One was a footballer, the other a wrestler, yet Mick McManus' unique approach to his sport foreshadowed the career of Britain's most loved player.
But McManus, who spent his pomp as a pro wrestler, was also the forerunner of David Beckham. Admittedly, only one of these men routinely got hit over the head by pension book-wielding grannies at Batley Town Hall, but they were two of a kind. Both these men knew that sport was only superficially about sport. Instead, it was about heroes, villains, fat men in leotards and thin ones in Posh Spice’s knickers.
I loved to hate Mick McManus. He was villainous in a way Robbie Savage could never be. He oozed East End kitsch and had the mien of a man who should be on the run in Brazil. And it was him, rather than those panto stars Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks, who made wrestling a staple food of Saturday afternoons.
Yes, believe it or not, in a world before people watched Jeff Stelling looking at a tele, people watched wrestling every week. It was huge. The Queen was a fan. It was the age when sport was fun. ITV’s flagship programme was effectively a potty-pouri of rugby league, Acapulcan cliff diving and wrestling, while over on the Beeb they had boxing and greyhound racing, all seen through Harry Carpenter’s brilliantine lenses.
Beckham belonged back there. After his fabled boot-throwing spat with Sir Alex Ferguson, Beckham was caught on camera with his hair brushed back to reveal apparent stitches above his eye. This was a descendant of the sort of posturing McManus had perfected when standing on his head and letting Tommy Cooper spread his legs for the camera; Beckham was actually Goldenballs Redux.
He was a good footballer, too, as McManus was a good wrestler, but those two things are common enough. What set them apart was their ability to foist their personalities on the public. They dragged us into the story in a way Paul Scholes never could as he left Old Trafford to tend to his allotment.
Now the modern footballer is a mess of clichés, bereft of character and force fed through a PR mincer, so all you get is the entrails of sentences, as with the teacher in Pink Floyd’s The Wall video. Not Mick and Becks, though. They gave us the light and shade of sport; there may not have been much grey matter but there were no grey areas either.
Sadly, I never got to interview McManus, although I did have the pleasure of talking at his peer, Kendo Nagasaki. It was not the greatest interview in one way, given that Kendo, adopting a surprisingly reticent attitude for someone trying to flog a video game, had elected not to speak. And so his confidant, Paul Yates, gave me the answers that Kendo had transmitted to him telepathically. “When you saw other wrestlers trying to pull away the mask it was like seeing a living Francis Bacon portrait,” Yates said. As far as I know, Fergie never said stuff like that.
You might think such stuff ridiculous, but the presence of Kendo’s gleaming Samurai sword on the table between us created an atmosphere of copper-bottomed sincerity. And Kendo was kinda cool for a pensioner from the Midlands. He was an old man and he wore a leotard, but he was cooler than Big Daddy, an older man in a bigger leotard, and Les Kellett, an unadulterated psychopath without pseudonym or leotard. The chances are you won’t remember Kellett because he was a dull man with an overtly vicious streak that cut through wrestling’s artifice, whereas Kendo was a riot of drama and folk tales. He had lost a finger in an initiation ceremony into the Japanese mafia. He could hypnotise opponents with his crimson eyes He had a manager called Gorgeous George. And although you knew it was not real and that he had really lost the finger working in a horsebox factory in Crewe, there was a part of you that felt sure he was some sort of weirdo, if not exactly the one he would have you believe.
It was real enough even if it was fixed. Kendo’s cover did get blown for a while when a plumber went to his house and recognised Gorgeous George swanning around in his chiffon ball gown. He concluded the bloke on the sofa must be Kendo and printed up some fliers to expose Peter Thornley of Wolverhampton. The tattoo on the top of his head and the crimson eyes probably gave him away too. “Kendo would have murdered the bastard but he can’t go running down the street with his Samurai sword,” Max Crabtree, the promoter, later recalled.
People soon forgot because they wanted to believe in the magic. And that’s why Kendo and Becks and Mick McManus matter. It does not matter if Beckham was not one of the top 1000 footballers, as a curmudgeonly Chris Waddle bleated last week; all that mattered was that people thought he was. The sadness of men like Waddle is they believe Bill Shankly’s flippant remark about football being more important than life in death. It is actually pretty important, but the main thing is copping off with Posh and living down the road from Neil Diamond in LA.
Although Terence Donovan and Sir Peter Blake liked wrestling, Greg Dyke did not and so it was kicked off the box in 1988. “We were stuck in about 1955 and wrestling clearly wasn’t a proper sport,” Dyke said. He had a point. Wrestling may have had a sporting element, but it was vaudeville entertainment. It was ‘The Good Old Days’ with Boston crabs, panto with teeth. When Dyke sent it packing to the small, crumbling halls around the country, the sport effectively died. In a rare interview, where he provided his answers by fax, Nagasaki wrote: “UK wrestling no longer exists. It’s an abortion of Americanised entertainment.”
So instead of Mick McManus we now have sports stars who subscribe to the myth of sport. These are people who think they matter because they can kick or hit a ball. It is a falsehood peddled by Greg Dyke and Chris Waddle. Was wrestling fixed? Well, yes, in the same way football is with its play-acting divas and divers. And is Beckham selling shirts worse than real footballers pulling them?
Beckham knew the truth just as Mick did. Hence, the tattoos and the sarongs and the ability to rile the blue-rinse brigade. Sports stars matter only because of their power to rouse us from recession-hit ennui and make us feel. I believed in Beckham as I believed in Mick, which is why I hope the latter has gone straight to hell.