12 British Wrestlers From the Past Who Paved the Way

Over the years, the United Kingdom has produced some of the very best in professional wrestling. Although some of the wrestlers we detail below broke through to major promotions during their time in the business, often, they aren’t given the recognition they deserve. Here are twelve British wrestlers who were critical to the evolution of British wrestling and influenced some of the very best of today.

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1. Fit Finlay

David “Fit” Finlay began his wrestling career in 1974, though his first mainstream exposure came when he debuted as the Belfast Bruiser in WCW in 1996.

Fit Finlay over the years.
Fit Finlay over the years.

The North Ireland-born Finlay amassed twenty championship reigns throughout his career, including the United States Championship in WWE.

In WWE, he was recognized as one of the company’s best and most reliable workers. However, he never got to show his full potential and was often placed in comedy segments alongside his “leprechaun” sidekick, Hornswoggle. This ultimately proved to be a waste of his ability during a time when he didn’t have many years left in the squared circle as a performer.

Finlay retired from in-ring competition in 2012 and is now a backstage producer for the WWE.

2. Big Daddy

From January 1965 to September ’85, British wrestling was the hottest it may have ever been. ITV’s World of Sport was a household name in Britain, where it saw millions of viewers weekly. One of their biggest stars went by the name “Big Daddy.”

Icon of '70s British wrestling, "Big Daddy" Shirley Crabtree.
“Big Daddy” Shirley Crabtree – an icon of ’70s British wrestling.

With his 64-inch chest and bleach blonde hair, it was hard for him not to be popular with fans. In fact, he was so known to the British public that the Queen and former Prime Minister Margret Thatcher were said to be fans! Yet, he doesn’t get as much recognition outside of Britain.

Big Daddy regularly prevailed in his bouts, commonly using his star-studded finisher, “The Big Splash.”

His wrestling ability is something that people in the modern-day wouldn’t be overly impressed with, but back in his time, he could captivate the audience at his command, which enabled him to be the star he was.

Sadly, his fame and glory in the British circuit were cut short. After one of his shows on December 2nd, 1997, he died from a stroke. He was 67. Although he never got a chance to appear in many mainstream promotions, he indeed laid his legacy in his home country.

3. Giant Haystacks

Another World of Sport favorite, Martin Austin Ruane, as Giant Haystacks, became a massive star in 1975 after teaming up with previously mentioned Big Daddy as one of the most dominant tag teams in British Wrestling history. He, however, was a considerable draw himself.

Giant Haystacks was one of the best-known wrestlers on the British wrestling scene in the 1970s and 1980s.
Giant Haystacks was one of the best-known wrestlers on the British wrestling scene in the 1970s and 1980s. [Photo: IMDB]
His enormous stature was not lifelike as he stood an astonishing 6 feet, 11 inches (1.11m) tall and weighed 685 lbs (311 kg).

 

During his career, he held the European Heavyweight Championship and British Heavyweight Championship in the UK and won the Stampede International Tag Team Championship in Canada with the Dynamite Kid.

He got his big break in the United States in 1996, competing in WCW as the Loch Ness Monster.

Not moving as well as his large frame once was able, Arn Anderson recalled this time in Haystacks’ career on his ARN Podcast, stating, “He could only probably fall one more time. At that age and size, one bump is likely all he had left in him.”

On November 29th, 1998, he would sadly die of lymphoma at his home near Manchester, England. He was 52.

4. Robbie Brookside

Although known nowadays as a coach at the WWE Performance Center, previously, Robbie Brookside had a very successful career as a performer.

Robbie Brookside during his days wrestling at TWA (The Wrestling Alliance UK).
Robbie Brookside during his days wrestling at TWA (The Wrestling Alliance UK).

The Liverpool-born wrestler initially performed in a tag team called The Golden Boys alongside William Regal (then known as Steven Regal).

He would win tag team titles in All Star Wrestling alongside fellow Liverpudlian Doc Dean before eventually being signed to WCW in the mid-’90s.

He would later appear on an April 2007 episode of Raw, losing a no disqualification, 3-on-1 handicap match to Shane McMahon, Vince McMahon, and Umaga. Brookside was introduced as a man that Shane McMahon had personally seen take down six men by himself in a fight at a local pub!

