined regions.
Dale Martin Promotions in the South became the member with the most territory.
Like the NWA, this arrangement between the different regional territories facilitated the exchange of talent between the various promoters and birthed a protective monopoly against independent promotions.
It wasn’t a perfect setup, as the British Wrestling pay strike in 1970 with wrestlers battling Dale Martin Promotions in the London area for improved pay will attest.
Still, the financial advantages of this arrangement helped the members survive harsh economic conditions, such as a post-war tax that took 25% of all entertainment revenue, which for a while wiped out most independent “outlaw” promotions.
Shirley Crabtree: Early Years of a Man Who’d Become”Big Daddy”
Born on November 14, 1930, in Halifax, West Yorkshire, England, he was named Shirley like his father.
According to the book “Who’s the Daddy? The Life and Times of Shirley Crabtree” by Ryan Danes, bullies targeted him at school due to sharing the same first name as Shirley Temple.
Although uncommon, it was initially a unique name used for males.
Soon, he would leave school at 14 to work in the local textile mills to boost the family’s income.
Shirley Crabtree played for the Bradford Northern and Halifax Rugby League squads. He also worked as a coal miner in Yorkshire and briefly with the British Army’s Coldstream Guards before he started lifting weights and training with Welsh wrestler and Rugby player Sandy Orford.
Shirley would soon find his true calling by following his father into the wrestling business in 1952.
In the 1960s, he retired temporarily from professional wrestling to run a nightclub in Bradford and become a lifeguard in Blackpool.
His brother Max Crabtree was a former wrestler and independent promoter hired by Joint Promotions. He had a simple idea to turn the business around. His brilliant idea sparked a welcome boom, but many say it also helped sink the ship by the late ’80s.
Shirley Crabtree Becomes Big Daddy
Norman Morell brought Shirley back into wrestling in 1972 but as a baddie called The Battling Guardsman. He quickly disposed of the Irish-American heavyweight Pat Curry and weeks later appeared again and destroyed the skilled Pete Roberts and others.
Once Joint Promotions hired Max Crabtree, he repackaged his brother Shirley as “Big Daddy” in 1974.
Under the new, memorable name, attention quickly turned towards the crowd-pleasing Big Daddy (with “Big D” on his outfit) as he and Giant Haystacks teamed up in a formidable heel tag team around 1975.
These two later had legendary clashes throughout the 1980s. But, of course, there is something to be said about 300-plus giants crashing against themselves like bulls and making the ring shake when working the ropes!
Big Daddy as a baddie didn’t last long, and soon he turned babyface during his famous feud with Kendo Nagasaki.
Another massive star at the time, the masked Kendo Nagasaki (not the Japanese wrestler but Peter Thornley), was a top draw and one of the few who avoided jobbing to Big Daddy. Instead, he voluntarily unmasked in a bizarre ceremony in 1977 before retiring the following year.
By 1976, the transformation of the people’s champion was more overt. Now no longer a bodybuilder youth, he was an overweight man with limited wrestling ability in his forties.
This didn’t seem to faze children and adults of all ages from paying good money to watch Daddy. They were mesmerized. For years, Big Daddy could do no wrong in their eyes.
His overwhelming popularity, to a large extent, covered up for his shortcomings. Leading crowds with “Easy, Easy” chants during the matches and ending them with his trademark Big Splash (also called the Splash Down) caused roars of approval.
Featured on the British television show This is Your Life, hosted by Eamonn Andrews in 1979, solidified his popularity with the masses. His gentlemanly charm beamed through the “telly,” and other famous wrestlers of that time also appeared.
Pro wrestling has always had a credibility problem. UK wrestlers who protected the business for decades built it up to where athleticism and believability were indispensable to the presentation of the sport.
Traditionally even England’s “worst” pro wrestlers had respectable mat skills. It wasn’t just a “biff (punch) and kick” product.
But Big Daddy toppled the notion. Quick matches with an emphasis on showmanship were his bread and butter.
Many of his peers resented him for that, but they also saw how business boomed and couldn’t deny the financial gain fuller venues brought.
Under Max Crabtree, wrestling soon eased up on believability and turned the entertainment factor to full blast to profit from this new wave of popularity.
Big Daddy: A Unique Wrestler
In England during the mid-’70s through the ’80s, if you somehow didn’t know that the 6’2″ and 350 lbs. (25-Stone) Big Daddy was a wrestler, you’d swear it was someone’s jolly heavyset uncle, the local butcher, or maybe a pub frequenter who for some inexplicable reason bedecked himself in either a sequined cape with matching top hat or a Union flag jacket.
Speaking on the Steve Austin show, William Regal went in-depth on some of his memories about Big Daddy.
“He and [Giant] Haystacks were attractions. It’s a bonus if you’re good in the ring. It’s about having that connection [with the fans], that magic that only some people have.
“You can’t imagine what a superstar he was; a national treasure! He was one of the first to come to the ring with music; it was a big production.
“You couldn’t turn on the TV without seeing Daddy on some mainstream show when there were only three channels. I never missed a Saturday morning kids’ showed called Tiswas. Daddy was always on it! I remember he had a comic book too.”
Fun fact: During his early career in 1986, a thin and timid William Regal wrestled on TV tagging with Big Daddy. He admits he wasn’t ready for the spotlight and hadn’t yet found his footing.
Regal soon looked to take the plunge and get out of England to travel the world. He had the rather unpleasant task of giving the British wrestling icon his notice.
Although Big Daddy wished him well, he didn’t quite understand how Regal could leave him as he did and believed he was making a mistake trying to work independently. Ultimately Regal did quite alright!
