Man of Steel
Whilst some professional wrestlers have spent weeks, months, or maybe years agonising over the choice of a suitable ring name one wrestler had it easy. Mum and dad did the job for him.
Ray's first love was, and still is, boxing. When he aspired to become a professional boxer he was advised to keep his name just as it was, because everyone remembered the great Sugar Ray Robinson.
When he turned his attention to wrestling Ray's birth name was again just the job because fans admired and were just about to lose the great Bill Robinson to their North American counterparts.
Ray Robinson was born in 1951 in the Lincolnshire village of Althorpe. The village has little of note, save for being the birthplace of a British wrestler and the rather impressive King George V Bridge, known locally as Keadby Bridge, which crosses the River Trent and joins the Isle of Axholme to Scunthorpe.
Growing up in the 1950s Ray took an interest in sport, particularly boxing. Like many other youngsters Ray followed the exploits of his favourites on the radio and in the newspapers, but for him that was not enough.
Ray wanted to emulate the men that he worshipped. Whilst still a schoolboy he began boxing as an amateur; the time spent in the ring proving more appealing than the usual school homework. Ray found that he was rather good at the sport and began to build an impressive schoolboy record. Encouraged by his own success
Ray had hopes that one day he would be able to put his skills to good use in the professional ring. It wasn't that he didn't have the skill, but good fortune is required as we make our way through life and for Ray there were few, if any, opportunities in 1960s Lincolnshire to make the transition from amateur to professional.
On leaving school Ray was unable to find a local boxing club to pursue his interest in the sport and that brought his ambitions to an abrupt end. Ray got a job in the local steel works, where he was employed for many years until starting his own successful security business in 2000.
A chance meeting led to Ray being introduced to the promoter and experienced wrestler, Cyril Knowles. With Ray's fitness and strength very apparent Cyril encouraged the youngster to turn to wrestling. Until that time Ray's interest in the sport had been accompanying his father to the shows at Scunthorpe Baths, and watching McManus, Pallo and Kellett on television. The thought of himself wrestling had never occurred to him.
After only a few weeks of training it was apparent to Cyril Knowles that the teenager had a lot of potential. It wasn't just his strength and fitness that impressed the promoter, it was Ray's desire to be the best at everything he did, a will to win every time. In 1970, the date of February 12th and venue of Goole Market Hall is etched into his memory, Ray stepped into the professional wrestling ring for the first time, his opponent being Keith Hadey.
“I was so nervous,” Ray told Wrestling Heritage, “I was physically sick before going into the ring.”
The teenager soon overcame his nerves, and impressed promoter Cyril Knowles sufficiently to book him for more bouts in quick succession. In his third contest Ray partnered Knowles against the team of Keith Hadey and Gorilla Reg Ray. Ray worked for the independent promoters throughout the 1970s appearing alongside well known names such as Brian Trevors, Ray Fury, The Wildman of Borneo and Kevin Conneely.
Boxing remained an interest but Ray's love affair with professional wrestling blossomed. To this day Ray is a great defender of the sport and on more than one occasion has taken pleasure in demonstraing to any Doubting Thomas who questioned the legitimacy of professional wrestling.
“I never wanted to be one of these flamboyant wrestlers. I was a good, solid wrestler and wanted people to know me as that, a good wrestler. Two or three times I was asked to wear a mask. I tried it but didn't like it and so said no. Being a villain didn't suit me at all”
With a decade of experience under his belt Ray was signed for Joint Promotions in 1981. His full time job at the steel works did restrict his travelling but not too much and within a year Ray had made appearances in historically significant British wrestling centres that included Newcastle, Manchester and Wembley.
In March, 1982, Ray made his television debut, narrowly losing to Alan Kilby(left). The match was recorded on 9th March, but Ray's friends and family had to wait a fortnight before the bout was broadcast and they could watch him in their living room.
“I always enjoyed my matches with Alan Kilby. I rely on strength holds quite a bit and my style favours opponents like Kilby, King Ben and Marty Jones. Marty helped me develop my style and I spent a summer training with him at his gym. Another wrestler who helped me a great deal was Dave Finlay. He helped improve my submission wrestling.”
Despite his good showing, and encouraging words from Max Crabree, Ray had to wait another two years before his second televised contest. From 1984 until 1988 he appeared regularly on the small screen, and despite not always getting the verdict he never failed to impress and became a favourite around the halls.
Always apparent to fans and opponents was Ray's tremendous fitness and strength. It still is, as Ray is a fitness fanatic to this day and works out most evenings and weekends at his own gym. It is here that Ray trains professional boxers. The photo shows him sparring with one of his proteges, Dave Jones, a young middleweight with some twenty professional bouts under his belt.
In Ray's gym is a double hammer head weight, each hammer weighing fourteen pounds. Ray demonstrated his immense strength by lifting the two stone weight single handedly, at arms length, nine times! No visitors to his gym have been able to emulate this accomplishment. We declined to to try
Knowing that he was doing a good job in the ring was enough to satisfy Ray, but that didn't diminish his immense pride when he won the British Cruiserweight title in 1989, and held the belt until he retired in 1993.
Although he gained success in the ring and wrestled most nights of the week Ray always refused to give up his job at the steel works, knowing that one day he would need to rely on it once again. That did bring regrets, as Ray turned down opportunities to wrestle throughout Europe, Africa and India at various times in the 1980s.
When asked of any other regrets, Ray said that he had none, ruefully adding the regret of never having made it as a professional boxer.
His appetite for boxing is now satisfied as he is a licensed second and trainer. Maybe one regret was when things hadn't quite gone to plan in a recent training session. At 58 years of age he'd just floored one of his trainee professionals! Oh dear.