In his later years, he continued to be influential within the British circuit, winning titles such as the Frontier Wrestling Alliance’s British Heavyweight Championship. However, he never got his break in what was, at the time, the top promotion in the world, WWE. As a result, he never got to show his full potential on the grandest stage.

Although after thirty years of being a performer, he was able to transition into becoming a talent scout for the WWE. Nowadays, he trains the stars of tomorrow at the WWE Performance Center.

5. Adrian Street

Adrian Street is one of the most influential British wrestlers of his time. He had a 57-year wrestling career, winning championships across multiple countries in different promotions such as Championship Wrestling from Florida and Southwest Championship Wrestling.

Adrian Street with his valet and wife, Miss Linda.
Adrian Street with his valet and wife, Miss Linda. [Photo: huckmag.com]
Street played by his own rules, and, according to his peers, was known to be able to hurt you in the ring if needed!

 

In 1986, he won the “The Best Gimmick of the Year” award from the Wrestling Observer Newsletter — a prize that has been held by the likes of The Undertaker and Goldust.

His “glam rock” looks and in-ring ability instantly attracted attention from the fans and cemented his place as a top heel.

Along with his accolades, he was one of the first to incorporate a female valet into his act.

You can learn more about this fearless trendsetter here.

6. Chris Adams

Chris Adams first entered professional wrestling in 1978 with no proper formal training. Instead, he relied on his judo background. He worked for Joint Promotions and frequently wrestled on ITV’s World of Sport.

The wrestler who popularized the superkick: "Gentleman" Chris Adams back in the late '80s.
The wrestler who popularized the superkick: “Gentleman” Chris Adams back in the late ’80s. [Photo: @WrestlingIsKing on Twitter]
In his first three years in wrestling, he claimed the Light Heavyweight Championship and the British Commonwealth Tag Team Titles with Marty Jones. He also had many great matches against British wrestling greats such as Fit Finlay and Mick McManus.

 

He would have memorable feuds against the Von Erichs alongside Gino Hernandez as the “Dynamic Duo” in the World Class Championship Wrestling promotion, where he joined in 1983.

His potential and ability have been often overlooked despite his influence on wrestling. He was one of the first to implement karate into his performance and is often credited with the invention of the superkick, a now-signature move of many.

“The Gentleman,” as he was known, still did get his due in other less mainstream promotions such as the Global Wrestling Federation, where he won the GWF Heavyweight Championship twice in 1994. He later would become a regular performer on WCW Saturday Night and WCW Thunder.

It is said that his disillusion with his career direction led to a return to the Texas independent scene in late ’99. However, like many on this list, his potential was not pursued to its extent as he tragically died in 2001 at the age of 46 due to being shot to death after a dispute with his former roommate.

7. Mick McManus

Mick McManus was a man small in stature, though he induced much fear! At just 5 feet, 6 inches (1.68 m) tall, and 175 lbs (79 kg), he was known for his brutal way of punishing opponents of all sizes.

Legendary British wrestling anti-hero, Mick McManus.
Legendary British wrestling anti-hero Mick McManus. [Photo: dailymail.co.uk]
McManus’s main catchphrase was “Not the ears! Not the ears!” so that opponents would avoid his cauliflower ears.

 

He was a top heel and was renowned for bending the rules so the crowd would despise him as much as humanly possible. He was referred to as “the man you love to hate!”

He worked in Brixton offices by day but would become a villain by night. He was so pushed on television that he was unbeaten for twenty years. He was so popular in Britain that in one of his performances, he pulled in twenty million viewers against Jackie “Mr. TV” Pallo.

His win streak eventually was ruined by opponent Peter Preston. Preston’s unchoreographed no-sells to McManus’ strikes led to McManus reacting and throwing legitimate strikes to get the referee to disqualify him during the match, thus giving Preston the unscheduled technical victory.

McManus has been described as the greatest name in British wrestling history, yet he remains mostly unknown outside of the United Kingdom.

