The concept of British wrestling attracting paying crowds was first introduced at the beginning of the 20th century. Music hall promoters produced variety shows with acts such as stand-up comedy, song and dance, and everything in between. The biggest attraction was bodybuilder Eugene Sandow. The limited amount of action, however, soon meant that the gimmick would wear thin. Enter wrestling.
Wrestling was first made popular through a Cornish-American by the name of Jack Carkeek. He moved from one theatre to another, challenging members of the audience to spend 10 minutes in the ring with him. However, one telling night in London’s Alhambra theatre (or Odeon Leicester Square as it’s now known), a Russian by the name of George Hackenschmidt, who had just won a tournament in Paris, accepted the challenge. Aware of Hackenschmidt’s ability, Carkeek made an excuse by saying that the challenge was restricted to Englishmen.
After hearing about the incident, entrepreneur and promoter Charles B. Cochran mentored Hackenschmidt and persuaded the Daily Mail to write an article about the Russian wrestler entitled “Is Strength Genius?”.
After he defeated No. 1 British wrestler Tom Cannon for the European Greco-Roman title in 1902, Hackenschmidt signed on to multiple matches in Manchester. He would be paid what was then an impressive £150 per week. Cochran believed that the wrestler’s dominant style may cause crowds to lose interest, however, so he persuaded him to learn the art of showmanship from the man he defeated (Cannon) and to regard some of his bouts as entertainment, as opposed to sport.
One gimmick saw Hackenschmidt intentionally allow a challenger from the audience to last 10 minutes with him and collect his £25 prize. Hackenschmidt would then beat them easily in the rematch after unsuspecting audience members had placed their money on his opponent.
The sport needed a legitimate challenger, and he came along in the form of Ahmed Amdrali, A match between the two wrestlers would take place on January 30, 1904. The winner would be rewarded with £1,000 and the loser £500. The match lasted all but seconds, with Hackenschmidt either having separated his shoulder or broken his arm. Soon after, he headed to the U.S.
The popularity of wrestling was declining in 1908 due to a lack of entertaining and credible draws. It wasn’t helped when proceedings were halted in 1914 due to the outbreak of war. While amateur wrestling would continue to be regarded as legitimate, as a business, grappling wasn’t accepted in the 1920s before until Britain had heard from the U.S. all about the successful combination of submission holds and gimmickry, which made matches livelier. Sir Atholl Oakeley, an amateur wrestler at the time, teamed up with Henry slinger, another grappler, to launch ‘All-In’ wrestling on December 15 1930: Oakeley fought Bert Assirati and Irslinger took on Yugoslav Modrich, in Manchester and London, respectively.
Oakley would go on to claim that ‘All-In’ wrestling was legitimate, without a hint of impropriety in his business until after retirement. He would go on to become Britain’s first heavyweight champion after deafening Bill Garnon. That many of the wrestlers worked twice per day indicates that the sport was by then established as purely a business, albeit where amateur credentials were a requirement.