We can unhesitatingly say, however, that whatever the definition of "Legend" one man would almost certainly be included.That man is Bartolomeo Esserati, known around the wrestling world as Bert Assirati, The Islington Hercules. Few of our readers had the opportunity to watch Bert in action as he retired almost half a century ago. One of the fortunate ones was Heritage member Sowden, who told us: Bert Assirati was a man who put genuine fear into his opponents. "When it came to shooter moves, arm locks and stuff, he was the best," according to Ray Hulm.
"I remember him wrestling Chick Knight. Bert put the Boston crab on him, and it was thought he had broken Chick's back; he did spend some time in hospital. Alan Garfield towered above Bert, but it did not stop Bert from lifting him up over his head and dropping him with all of his weight on Garfield's head, Afterwards Mr Garfield left with his head on one side twice the size of the other side, and with a big bandage around him."
We can unhesitatingly say, however, that whatever the definition of "Legend" one man would almost certainly be included.That man is Bartolomeo Esserati, known around the wrestling world as Bert Assirati, The Islington Hercules.
Few of our readers had the opportunity to watch Bert in action as he retired almost half a century ago. One of the fortunate ones was Heritage member Sowden, who told us:
Bert Assirati was a man who put genuine fear into his opponents. "When it came to shooter moves, arm locks and stuff, he was the best," according to Ray Hulm.
The very appearance of the man, said to weigh around nineteen stones and standing only five foot six inches high was enough to evoke fear. In the ring his powerful girth, enormous strength and apparent fondness for inflicting pain was complemented by speed and agility developed from his days as a competition gymnast and treading the boards of the music halls of Britain and Europe as one half of the acrobatic partnership of Nello and Mello. As you ask, Bert was Nello. Bert can be seen in the photo supporting his nineteen stones on one hand. His acrobatic training led to surprising agility and speed for a man of his stature, in his youth and prime at least.
Bert developed his weight lifting, wrestling and acrobatics at the Clarance Physical Culture Club in Islington, influenced by his father and cousin Joe Assirati. Seeing more potential as a wrestler, and going against the advice of George Hackenschmidt, he went on to learn the technical aspects of wrestling at the Ashdown Wrestling Club, under the guidance of Guido Ronga, George McKenzie and Peter Gotz. With an eye on catch as catch can style and the possibility of turning professional Bill followed the guidance of William Bankier, the music hall strongman, wrestler and wrestling promoter. To complete the package the Wigan wrestling schools taught him submission style wrestling.
Bert's first professional style contest was in October 1928, when he defeated one of his Ashdown Club contemparies, Robert Cook. At a time when Bert was both wrestling and performing as an acrobat he would be paid as an acrobat to preserve his amateur wrestling status. Following the introduction of the all-in rules to Britain in December, 1930, Assirati established himself as one of the major forces in the rapidly growing sport, defeating top contenders of the time: Henri Irslinger, Atholl Oakeley, George Boganski, Bill Garnon, and Karl Reginsky.
During 1932 whilst working for wrestling promoter William Bankier he wrestled in Edinburgh under the name of John Swan.
In February, 1932 Bert crossed the Atlantic to wrestle in the United States of America. Despite stories to the contrary you may read elsewhere Bert's American tour is littered with defeats against mid card opponents, and a study of the record books quickly reveals that Bert's alleged undefeated tour of the States was nothing of the sort. We did uncover one intriguing report of an Assirati win, over Renato Gardini, an Italian representative in the 1912 Olympic Games. The Washington Post reported on Friday, June 17, 1932:
“A world record for Washington was set when Berto Assirati, a reformed circus rubber man, dumped fat Renato Gardini in 55 seconds. Assirati wrestles like an armless man chopping wood by holding the axe in his mouth and turning front flips.”
At the end of December, 1932, the myth of Bert's conquering of the United States must have crossed the Atlantic faster than the liner that carried him home. It was to be a myth that was to go unchallenged for decades, championed by no lesser men than the historian Charles Mascall and epitomised in the accompanying short item entitled “The Super Athletes.” (Left)
Controversy and uncertainties surround this tour in which, for whatever reason, Bert failed to make it into the top echelon of the American heavyweight division. Rumours and conjecture are rife as to why Bert did not make it to main event status in the USA. The stark fact is that Bert did not defeat all before him in the United States and was not a regular top of the bill. Maybe the American promoters just didn't want a Brit getting the better of their locally crafted talent. Possibly it was due to his unwillingness to co-operate with promoters, maybe American opponents were intimated by his reputation, or could it have been that he simply wasn't good enough? We must remember that at the time Bert had little more than a year's professional experience in a country where the all-in style was in embryonic development.