8. Kendo Nagasaki

Peter Thornley from Stoke, England, was an iconic character in ITV’s World of Sport. He portrayed a Japanese samurai with a relatively unknown past: Kendo Nagasaki.

British wrestling legend Kendo Nagasaki.
British wrestling legend Kendo Nagasaki. [Photo: mirror.co.uk]
Nagasaki had “superhuman powers,” such as the power of healing and the ability to hypnotize. This would prove to make him a crowd favorite in Britain throughout the 1970s and ’80s.

 

Some of his best moments in the ring came when he tag-teamed against Giant Haystacks and Big Daddy in a tremendous feud that saw one of British wrestling’s most prolific segments occur as he unmasked himself in 1977.

Thornley was the original performer who used the Kendo Nagasaki character, but other variations have been used over the years. An example is Kazuo Sakurada, a Japanese wrestler who used the gimmick in the late ’80s.

Different versions of this character would form in the years to follow, showing the persona’s longevity, but none lived up to the original.

Peter Thornley’s version of the character remained a household name throughout Britain, but most Americans and Japanese fans associated the character mostly with Kazuo Sakurada’s version.

Kendo Nagasaki was an inspiration to many cultural gimmicks to come, and many wrestlers have named him as an inspiration behind their work.

9. Mark “Rollerball” Rocco

Mark Rocco was a fourth-generation British wrestler. Although his father was against his son becoming a professional wrestler — he would go as far as having Mark banned from his gym in Manchester, England — Rocco would "learn the ropes" from many veterans from the age of 16 while his father was out on tour.

Before long, he would be touring as far away as France, Japan, and eventually North America.

Mark "Rollerball" Rocco - The Original Black Tiger
Mark “Rollerball” Rocco – The Original Black Tiger.

It would be squaring off against the likes of Satoru Sayama (Tiger Mask), Keiichi Yamada (Jushin Liger), and Dynamite Kid (more on him a little later), among others, which would earn the British grappler his initial acclaim and start him on the path towards leaving an indelible mark on the profession.

This series of highly regarded matches would also lead to New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) contacting Rocco, leading to the birth of the "Black Tiger" persona and some of the most highly rated matches in Japanese television history against Sayama’s Tiger Mask.

This rivalry would continue throughout 1982 and extend to the WWWF, where Mark briefly competed against the likes of Bob Backlund and even Terry "Hulk Hogan" Bollea, captivating audiences with a faster, higher-flying style than many had ever witnessed before.

Whenever not on tour overseas, Rocco would continue to compete for All Star Wrestling back home in Britain for the remainder of his career, which would last into the early ’90s.

After a long battle with dementia, Rocco sadly passed away on July 30th, 2020. He was 69.

10. Marty Jones

Marty Jones perhaps might be the least known of the names mentioned on this list but is one of the best all-around grapplers of the bunch. The fact that Jones was responsible for training a young William Regal speaks to this.

The legendary British grappler Marty Jones takes Dynamite Kid for a ride (left), and in more recent years (right).
The legendary British grappler Marty Jones takes Dynamite Kid for a ride (left) and in more recent years (right).

A staple of the Joint Promotions and All Star Wrestling promotions in Britain throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Marty made his wrestling debut in 1972.

He would win his first singles championship from none other than Mark "Rollerball" Rocco in November 1976 when he defeated him for the British Light Heavyweight Championship, a Joint Promotions title he would go on to hold five times.

While never wrestling across the pond in the WWF, Jones did a stint in NJPW in the early ’80s, where he faced off against the original Tiger Mask and also participated in tag team matches alongside and against well-known international names at the time, such as Antonio Inoki and even Andre The Giant.

As might be expected, Jones is now a trainer for several British-based wrestling promotions and, in recent years, even mentored multiple members of the current NXT UK roster.

11. Dynamite Kid

British wrestler “Dynamite Kid” Tom Billington was one of the best to lace up a pair of wrestling boots. He was ahead of his time, innovating a level of athleticism unlike most before him.

Dynamite Kid Tom Billington was one of the best to lace up a pair of wrestling boots, but does his troubled past overshadow his legacy?
Dynamite Kid Tom Billington was one of the best to lace up a pair of wrestling boots.

