Updated: Friday, 3rd July 2020 @ 7:20am

Professional wrestling: Sown into the fabric of... Wigan?

Professional wrestling: Sown into the fabric of... Wigan?

By Simon Sandison

Manchester and its environs have been lauded as the spiritual home of an awful lot of things.

Music, football, industry – proponents of all of these could make a convincing argument that they have their ideological roots in the capital of the north.

But it should come as no surprise that the region also holds some hidden gems, pieces of history left more-or-less forgotten by all but a few.

Wigan’s past as a cornerstone of wrestling domestically and internationally may shock even born and bred Wiganers - let alone those from wider parts of Greater Manchester - but make no mistake, its place in the history of the sport is as central as Marylebone’s in cricket and Rugby’s in, well, rugby.

Bill Riley’s Snake Pit gym had a reputation for producing some of the best and toughest wrestlers ever to lace up a pair of boots.

Forget, for a minute, the camp immobility of Big Daddy or Hulk Hogan’s ever more embarrassing hairline, the Snake Pit produced men who could tie you in knots before breaking a sweat.

Global luminaries such as Karl Gotch, Jack Dempsey and Billy Robinson all helped forge the image of Professional Wrestling in America and Japan throughout the 70s ad 80s, taking with them the legitimate style they’d learned in the Snake Pit.

HEAD TO HEAD: Cyanide vs Johnny Phear (copyright Tony Knox)

Sadly, the Snake Pit no longer exists, and while its lineage is continued to some degree by the Aspull Olympic Wrestling club, Wigan’s formative ties to the bright lights of Pro-Wrestling have not been forgotten by wrestling promoter Johnnie Brannigan:

“So many famous people have come from Wigan – it developed its own style that is famous all over the world apart from in bloody Wigan, we’re really privileged to be doing shows here.”

Johnnie’s organisation, Grand Pro Wrestling, run monthly shows in Hindley’s Monaco Ballroom, and have done for the past eight years.

But their continued occupation of the venue they call home came under threat recently as Wigan borough council looked to sell all five of their leisure venues, despite the Ballroom being the only one which made money.

The fear was that GPW would be forced out of their home by increased private rents or, worse, the Ballroom would be shut altogether.

“I couldn’t think of anywhere else that I’d like to be doing shows as much. If we were to lose the Ballroom it would be a huge blow, because it’s perfect for our needs in terms of location, appearance, size.

“Above all else, there’s the passionate fanbase that we’ve worked hard to build.”

And as well as those more selfish, business-driven problems that losing the Ballroom would cause for GPW, Johnnie knows the history of the area, and the roll that his company now play in it.

“It’s absolutely essential that Wigan has wrestling.

“Some people might not know it, but wrestling is sown into the fabric of Wigan, but they should. The sad thing is that the guys these days whose heart beats for the style of wresting that originated in Wigan aren’t even from Wigan, they’re from Japan or California.”

The good news is that, for now at least, the Monaco Ballroom’s new owners are on his side.

Kerry Tyrer, one of the brothers, said: “We see wrestling as a key part of our diverse list of activities, and long may it continue.

“Wrestling is part of the Monaco history.”

And that’s a history that Johnnie is all too keen to remember, a history that he is keen for others to remember.

“When people think of Wigan they think of Rugby league and pies. It’s my job to make sure that wrestling is at least the third thing on that list again.”

GPW will be back at the Monaco Ballroom on June 3. Visit www.grandpro.co.uk or ring 07703 312 146 for details.

A COLOURFUL SPORT: El Ligero of Grand Pro Wrestling (copyright Tony Knox)