The First Gentleman of the Ring
Okay, we submit, the title isn’t original. “The First Gentleman of the Ring” is a title coined by 1960s wrestling journalist Bob Andrews, but it’s a title applied perfectly to Mike Marino.
Golden Boy Mike Marino was one of the great names of post war British professional wrestling. He was a cornerstone of the professional game and an undoubtedly skilful Golden Boy of the fifties who quickly matured into one of wrestling’s greatest names, and later broke ranks to join Paul Lincoln Promotions from 1961 to the end of 1965.
Mike was a wrestler that crossed generations, and brought the generations together. The knowing uncles and fathers that watched the wrestling in the 1950s told us youngsters that although other wrestlers might be a bit dubious Mike was a real wrestler. Those of us who watched him in the 1960s knew we were watching one of Britain’s best, and as we neared the end of the 1970s young fans of that time appreciated that although here was a wrestler past his prime he was a man who really knew how to do the job. For practically all his career Mike Marino was a champion of one kind or another, and there was good reason for that.
The glamorous name and Anglo Italian billing failed to disguise the fact that Marino was a London lad, a cousin of Joe D’Orazio and childhood friend of Steve Logan. Born with the slightly less exotic name of Michael Ludwig Harrison (mum was Italian) on 8th October, 1921, Mike had an interest in boxing that led to a life he devoted to professional wrestling, and the use of the word devoted has hardly been used with greater accuracy. A long professional career, trainer of many youngsters, matchmaker and promoter, Mike Marino was involved in every aspect of wrestling throughout his adult life.
From the beginning of an illustrious thirty two year plus career he was billed as "Golden Boy," a career in which he faced many international stars in Royal Albert Hall main events, and claimed British, European and World Mid-Heavyweight championships right up to a tragic roadside death in August, 1981. Right from the beginning, when he was said to be Italian champion (the Anglo bit came along three or four years later) Mike Marino was a top of the bill star, and unlike so many other stars his light never faded; he was a star to the end.
We first come across Mike Marino in 1948, but his cousin Joe D’Orazio told us that when he himself had turned professional in that year his cousin Mike was already well established. In the summer of 1949 Mike made the first of many overseas trips, winning an international tournament in Paris, and subsequently billed as European champion. In December, 1949, Mike was reported to have put up a good fight against Bert Assirati in Aberdeen. The following year, 1950, Mike was invited on his first wrestling trip to Spain. Clearly the class for which fans of the 1960s remember Mike was evident from the beginning of his career.
On 5th February, 1951 Mike was the challenger for the World Junior Heavyweight Championship held by Mike Demitre. Held in the Music Hall, Aberdeen, the match was a no rounds affair, 100 minutes duration. In an astounding contest the match went the entire distance, the two men being given a three minute break after sixty minutes of continuous wrestling. The Evening Express declared it “The best match in many a day,” and the result was declared a draw after the full 100 minutes of wrestling without a fall being scored. The return contest also ended in a scoreless draw after a mere sixty minutes of wrestling. Rivalry between the two Mikes, Marino and Demitre was intense during the first half of the 1950s, with the European and World Championships up for grabs and bobbing between the two of them.
Mike Marino was the epitome of all professional wrestlers, hugely respected by his colleagues and popular with wrestling fans of many generations. In the 1950s The Golden Boy clashed with giants of wrestling American Pat Curry, Black Butcher Johnson and the masked man, Count Bartelli. During this decade his skill and looks justified the "Golden Boy" label, and in November 1955 he was one of the first two wrestlers to appear on It Vs new wrestling programme, drawing with the Cornish wrestler Francis St Clair Gregory. Commentator Kent Walton, confessed to complete ignorance of the sport when given the job and remained forever grateful to Mike for demonstrating to him the holds he was expected to describe, albeit painfully.
Other 1950s highlights included defeating powerful Canadian Georges Gordienko, eighteen Royal Albert Hall appearances, and possibly the highlight of them all, holding the legendary Lou Thesz to a draw. With television fame and top of the bill status Mike Marino was well and truly established.
And then.... Everything changed.
In 1962 wrestling fans asked the question, "Where is Mike Marino?" Well, they hadn't looked far, because Golden Boy Mike had broken ranks with the wrestling establishment and was working for the opposition independent promoters. Mike had joined his promoter pal Paul Lincoln along with Al Hayes and Ray Hunter to take on the might of Joint Promotions. And take them on they did, with highly publicised exhilarating shows matching Mike night after night with Hayes, Hunter, Dr Death, The Wild Man of Borneo, Crusher Verdu and the full range of Lincoln’s colourful characters. The first half of the 1960s were the ultimate Golden days of British wrestling, with popularity in the halls reaching a peak around 1965.
With Paul Lincoln Management absorbed into Dale Martin Promotions in 1966 Mike was back with Joint Promotions and returned to our television screens, though his opening comeback match, against Bobby Graham, was hardly the most alluring. Back he was, though, and we were pleased to see him, as we were in all of his more than 100 televised matches right up to his death in 1981. The Wrestler magazine welcomed the return of Marino and told us he had been wrestling abroad, again failing to recognise the contribution of independent promoters even though Lincoln had now been brought into the fold.
Famed for his small package folding press, his submission leg stretch, an idiosyncratically amazed look up after every throw he took, and the way he bled profusely.
With his return to Joint Promotions Mike was unmistakably back at the top; only Bill Howes was a credible challenger for his status as the country’s number one mid heavyweight. In the late 1960s Howes and Marino disputed the European mid heavyweight title, with the northern and southern arms of Joint Promotions failing to agree on the owner of the championship. An attempt to settle the dispute with a championship match at Lime Grove Baths in 1971 ended unsatisfactorily to everyone except the promoters with a double disqualification.
Russell Plummer remembered a memorable bout at the Royal Albert Hall between Mike and Ian Campbell in 1960, where black market tickets were sold for an incredible £40. There was no doubting Mike’s credential, he was a wrestler to the core.
On a Sunday morning in June, 1972 Mike joined ten more wrestlers, collectively calling themselves The Gladiators, and recorded a single, Tiptoe Through The Tulips, on Pye Records.
In later years he assumed the mantle of Dale Martin matchmaker and gave himself the labour or luxury of facing two opponents in the same Royal Albert Hall programme in 1975. He defeated first Big Daddy and then Mick McManus, each by two falls to one. For most wrestlers these two wins in one night over the biggest names in wrestling would have lacked credibility, but not so with Mike; he had the weight advantage to overcome McManus and the skill to defeat Big Daddy.
The tragic end of Mike’s career has been well documented. Illness forced him to pull out of a contest at Folkestone (at the promoters insistence) and Mike died, having been discharged from hospital, on his way home.
Mike Marino died on 24th August, 1981 aged 60.