We don't report this to lessen Bert's reputation but to open up the question of whether Bert was a professional, did co-operate with promoters and lose to lesser men in both the USA, Britain and elsewhere, or whether he just wasn't as good as he claimed?
We simply don't know, and as time has passed, we probably never will. Maybe a clue can be found with Bert's suspension by the Maryland Boxing Commission for fighting with a referee!
Admittedly, and this is no insignificant observation, Bert was, at the time of his American tour, in his early twenties, relatively inexperienced, and nowhere near his prime. David Mantell, “We are talking here about 1932. Bert Assirati's reputation mainly comes from the late 1940s and the 1950s, once he'd been to Riley's Gym and even more so after he'd been to India. In 1932 Bert was still a young green rookie with a solid background in amateur, Greco-Roman and good gymnastic skills.”
One top rated wrestler who did face Assirati was Ray Steele, who beat Bert by the odd fall in little over twenty minutes, after apparently being given plenty of surprises by the youngster.
Having spent practically all of 1932 wrestling in America Bert returned to wrestle in Britain in 1933. Although most of his matches were confined to London in the 1930's Assirati established himself as one of the top wrestlers in the country. He was not undefeated as is often claimed, and we have recorded losses against Dave Armstrong, Jack Pye, Black Butcher Johnson, Charlie Greene, Alf Rawlings, Francis St Clair Gregory, Bill Garnon, Henri Irslinger, Athol Oakeley, George Boganski, and Ernie Baldwin amongst others, not to mention numerous draws and inconclusive decisions.
It has often been suggested that Bert refused to co-operate with promoters, and this led to the refusal of some promoters and wrestlers to work with him, but the records do suggest otherwise, with just about every wrestler of note facing Bert at one time or another. David Mantell answers the accusation of Bert's lack of professionalism, “'Professional' is very much in the eye of the beholder. Being a good company man might be one definition. Jealously guarding one's athletic integrity might be another.”
In those days there was a lack of organisation amongst the promoters and following his American sojourn some promoters bestowed the title of British champion upon Bert but have no verification of any championship matches.
It wasn't until 1945 that near national championship recognition came Bert's way following his defeat of George Gregory at Belle Vue, Manchester, on 27th January, 1945. During the post war years Bert consolidated his position as one of Britain's top heavyweight, continuing to wrestle for the British Wrestling Alliance as well as the new breed of promoters who were destined to formalise their partnership as Joint Promotions in 1952.
In 1947 one event dominated the 1947 wrestling scene, and that was the world title tournament held at the huge Harringay Stadium, London. The date was 18th February, 1947, and sixteen of the top wrestlers in Europe were assembled by promoter Athol Oakeley. Assirati defeated Carl Van Wurden, Milo Popocopolis, and Gaston Ghevaert to reach the tournament final, which was not held until 4th March. Seven thousand fans filled Harringay stadium to see Britain’s heavyweight champion Assirati dispose of Ivar Martinsen in just six minutes. Assirati’s clasp of the world crown lasted just seven months. Martinsen won the return contest in Paris on 13th October. Once again we consider the possibility of Bert co-operating with the promoter's wishes to ensure a desired outcome in each country.
Throughout the 1940s Bert travelled far more extensively and worked throughout Britian, with short visits to France (in 1947 and 1948) and Belgium (in 1948). As the decade progressed the aura of invincibility strengthened, but there were sufficient drawn decisions to suggest that Bert's attitude towards jobbing to lesser men was more relaxed than has often been claimed.
In August, 1948 at the Tottenham Spurs Football Stadium, London, Bert wrestled Maurice "The Angel" Tillet (right) before an estimated crowd of 12,000. Ring Magazine reported in September, 1949, a one hour draw between Bert Assirati and Primo Carnera at the Charlton Greyhound Stadium in London, before a crowd of 4,500. We have little doubt that had Bert been as reluctant to drop decisions as many have claimed he could have overcome the former boxer with ease.