ITV’s World of Sport: A Simple Formula That Drew Crowds
Often presented to the fans as a television personality, Big Daddy became a household name. Saturday afternoons on ITV’s World of Sport had many fans glued to the “telly” watching Big Daddy with a big smile on his mug, sockin’ the baddie of the week during one of UK wrestling’s peak eras.
A more simplified description: he was massively popular to the UK fans and the media as Hulk Hogan in the USA but without the skills.
Of course, Hulk Hogan could wrestle when needed; check out his matches in Japan. But like Big Daddy, Hulk Hogan’s true strength and calling card was his charisma and connection with the fans.
Big Daddy’s two most recalled singles matches may have ironically been two of his worst.
One was in 1979 when he downed the Canadian ‘Mighty’ John Quinn (The Kentucky Butcher in the WWWF) and then made short work of archrival Giant Haystacks (Loch Ness in Stampede, and Loch Ness Monster in WCW) two years later in 1981.
The matches were even slower-paced and ponderous than the typical Big Daddy affair, but they worked at the time.
Both shows are still widely remembered and sold out the 10,000-seat Wembley Arena. Some sources claim that 18 million viewers watched the match against Giant Haystacks, but the number of viewers is debatable and often padded in kayfabe lore.
End of an Era
At the frantic pace things were going, they couldn’t possibly last. So within a couple of years, Joint Promotions was down to around only 100 shows a month– that’s in all of the UK.
Big Daddy easily defeating villains may have made good television for a couple of years, but the novelty soon wore off, and the rest of the roster suffered. Shades of the nWo years later?
When Joint was rewarded with a five-year extension on their television contract starting in 1982, things looked bleak for the rest of the industry.
Frustration among wrestlers grew. One could say that New Japan and Stampede’s junior-heavyweight glory days both had their roots in British wrestling of the time because of the departure of wrestlers looking for a place to display their talent and not just job (lose) to Big Daddy night after night.
Adrian Street has always been vocal about how he believes Big Daddy negatively affected wrestling in the UK. In a recent interview with WSI Wrestling, Adrian Street explained more.
“Joint Promotions sold out to Hurst Park Syndicate. Max Crabtree was a really good promoter but on a smaller scale, like a big fish in a little pond. But it absolutely went to his head when given the power over Joint Promotions.
“He brought back his brother Shirley, named him Big Daddy, and generally made the business a bad place. He replaced good wrestlers with bad actors. The business was turning into something I was ashamed to be associated with. That’s when I went to Canada and then the States, where they still respected wrestling.”
At the end of 1988, the Crabtrees received another blow when ITV’s World of Sport was taken off the air after then controller ITV, Greg Dyke, pulled the plug as he saw the sport as low-class.
Wrestling instead got its own show, but the timeslot changed weekly, struggling to find a regular audience. And with Joint Promotions’ contract up, they began sharing the TV rights as part of a rotation system with All-Star Promotions and the WWF.
A Wrestler Dies in the Ring with Big Daddy
The appeal Big Daddy still had soon took another considerable blow on August 24th, 1987, at the Yarmouth Hippodrome.
Here he teamed up with his nephew Steve Crabtree who worked under the guise of Greg Valentine (no relation to the American wrestler John Wisniski, Jr.), vs. Mal “King Kong” Kirk (Malcolm Kirk), and King Kendo (Bill Clarke), who was a budget rip off of Kendo Nagasaki.
After a Big Splash and pin from Daddy, Kirk lay unmoving in the ring. Big Daddy was visibly stunned.
At first, the fans thought it was a work and filed out of the venue. However, medical teams were quick on the scene.
Kirk was taken to the hospital and never regained consciousness. A formal inquest determined he’d died from complications due to a pre-existing heart condition.
The media seemed to be confused about what wrestling was or just looking to sensationalize the whole accident when asserting that Big Daddy “threw his full weight of 24-Stone on top of him in a maneuver called the Splash Down, which Big Daddy says now should be banned.”
The same inquest dismissed Big Daddy of all wrongdoing. However, when interviewed, he showed remorse for the tragedy:
“Mal ‘King Kong’ Kirk was as strong as three men; he was 25 stone. He was known as the Pittman’s Hercules. As long as I live, I’ll never forget seeing him laid down there on the canvas instead of on his feet raging and flying about.”
News report on Mal “King Kong” Kirk’s Death:
Tragic Death of ‘Big Daddy’ Shirley Crabtree
In his last years, wrestling promoters continued to try and squeeze every last “quid” out of the big man, and he was now relegated to smaller venues and facing unexciting opponents.
Soon the Big Daddy era petered out.
And while Max Crabtree’s promoting style and especially putting his brother on top billing for many years has its critics, it remains to be seen whether professional wrestling will ever again obtain the level of domestic popularity reached with Big Daddy at the top.
The mainstream attention he brought to the sport became his most outstanding achievement. Still, others believe that he hurt wrestling’s credibility at the time.
It says quite a lot about his legacy when tons of master ring technicians have come out of the UK throughout the years. However, the technically sparse “Big Daddy” Shirley Crabtree is arguably still the UK’s most recognizable wrestler.
Shirley Crabtree, better known as “Big Daddy,” retired in 1996 and sadly passed away on December 2nd, 1997, after suffering a stroke two months before his death.
He is still fondly remembered by wrestling fans of all ages, and his legacy is secure in the sport he drew so many people’s attention to.
These stories may also interest you:
- 12 British Wrestlers From the Past Who Paved the Way
- Adrian Street – The British Brawler Who Wore Sequins
- Chick ‘Cocky’ Knight – The Heroic Life of a British Wrestling Pioneer
- Jimmy Savile: A Predator’s Time in Wrestling
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