The Northern Powerhouse
Mal Kirk was one of the last great heavyweight villains, a man who carried forward the proud tradition of great wrestling villains Robert McDonald, Jim Hussey and Ian Campbell.
He was a fearsome and powerful heavyweight who, at his peak, could move surprisingly nimbly around the ring, and notably defeated world champion and popular local boy Mike Marino at the Royal Albert Hall.
Whilst memories of Mal are invariably fond they are often mixed. Starting out in the independent rings in the 1960s and into the mid 1970s he was a strong, muscular and athletic wrestler who transformed in his latter years to a super sized heavyweight who was less mobile yet no less frenetic and effective but whose talents were sadly wasted by poor matchmaking.
In his earliest days we saw him just the once, against Birmingham's Johnny Diamond, with little sign of the powerful force he was destined to become. At that time Mal was working for independent promoters such as Fred Woolley & Danny Flynn, Jack Taylor, Cyril Knowles and Max Crabtree. One of those early opponents was a man with whom he had quite a bit in common, Don Vines. Both men were from Yorkshire, and both had graduated to wrestling from the rugby league field, Mal having played professionally for Featherstone Rovers, Castleford and Doncaster, whilst Don Vines had played for Oldham, St Helens and Wakefield Trinity.
Their wrestling careers were to run in parallel during the second part of the 1960s, with both being signed by Joint Promotions and both hated figures of northern rings, but it was Mal that went on to the more enduring success. Enduring only tells part of the story. Mal Kirk was enduring at an international level, far too often taking him away from British rings.
Born the week before Christmas in 1936 we can safely assume that childhood was not easy for the youngster from Pontefract brought up in a mining family during the Second World War.
With a good amateur wrestling background before being trained in the ways of the professional ring Mal could definitely have wrestled as the good guy, but his physical appearance made him an obvious villain. Heritage member SaxonWolf said, “I remember first seeing Mal Kirk on TV in the 1960's (Black and White TV of course) and he looked indestructible! He had a short crew cut and a moustache and when his opponents whipped him into the ring post with a thud! he just came walking back out of the corner shaking his head as if to say, 'Didn't feel a thing.' Very scary for a young lad like me watching!”
Ron Historyo has similar memories of what he considers one of the best matches he has seen live "A great match with Nagasaki at the Wryton Stadium in Bolton. Probably too violent for TV, I could not believe my eyes as they went at it. Crowd roaring, ring rocking, both men with maximum aggression. Kendo submitted to an upside down Bearhug but Kendo came back to put Kirk in "The Rack" to win. Very believable though. Lots of postings and Kirk frothing at the mouth looking near indestructible."
Our first recorded sighting of Mal Kirk in Joint Promotion rings was in 1967 although he wasn't to be unleashed on the nation at large until his first television appearance in 1969. That was a Wednesday night in September with Mal knocked out by top heavyweight contender Albert Rocky Wall.
With opponents of the calibre of Wall, Bill Robinson, Geoff Portz and Kendo Nagasaki Mucky Mal, as he was known at the time, there must have been a steep learning curve of his trade. By 1970 he was being booked in southern England by Dale Martin Promotions which secured his status as a nationwide villain, and had made it to the cover of The Wrestler magazine.
All this was leading to the early 1970s, the peak years for Mal Kirk's career, at a time he was nearing his fortieth birthday. By now familiar to television fans a televised draws with World Champion Mike Marino and Geoff Portz along with a win over Iron Man Steve Logan was illustrative of Mal's status amongst the promoters.
In the 1960s and 1970s the annual Royal Albert Hall Heavyweight Tournament was a prestigious event. Eight world renowned heavies battling it out in a knock-out tournament with one fall preliminaries and a best of three falls final. Mal Kirk was booked to take part in the 1970 tournament and lost out to Judo Al Hayes in the first round of the tournament. He was invited back the following year and fared much better.
A body slam and press in the third round of his opening match against Jack Martin took Mal through to the semi final. His opponent in the semi final was of a higher calibre, world champion Mike Marino (left). Albert Hall fans who considered Marino a local hero expected their boy to comfortably progress to the final. They were in for a shock. When Marino picked up Mucky Mal to attempt a body slam he was overpowered and the referee counted to three.
Mal Kirk was in the final of the tournament. Opposing him was another top contender and favourite of the fans, Steve Veidor, who had already won the tournament on two previous occasions. With one fall apiece Mal began to dominate the proceedings and another upset seemed quite possible. With Mal in control Veidor took the initiative and flung Mal forwards into the corner post, catching him on the rebound to take the winning fall with a roller shoulder press. So near yet not near enough, but Mal Kirk had established himself as a top heavyweight on the national stage.
As the decade progressed the national stage became an international stage and for much of the 1970s and 1980s Mal travelled extensively, gaining an international reputation in France, Sweden, Austria, Germany, Canada and the United States of America. In action on the left we have Mal in action against the great South African heavyweight Jan Wilkens. The programme on the right, 1974 from Canada, features Mal tagging with our Heritage friend Butts Giraud, and take note of Wayne Bridges also on the bill.
The Austrian and German tournaments led to Mal's absence from British rings for weeks on end and the journeys to North America just added to British fans' loss.
In the 1980s British wrestling was changing, and many fans felt it was not for the better. Although lighter men such as Johnny Saint, Keith Haward and Marty Jones were popular amongst fans the main attraction was Big Daddy, and with him came a requirement for oversized heavyweights to enhance his image. By then in his forties Mal Kirk increased his weight to around 25 stones and was transformed into one of a group of oversized luckless Big Daddy victims. As one of a small number of credible Big Daddy opponents the matching was repeated far too often and did no credit to Mal's capabilities.
We have heard some fans group Mal Kirk with some of the other oversized heavyweights who emerged in British rings in the 1980s. Such views are mistaken because Mal Kirk was a knowledgeable and genuine wrestler experienced in facing men of the highest calibre. SaxonWolf again, “I would take Mal Kirk out of this group, he was genuinely an intimidating looking wrestler, who had credibility, even in his later years.” Heritage member Powerlock was another admirer, “Powerlock: "Mucky Mal had the crowd baying for his blood very quickly, another man who knew how to work a crowd without having to resort to chants, handclaps etc."
By 1987 Mal had passed his fiftieth birthday and retirement was overdue. Tragically, retirement was never to materialise because Mal Kirk tragically died on Sunday 24th August, 1987. That was the night he was matched again with Big Daddy, a tag match in which he partnered King Kendo against Daddy and Greg Valentine. Following Daddy's Big Splash Mal Kirk did not rise from the mat. He was rushed to hospital and pronounced dead. An inquest revealed that Malcolm had suffered from a pre-existing heart condition and the inquest into his death returned a verdict of natural causes. Dr Norman Ball, a pathologist, told the inquest that Mr Kirk had suffered six small heart attacks and his heart probably stopped while he was on his feet in the ring. “It is likely he was already dead when he fell to the canvas.”
Hundreds of people lined the streets of Featherstone for Mal's funeral andwrestlers attended from around the country. It was a death that shocked the nation, and the nation mourned.