In May 1952 Bert made his debut in Germany, wrestling in the Berlin tournament for five weeks. Falling to the now mighty Assirati were Swiss champion Paul Berger, Austrian Leif Rasmussen, South African Les Herberts, Australians Ray Hunter and Bill Verna, and Britain's Don Stedman. Two men who Bert failed to overcome were the German giant Kurt Zehe, a match ending in a No Contest, and the Trinadian Phil Siki, to whom he lost. We would like to bring to a conclusion the speculation elsewhere that Bert wrestled Shirley Crabtree in Germany. We have it on the good authority of Assirati's biographer, Mike Hallinan, that such a match never took place.
Bert continued to be recognised as British champion by the British Wrestling Association until the early 1950s,making his last defence of the title in July, 1952 against Pat O'Reilly.
Two months later he embarked on an extensive tour of more than two years that encompassed Singapore, Malaysia, Ceylon, India, Pakistan and South Africa. Bert remained undefeated during his five month stay in Singapore, victims including King Kong Czaja, The Angel Maurice Tillett and the enormous German Kurt Zehe, with the Singapore Times reporting,
“Bert Assirati, 5ft 6in, wrestling champion of the British Empire, last night beat the 7ft 7 ½ in German, Gargantua, at the Happy World Stadium. Assirati won by a pinfall and a submission to one pinfall.”
From Singapore Bert travelled to India, where he continued to meet with overwhelming success. Wins over many of the local stars and overseas visitors including Australians Roy Herffernan and Bill Verna. Roy Heffernan was, in the opinion of John Shelvey, the best wrestler to come out of Australia. John told us,
“Roy said of his meeting with Bert that he was really worried Bert would hurt him. However, Bert impressed by Roy's obvious respect for the Englishman told him not to worry and that everything would be fine. Roy confirmed they had a good match and he came through it unscathed.”
The many victories were offset by defeats against some of the country's top men, including Dara Singh. It is reputed that in 1954 50,000 spectators saw Bert defeated by Tiger Joginder Singh in Bombay, and the following month 40,000 witnessed a defeat by Aslam Pahelwan. The publicity on the left promotes one of Bert's matches at the Vallabhbhai Patel Stadium in 1953. We would welcome help with the translation!
Homewards from India Bert stopped off in South Africa, where he again defeated all comers with the only exception, to our knowledge, being a loss against the masked man Mr X, Willem Hall.
By the time he returned to Britain the wrestling landscape had changed beyond recognition. Joint Promotions and the Lord Mountevans rules were well on their way to becoming established as the main force in British wrestling.
The Mountevans champions were the nearest the country had come to recognising a nationally acknowledged champion, and on 19th October, 1955, Bert defeated Ernie Baldwin to take the Mountevans Heavyweight Championship. The photo on the left shows the two wrestlers in the pre match briefing with referee Lou Marco.
We have no knowledge of, and cannot comment upon, Bert's relationship with Joint Promotions, but rumours of a less than harmonious relationship are common knowledge, and within two years he was working for independent promoters, finally being stripped of the Mountevans title in 1958. Joint Promotions stated Assirati's absence due to his second tour of India as the cause of their action, but the facts are that Bert and Joint Promotions had already gone their separate ways. It may well have been that his nature made him the nucleus for discontent, or that he simply refused to carry out the promoters' instructions; we will never know. We do know, from this letter sent in 1995 to Allan Best by Bert's wife, Marjorie, that the many rumours about Bert did upset her. Marjorie had just finished reading a book about wrestling and told Allan,
"Although there were four pages dedicated to Bert as usual many of the 'facts'and dates were distorted and incorrect,but that is beside the point.These clever jerks get a kick out of writing about wrestling (most of them not knowing the difference between weightlifting and shoplifting) and definitely without a muscle in their own bodies. They should verify the facts before committing them to print. Actually Ernie Baldwin was a very nice fellow (he had taken over Bert's British Championship crown) like most of Bert's opponents and after all bouts ,during the time I was promoting,there was seldom any gloating or sticking-out of chests or "I'm better than you"attitudes after the bouts,but after all ,what do these people know about the game. Nothing. They pick up rumours and titi-bits and get easy money for printing them."
