Watch Pete Dunne closely. Every move is crisp. Every blow is laid in tight. Dunne is a rising star who is at the top of his game, a grappler whose technical mastery is unquestioned and who can be a dominant heel on a global stage for years to come. It’s no wonder Dunne is reminiscent of another master of the craft: Les Thornton, a British grappler who died February 1, 2019, at 84 years old.
Like Pete Dunne, Les Thornton made his name in his native Great Britain. He then embarked on an international career that saw him win a version of the world junior heavyweight title eight different times. If you’ve heard of Thornton, it’s likely because he’s the answer to a trivia question: Who was Mick Foley’s first tag team partner in the WWF/E? Foley and Thornton faced off against the British Bulldogs back in 1985, and here’s how Foley remembered Thornton in his first memoir, Have a Nice Day:
“When the match started, I knew instantly that I was in trouble. Les Thornton was, like the Bulldogs, an English wrestler and a technical expert. For two minutes, he and Davey did some fine technical wrestling, and then Davey tagged the Dynamite Kid, and Les tagged the scared twenty-year-old kid. An announcement might as well have been made, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the scientific part of the match has just concluded, but please stay tuned for a major ass-whipping.'”
Les Thornton was a technical expert known to deliver a major ass-whipping in the ring.
By that point, Thornton was in his 50s and being used as an enhancement talent. But he was still in shape, a barrel-chested veteran, and a true shooter. He’d trained in the famed Snake Pit in Wigan, England under Billy Riley, and built a decade-plus career for himself in Great Britain before competing internationally in 1972. By 1980, Thornton was pushing for a run with the NWA world junior heavyweight championship. However, Leroy McGuirk–who promoted the Tri-State territory (a pre-cursor of Mid-South) and controlled that title–wouldn’t allow Thornton to win the belt. Instead, McGuirk put “Rotten” Ron Starr over Thornton in a tournament final for the title, and then Starr didn’t show up for their scheduled rematch, so Thornton claimed the title via forfeit in March of 1980.
“The only reason that I got that world … championship was because I took it,” Thornton told Greg Oliver of Slam! Sports. “I got sick of getting messed around in Oklahoma by Leroy [McGuirk] …” he explained, trailing off into memory. “They gave [Starr] the belt, brought him up and he wouldn’t drop the belt to me … he ran away with the belt. Then I got the Junior Heavyweight belt and I kept it.”
Like the NWA world heavyweight champion, Thornton toured the world with the title. He held the championship for nearly a year before dropping the belt to Jerry “Mr. Olympia” Stubbs in Mobile, Alabama. Five days later, he won the title back in Dothan, Alabama. Thornton defended the title regularly in territories around the world, engaging in a notable feud with his former tag-team partner, Tony Charles.
Think of Tony Charles as the Tyler Bate to Pete Dunne’s Les Thornton … smaller, technically proficient, and an amazing athlete in his own right. Charles was one of the main influences on wrestlers like Dean Malenko and was stylistically a little smoother than Thornton. On a memorable episode of Southeastern Championship Wrestling, the first match on the program was a nearly 10-minute-long (mostly) scientific match between Thornton and Charles, with Charles winning when he reversed a belly-to-back suplex into a bodypress for the pin.
Of course, it was a non-title match, designed to build interest for their title bout later that evening. And it worked. In the video of the match now, you can’t say that the fans in the studio audience are spellbound, but they are all interested and invested in the actual wrestling.
Thornton would also put over newcomer Terry Taylor for a short run with the world title.
“Les had been around for a while — he was in his fifties when I worked with him — and this was the first run I had with him. He could have really resented the 25-year-old kid across the ring from him and probably had every reason to resent me, but he didn’t,” Taylor wrote in 2005. “Les treated me with respect and taught me a lot. He worked the English style which back in 1980 was completely foreign (no pun intended) to not only the fans but to me as well. There was so much for me to learn. I very easily could have stunk the joint out and a lesser veteran might have even enjoyed that, but Les wasn’t that kind of man.
“Les did such a good job leading me through quality matches that he would put HIMSELF in holds and submissions! All I had to do was hang on! I remember him having me in a hammerlock and as I was screaming in agony — Les wriggled his body and then whispered to me, “Excuse me, but you have me now!” He had reversed the move and put himself in a hammerlock! I was so oblivious — I kept selling a move that was now on him! Would anyone have blamed him for beating me up?”
Les Thornton was the original “Bruiserweight” whose hard-hitting mat-based style would lay the blueprint for future tough-as-nails competitors such as Pete Dunne.
As with Stubbs, Taylor’s reign was short-lived. Thornton took the title back and continued to tour with it. His hard-hitting mat-based style would eventually give way to a new evolution in junior heavyweights, and Thornton dropped the title to the Japanese sensation, Tiger Mask. After working NWA territories almost exclusively, Thornton went with the expanding WWF/E when the Briscoes sold their shares of Georgia Championship Wrestling to Vince McMahon. While on-screen Thornton had become more of an enhancement talent, his international experience was helpful to McMahon behind the scenes. Thornton had toured Japan and Asia, had lived and worked in Australia for a time, and had experience wrestling in the Middle East, too. So when the WWF/E went on an international tour for seven weeks in 1985, Thornton found himself wrestling and running the shows, too.
“Vince [McMahon] made me three or four grand a week, and I wasn’t doing much,” Thornton told Greg Oliver. “We went to Saudi Arabia, and it was a seven-week tour in Saudi Arabia in ’84 or ’85,” he said. “I ran the shows in Saudi Arabia and Australia and in Kuwait and Cairo for the WWF. I wrestled and ran the shows for them. When I came back, I couldn’t keep up with them. My wife had come back here [to Calgary], so when I was 50, I came here and opened a gym.”
And when Thornton’s time in the ring was done, he had no qualms about walking away. He generally severed ties with the business. No cameos, no agenting. Thornton was the anti-Terry Funk. One retirement was enough for him.
“When I cut myself clear, I cut myself clear,” Thornton said of his retirement. “When I finished, I finished, and I didn’t bother with anybody.”
But Thornton’s legacy is clear. Even if there is no straight line between himself and current British sensation Pete Dunne, Thornton laid the blueprint for the tough-as-nails junior heavyweight British wrestler. In many ways, Thornton’s rough, mat-based bullying style made him the original ‘Bruiserweight,’ and his contributions to the wrestling industry shouldn’t go unmentioned.