Televised wrestling was hugely popular in the seventies, although most of the stars were grizzled old hands from the national circuit, veterans of a thousand bouts, some of whom had been plying their trade since the fifties.
Kendo Nagasaki was a different type of wrestler entirely.
Rather than the usual costume of a paunch, boots and briefs, Kendo came to the ring in Samurai regalia and fought in a full face mask. He never spoke, he rarely acknowledged the crowd. No-one was quite sure if he was a goodie or a baddie, although, in full flow, he was a pretty scary individual regardless of his motivation. He always won, or got disqualified. No other wrestler could defeat him. Under the management of the flamboyant ‘Gorgeous’ George Gillette, Nagasaki became one of the shining stars of the sport, a massive success.
His mask first slipped (or rather was ripped off) in a 1971 bout, but Nagasaki successfully covered his face and the fight was ended. In 1975, hugely popular tub of guts Big Daddy got the better of Nagasaki (as if) unlaced his mask and tore it off on live television but, instead of settling a mystery, only deepened the enigma. Nagasaki’s face, half glimpsed between Nagasaki’s covering hands, was very odd indeed. His hair was long but shaved at the front and sides. There was a tattoo on the top of his head. His eyes were jet black. It was a disorienting and disturbing experience. I was glad when he put his mask back on.
In 1977, apparently fed up with being famous and unknown at the same time, Nagasaki arranged an elaborate and ridiculously overblown public unmasking: very public, as it was televised live on World of Sport to a massive, eager audience, including me and my Nan. It was, ultimately, an anti climax, but the anticipation was very exciting.
Nagasaki spent most of the late seventies retiring and un-retiring. He acted a little, and had his portrait painted by Peter Blake, a process captured in a memorable BBC Arena documentary. The popularity of WWF in the nineteen nineties gave British wrestling a little boost, and Kendo returned to the ring. Unbelievably (or quite plausibly given the limited actual physical demands of a staged wrestling match), Nagasaki was still wrestling up until 2008 when, by conservative estimate, he would have been in his mid-sixties.
I met Kendo in 2005, at a book signing in Leeds for ‘The Grapple Manual’. Even sat down, he’s a formidable looking figure and, of course, he had all the gear on. He didn’t say anything, or even look at me, he just signed my book very, very slowly. When I looked at what he had written I had a very familiar reaction to this most enigmatic of sporting legends: confused and slightly scared.