Mayweather vs McGregor wasn’t the first novelty fight, Bombardier Billy Wells took part in one in 1938
BOXING was a sport of the masses before World War II, with a level of popularity to rival that of football. Britain’s top pro boxers were household names, schoolboy idols and, in some cases, the heartthrobs of adoring women. Pro wrestling, on the other hand, had tried and failed to capture public imagination. That is until late 1930, when the mat game re-emerged in a thrilling new guise that took Britain by storm. ‘All-in’ wrestling was the name of the new craze, so called because it blended catch-as-catch-can, jiu-jitsu and traditional Greco-Roman wrestling into one exciting style.
The fights were fake, with torture – the twisting and breaking of fingers, eye-gouging and other brutal touches – a mandatory component, but British crowds loved it. It was something they’d never seen before and for one or more nights a week it lifted the gloom of widespread unemployment, poor pay and woeful working conditions. All-in wrestling spread like wildfire and pretty soon popular boxing halls such as Kilburn’s Vale Hall, Nottingham’s Victoria Baths, the Liverpool Stadium and the Blackfriars Ring staged regular wrestling nights, and the leading wrestlers – much like the leading boxers – became glamorous figures.
Some venues held joint wrestling and boxing bills, as an audience crossover between the sports was inevitable. Numerous former pro boxers tried their hand at all-in wrestling – ex-British heavyweight champion Reggie Meen and one-time boxing “Wonderboy” Nipper Pat Daly being two high-profile examples. Another ex-boxer who moved into wrestling was Hammersmith heavyweight Chick “Cocky” Knight. After boxing as an amateur, in 1935 and ‘36 Knight had a brief spell as a pro boxer, winning four and losing three before switching to all-in wrestling.
In the latter sport he quickly made his mark and within two years had the attention of the boxing world too. In echoes of Floyd Mayweather’s match with UFC star Conor McGregor 79 years later, Chick – who was erroneously billed as an American – took on ex-British heavyweight boxing champion Bombardier Billy Wells, who came out of retirement at age 49 for this ‘boxer vs wrestler’ contest.
The eyes of the fight-loving public were glued to this novelty match, held at Earls Court in December 1938 and promoted by leading wrestling impresario Harold Lane. Unlike in Mayweather vs McGregor – an actual boxing match – in this fight each man was obliged to stick to the methods of his native sport. Wells wore boxing gloves and could not wrestle, while Knight was bare-fisted, permitted to wrestle but barred from punching.
The bizarre bout, filmed by Pathé News for cinema broadcast, did not last long. As Wells danced around the ring, keeping Knight at arm’s length with his famed straight left, the wrestler grew frustrated and, according to press reports, was warned several times for punching. After just two minutes and 14 seconds, Chick was disqualified for a body shot, which some reports deemed low and in any case contravened the rules. The boxer had triumphed but it was a hollow victory.
Aside from a financial incentive, it is hard to see what Wells – a beloved figure in Britain and the first winner of a heavyweight Lonsdale Belt – had to gain by entering the bout after 13 years out of the ring. But for Knight, who was at the start of a long career as a wrestler, it provided priceless publicity.
The story of Knight’s colourful life – including life-saving heroics, working as a bodyguard for Princess Margaret and a friendship with infamous hangman Albert Pierrepoint – is chronicled in a new book, London’s Loveable Villain (a reference to one of Knight’s wrestling nicknames). It’s available from Barnes Bookshop or from the author, Chick’s great-nephew Andy Scott, via eBay.