The gentleman ambling along the sea front at Blackpool on one of those days when the sun disguises a blustery wind making the weather preferable on the indoors hardly looks like a man with stories to tell about masks and marvels, grovits and grapevines, and, of course, the grannies with their handbags.
Tony Francis is a man well remembered by wrestling fans of the Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks era. Nowadays Tony can be found living in the Lancashire resort of Blackpool, a town he has called home since childhood.
Often seen walking along the promenade taking in the sea air he will pause briefly as he passes the pleasure beach, the Central Pier, Blackpool Tower, and a handful of other halls, recalling cherished memories of the golden years of British wrestling.
Although associated with the last two decades of that golden era it takes very little delving, to connect the heavyweight of seventies and eighties television fame to a more evocative time, back to the days when Atholl Oakeley and Henri Irslinger introduced All-In wrestling to the British public.
In the early 1930s appeared a young Doncaster miner named Jack Pye; a man seeking an escape route from the mines and who was destined to become one of the greatest names of modern day professional wrestling.
Although it was many years before his birth it was that same Jack Pye that played an influential part in the professional life of Tony Francis. Fate played its part in the mid 1950s as Jack and the family moved from their home in Stainforth to Blackpool, where he made friends with the father of a young Tony Francis.
A teenager at the time Tony went with his father to watch their friend, by now known as the Uncrowned King of the Mat, Dirty Jack Pye, in action. The buzz of excitement as Tony watched the likes of The Zebra Kid, Jim Husssey, Billy Joyce and the Pye family was contagious. It mattered little to Tony that his friend was booed and jeered by everyone else in the hall. As Jack Pye paraded the ring, sneering and taunting the crowd, they responded with their predictable insults and jeers, but to Tony Francis he was a hero, and would remain so for ever.
Knowing of the teenager's interest in wrestling Jack Pye asked Tony if he would like to become his second at the Tower. The youngster didn't need asking a second time, and from that time onwards Tony could be seen regularly at the Tower seconding for Jack Pye, and in the late fifties that meant most weeks.
Tony loved the deafening noise and the bright lights, absorbing the jeers of the fans directed at the man he took care of between rounds. He felt himself becoming a part of the wrestling, but understandably Tony wanted greater involvment and the teenagers dream was soon to become a wrestler himself, imagining that one day he would stand where his hero stood now.
Tony went on the offensive, and pestered the life out of Jack to help him become a professional wrestler. Jack and son Dominic did train youngsters, but Jack knew that if the youngster was serious, and he obviously believed he was, then he would have to prove himself and learn the trade in the best place possible.
“Maybe Jack thought I'll cure him. He gave me a letter addressed to Billy Riey and directions to the gymnasium in Wigan. The nightmare began.”
Like so many before him Tony relates the story of leaving Riley's Snakepit battered, bruised and hurting in every part of his body. That is battered, bruised, hurting, but ready to return for more of the same. The test was to find out if youngsters had the dedication and guts to return, and return again. Tony passed the test. He did return to Wigan, and returned again and again. Only after the first few sessions, when a youngster had proven they were serious about their learning, did the Wigan wrestlers begin to impart their knowledge. It was then that disappointment struck. Tony returned from Wigan one night to be told by his father that the family were moving away, and he was soon left with only the good memories, (the painful ones fade with time) of his Sunday afternoons in Wigan.
It was in 1969 that Tony's dream of joining the professional ranks became a reality. “Another nightmare,” related Tony, as he recalled his opponent, Bob Bell, being less than gentle with him. Shortly afterwards Tony was given the opportunity by promoter Bobby Barron to face his idol Jack Pye, who made a short lived comeback in 1970. It was a poignant moment for Tony, vividly recalled to this day, as he stood across the ring from his old friend, who was by then well past his prime.
“Listen to them," whispered the Doncaster Panther, to the youngster. "They still remember me."
No one will ever forget you,” replied Tony.
For two decades Tony Francis wrestled on both the independent and Joint Promotion circuits; a frequent opponent of Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks. His wrestling took him across the world, throughout Europe and across the Atlantic, working for Stu Hart the Canadian promoter amongst others.
During this time he met many men who he remembers with fondness. There were those who helped him the most; Jack Pye of course, also good friend Abe Ginsberg, Bobby Barron and Max Crabtree. There are so many that he admires; Johnny Saint “a true gent;” Cowboy Cassidy “a straight shooter;” Bobby Barron, “an honest man;” Hans Streiger “the ultimate villain;” Monty Swann “so patient;” and Marty Jones “so generous.”
Of his own career, which reached an end in 1989 against the Jamaica Kid George Burgess, Tony selected a couple of highlights, both events of 1981. Unsurprisingly one was his appearance in April of that year against Alan Kilby at the Royal Albert Hall. The second, was the night of 5th December, 1981 on the occasion of the the final wrestling show at Belle Vue Manchester, a night recalled in “Blood, Sweat and Speedway.” It wasn't so much his inclusion in the final contest, a tag match in which Tony partnered Mal Kirk, that he recalls with pride, but what happened after the wrestling was over.
Following the conclusion of the night's wrestling there was a parade of many stars who had entertained Belle Vue fans over the years. Each one walked through the auditorium for one last time and entered the ring to the acclaim of the fans. Fans and wrestlers alike then cheered as the spotlight shone on the Doncaster Panther making his way towards the ring. Jack Pye was by then seventy-seven years old and in poor health. He was pushed slowly down the aisle in a wheelchair, the journey made all the more difficult bythe enthusiasm of the crowd wanting to get close to the legend.
Jack Pye could not have made that journey without the help of his young friend. Chosen to push the chair was Tony Francis, and to this day he remembers that moment as a wonderful experience and a great honour.
When they reached the ring Tony helped the veteran as he struggled to climb the steps for the very last time. The crowd rose to their feet, and cheered the Doncaster Panther as enthusiastically and as loudly as on any occasion in the fifty years previous.
For the very last time Jack sent the fans home happy.
No one noticed the tears in the eyes of Tony Francis.
"Forgotten Memories: The Pros and Cons of British Wrestling"
Following in the footsteps of Adrian Street, Eddie Rose and Dale Storm another star of the wrestling ring has turned his attention to documenting the golden days of wrestling. These are the memories of a man that shared a ring with the biggest names in the business, including Jack Pye, Big Daddy and Mike Marino.
Blackpool's Tony Francis is getting ready to share his memories of the ring in a book that promises "Astonishing tales of mysteries and mayhem," an appropriate by-line for a man who also enjoyed the notoriety the mysterious masked man El Diablo.
As Tony walks through his home town of Blackpool he passes the Pleasure Beach, Central Pier and Blackpool Tower, just a few of the dozen venues he recalled some time ago in our Talk Wrestling Forum. Now he's decided it's time to get the memories down on paper, for the enjoyment of others and to keep the old days alive.