In 1982, Dynamite Kid had an instant classic with Tiger Mask for the WWF Junior Heavyweight Championship at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Some consider this match one of the greatest matches of all time.

After Satoru Sayama (the original iteration of Tiger Mask) retired, Dynamite Kid went on to win the WWF Junior Heavyweight Champion on February 7th, 1984, in a tournament for the vacant title.

After a 273-day reign, he vacated the title on November 6th, 1984, leaving Japan for the World Wrestling Federation.

Dynamite Kid made his WWF television debut on August 29th, 1984, at the Maple Leaf Gardens teaming up with Bret Hart to defeat “Iron” Mike Sharpe and Troy Alexander.

Dynamite famously also teamed up with Davey Boy Smith as The British Bulldogs.

On April 7th, 1986, at WrestleMania 2, The Bulldogs dethroned Greg “The Hammer” Valentine and Brutus Beefcake, successfully capturing the WWF World Tag Team Championships.

Many prestigious titles and awards are under his belt, and he won Wrestling Observer’s “Match of the Year” in 1982 with Tiger Mask on August 5th in Tokyo, Japan. He was also inducted into the Stampede Wrestling, the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, and the Canadian Wrestling Hall of Fames.

His reputation is tarnished for many due to several violent interactions with fellow wrestlers and mean-spirited ribbing, though he leaves behind an incredible legacy in the ring.

12. William Regal

British grappler Darren “William Regal” Matthews is one of the most well-regarded wrestlers in the business, though he never was able to land on his feet at the top of the professional wrestling mountain, where many believe he could and should have been. Despite this, he managed a very successful career.

William Regal over the years.
William Regal over the years.

Training under Marty Jones, Matthews made his pro wrestling debut at the age of 15 for a local promotor at Blackpool Pleasure Beach. Matthews trained as a shooter (a wrestling term that describes a wrestler with a legitimate fighting background), and he often defended prize money against members of the public. Matthews’s extensive knowledge of wrestling holds aided him, even in some of Britain’s most ruthless towns.

After testing his trade in carnivals and holiday camps, Darren soon gained exposure working for ITV’s World of Sport, like many others on this list.

Not entirely content with only being placed in tag bouts to make his partner Big Daddy look good, Matthews moved over to All Star Wrestling. Here is where he would meet Robbie Brookside. They would work together as a team in many matches during the final years of the channel ITV’s coverage of British wrestling.

Around this time in his career, Matthews began earning more money touring throughout Europe and Africa.

In 1991, Matthews had his first taste of the then-WWF after having several try-out matches at both the UK Rampage and Battle Royal at Royal Albert Hall events, where he shared a ring with the likes of Dave Taylor and Fit Finlay.

Here, Matthews would go by Steve Regal – a name he had used going back to ’87, and a name he had seen in an American wrestling magazine in use by another wrestler named “Mr. Electricity” Steve Regal.

Regal would debut in WCW in 1993. During his time there, he would become a four-time TV Champion.

He joined WWE in 2000, where he would become a four-time European Champion, four-time Tag Team Champion, two-time Intercontinental Champion, and a five-time Hardcore Champion, also winning the King of the Ring tournament in 2008 despite issues outside of the ring.

His hard-hitting persona was hard not to hate as he would do anything to win, even if it meant cheating. His calculated evil ways made him one of the biggest heels in any company he worked.

Before being released from his WWE contract on January 5th, 2022, which ended his 22-year tenure with the company, Regal had an even bigger role behind the scenes as the WWE Director of Talent Development and Head of Global Recruiting, playing a significant role in building the future stars of WWE. He was also a trainer at the WWE Performance Center, where he trained the newest batch of WWE superstars. 

William Regal’s story is a great representation that it doesn’t matter where you come from, what demons you have, or where you are in life. As long as you work hard and strive to improve yourself, you can achieve whatever you put your mind to.

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Kieran Hamilton finds joy in all things wrestling. He has written for websites such as Mersey Sports Live and is now taking his degree in sports journalism from John Moores University into the wrestling business. He currently lives in Liverpool, United Kingdom, and finds his spare time training to become a wrestler.