By 1959 Joint Promotions television exposure had consolidated their positions as the most successful promotional organisation, and when Bert returned from his travels they decided they could survive without the Islington Hercules.
Wrestling historian Mike Hallinan, the foremost authority on Assirati, told Wrestling Heritage,
"When Bert Assirati returned from his three year tour of the Far East, India, Pakistan, and South Africa he was faced with a huge tax bill, and with Joint Promotions not wishing to use him was forced to work for the independents. To supplement his income he decided to start his own promotions, and a chance meeting with Jack Taylor led to them forming ASTA Promotions. They put on shows the length and breath of the country, using top quality wrestlers, with Assirati as top of the bill. The match that drew the largest crowds were the matches between Assirati and the Polish champion Eugene Stezycki (right), which always ended in a blood bath. Other great matches pitted Assirati against Bill Benny, Ed Bright, Alec Nuttall, Charlie Scott, Prince Kumali, Ernst Schmidt, Don Steadman, Johnny Peters, etc...."
By the 1960s the world had changed and there was no place in the world of professional wrestling for the likes of Bert Assirati. In 1960 the British Wrestling Federation, a grouping of the main independent promoters, withdrew their recognition of Assirati's British title claim.
Bert appeared less frequently, still enthralling those who were now watching a man well past his prime, and made his final appearance in 1963.
Bert's place in wrestling history is without contention. More contentious is exactly how he achieved his fearsome reputation, and the manner in which he conducted himself as a professional wrestler.
No one has ever questioned Bert Assirati's skill, agility, strength or recognition as one of Britain's greatest heavyweight. Open to question has been exactly why Assirati was feared and avoided by many heavyweights of his day. Was it because of the qualities we list above, or was it because of a penchant for hurting opponents and inflicting unnecessary pain? Ray Hulm was big fan of Assirati, "Just the sheer presence of the man." Ray trained with those who knew and worked with Bert and they told him of a man capable of inflicting pain at will. David Schmida told us that in Rene Lasartesse's biography Assirati was described as really stiff and brutal; when his opponent didn't hit him hard enough he would get angry and provoke him to not fall asleep and start fighting. If his opponents hesitated he would start punishing them.
It is this aspect of Assirati's nature which made him such a contentious character. Nevertheless, every wrestler's fear was counter-balanced with respect. Count Bartelli told Wrestling Heritage some forty years ago of his huge respect for the man. Eddie Rose agreed,
"He was a great wrestler and most old timers agree with this, although there were other aspects to him. He was another old-timer with an aura of skill and toughness about him. Guys were not exactly queuing up to wrestle him. Perhaps not a great showman in the same sense as Pye, Pallo ,Cornelius, Marino or Veidor but a very solid, very strong and a rather ruthless wrestler. Bartelli once told me that he respected him and this was echoed by the likes of Jack Beaumont, Billy Robinson and Jack Atherton."
Al Tarzo told us,
“Out of the ring I was lucky to have had the pleasure of Bert and his wife Marjorie's hospitality, in such that my first bout in Croydon I had an overnight stay at their home with them. I can only say that the man outside the ring was a different person and Marjorie was in charge, she was the business person.”
The passing of time makes it impossible for any of us to evaluate the greatness of Bert Assirati. Any assessments we make are based on the myths perpetuated by those of an earlier age. His strength, agility and skill are beyond question. Doubts begin to emerge around the word professional. Can superlatives be added to the word professional for a man who seemed so reluctant to lose in a sport where co-operation with an opponent was an important element of the spectacle? The myths of his invincibility do nothing to enhance the legacy of one of British wrestling's greatest participants.
We leave the final word to Wrestling Heritage member John Shelvey,
"If he had worked with his fellow professionals, went along with the wishes of the promoters, conducted himself as a professional for the good of his profession, the good of the entertainment, his career would have probably been far more successful and we wouldn't need to perpetuate myths."
The Islington Hercules was powerful, strong, skilful and great without question.
An Angel of Islington...probably not.
Bert Assirati died on August 31, 1990.
We thank all those who have contributed to this item, particularly Allan Best for many contributions of his wrestling memorabila.